Mavis Gallant’s “Potter” (1977)

At first it is surprising. To come across the word ‘defenestration’ in a Mavis Gallant story.

Often these are inward-looking stories, detailed and expansive glimpses into the interior lives of quiet – and often solitary – characters.

Someone drives too quickly or protests the contents of a sermon, someone barricades a larder or haunts a church pew: not a lot of action here.

Nobody is expecting people to get tossed out of windows.

But, then, if you consider how many people are unhappily married in Mavis Gallant’s fiction, maybe it is more surprising that there are not more people getting tossed out of windows.

unsplash-logoTom Grimbert

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Readers have spent a substantial amount of time with the eponymous narrator of this story before there is a whiff of scandal about the way he treated his wife.

(Potter is actually Piotr, but Piotr is called Potter by Laurie, and because the story is preoccupied with the way he views himself in relationship to Laurie, the story is titled thus, rather than Piotr.)

Because, yes, there was a rumour of defenestration surrounding the breakdown of their marriage. It sounds like something you could spray for, something you could apply to have removed. It also sounds like something born of a heated moment and there isn’t a lot of heat in Piotr’s story.

Which is, actually, part of the problem. “Potter” considers what happens to a man when he is preoccupied by his unsatisfactory relationship with a woman. A woman who is more interesting than his wife (from whom he is separated, whether or not a window played a role in this development) but less available.

There are so many disappointed women in Mavis Gallant’s fiction – women disappointed by love and marriage and motherhood and courtships and friendships – and here we have a view into the life of a disappointed man.

“He imagined each high-ceilinged apartment occupied by one person, living alone, working in a ministry, eating ready-made food on the edge of a table at night.”

But he is slow to recognize his own disappointment, instead projecting it onto Laurie. Seeing her as being disappointed that she and Piotr/Potter are not an item is another way of building the idea of his being desirable.

But if Laurie is disappointed (and it does seem likely), the root of her malaise lies elsewhere. Which is…disappointing.

“He saw a face of true unhappiness sometimes, and always because of him – because she loved him and there was half a continent between them, because he had children, because the wife he -no longer lived with, had admired by never loved, was like a book he could either read nor shut.”

In the wider scheme of things, Piotr has survived imprisonment (in Poland, for something to do with a newspaper) and, even though he is the generation which followed the generation of heroes, there is an air of heroism surrounding his endurance.

And it’s not easy. Simply surviving. Piotr observes his cousin, Marek, struggling to make and maintain connections with people in Paris. He knows people, important people, “But it was a fragile affair, like a child with a constant chest cold.”

Paris is preferable to Poland but only because of Laurie; Piotr feels “shackled, held, tied to a visa, then to the system of mysterious favors on which his Polish passport depended”. His position in Paris is tentative, as tentative as his relationship to Laurie.

And, in the end, everything is. Each of them, whether forty-something or not, is “like a child with a constant chest cold”, ready to succumb to an infectious wave, prepared to fall like an oak leaf from a pocket, like a lonely spouse from a window.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story in From the Fifteenth District. 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: “His Mother”. Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.

2018-12-12T14:53:51+00:00

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Blackman December 17, 2018 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    Wow, that’s a lot of disappointment! But then I suppose you have to be pretty disappointed to start generating rumours of defenestration. I like the idea of the visa system as a shackle, making his whole existence in Paris tentative, and hence his relationship. It must be hard to put down roots and develop relationships when you don’t know if you’ll be able to stay beyond your next renewal date.

    • Buried In Print December 17, 2018 at 5:57 pm - Reply

      Several of her stories seem to ooze with disappointment, but never to the point where I tire and wander off. Am I remembering correctly, that you are freelancing your way through/across Europe these days? I wonder how much of Gallant’s feeling of insider/outsider would ring true for you overall (maybe not this collection in particular)?

  2. The Reading Life December 15, 2018 at 7:42 am - Reply

    Here in Paris he was shackled, held, tied to a visa, then to the system of mysterious favors on which his Polish passport depended. His hands were attached with a slack rope and a slipknot. If he moved abruptly, the knot tightened. He had a narrow span of gestures, a prudent range. His new world of love seemed too wide for comfort sometimes, though Laurie occupied it easily.

    We learned a while back that Mavis Gallant socialized with an exchanged ideas with a group of posts, intellectuals, and artists living in exhile from Warsaw.

    The lead male character in this story brought to my mind one of her friends, Jozef Czapski, a famous painter, Polish W W Two officer currently brought back to the public view by the publication of a translation of his
    LECTURES ON PROUST IN A SOVIET PRISON CAMP.

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