After William Maxwell retired from The New Yorker, he reread all the stories by the authors he had published; after rereading Mavis Gallant’s “The Pegnitz Junction”, he wrote her to apologize for not having published it in full.
“‘He wrote ‘my mind must have been out for lunch.’ What editor would do that?” Gallant asks. She considers “The Pegnitz Junction” her finest work (Source: 2009 interview with Lisa Allardice in “The Guardian”.)
“O Lasting Peace” has a similar feel, but rather than the characters moving through landscape on a train, these characters are moving through Hilde’s memory, when Uncle Theo visits her workplace to seek her assistance.
Bruul, Mechelen, Belgium
Named for one of the two songs for which Uncle Theo is known, the title is ironic. “Yes, Christmas is sad. Everyone has a reason for jumping out the window at Christmas and in spring.”
There is nothing peaceful about this story; wartime tensions continue and even when Hilde asks Uncle Theo to step back, the radius of discontent only expands. The feeling is captured perfectly in a simple observation: “It was one of those days when you can smell the central heating, like an aluminum saucepan burning.”
Uncle Theo is described with simple details too. Not all-in-a-burst, like an MFA student’s thesis, but sprinkled observations throughout the story.
He is small, and “totally bald now, not a hair to stretch sideways”. (Is this a common saying? Like someone being so poor that they don’t have two nickels to rub together? It seems like it should be.)
“He looks like a child’s drawing of two eyes and a smile.” (Oh, this is lovely. It’s like that bit when she described two people being as happy as seals.)
And when he is confused, his “face loses its boiled-egg symmetry”. (Predating that Reagan-era advertisement of this is your brain on drugs, you can imagine the runny yolk of discombobulation.)
It’s only fair that Hilde spend some time describing Uncle Theo. Once, when he was on the lookout for a husband for Hilde, he described her too, and she can recall every detail: “He gave my age as ‘youthful’, my face and figure as ‘gracious’, my world outlook as ‘modern’, and my upbringing as ‘delicate’.”
It’s one of those situations in which one’s observations say more about the observer than the one being observed.
And although it appears near the end of the story, after readers have become acquainted with both characters, it reinforces a remark made earlier about Uncle Theo: “Nothing of Uncle Theo’s is quite the truth or entirely a lie.”
The story isn’t about any of this. And, yet, it is. At the end, when Hilde says “I’ve forgotten why I wanted to mention this”, I thought “mention what?” and reread a few lines and then reread the rest of the story.
Uncle Theo asked Hilde to consider whether the pair of them could send some money to Hilde’s father (Uncle Theo’s brother) and this irks her. She is annoyed by having to work on Christmas Eve and by having six loud East German refugees in the next apartment and by the remnants of wartime which she passes on her way to work in the Civic Tourist and Travel Bureau. It is hard to be Hilde.
What was it about again? All of these things and none of them. “It is probably best not to try to remember.”
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fifth story in The Pegnitz Junction. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story, next week: “An Alien Flower”.