“To take up residence in the mind of Mavis Gallant, as one does in reading her stories, is a privilege and delight,” writes Phyllis Rose, to begin her review of Overhead in a Balloon in the March 18, 1987 issue of The New Yorker.
She speaks of Gallant’s ability to conjure up Paris “more knowingly than any other fiction writer in English” and believes her to be “very likely the Colette of our time”.
She describes the author’s work and conversation as being “full of laughter”, the stories possessing a “wicked humor that misses nothing, combined with sophistication so great it amounts to forgiveness”.
All of this I share with you here, because not only does Rose praise this Paris collection, but she also astutely observes and describes the intricacies of the interconnections between these twelve stories, and perhaps you would prefer to discover those via your own reading. (If not, enjoy!)
Perhaps you would prefer to begin by wandering into Amandine’s the bookstore described on the second page of “Speck’s Idea”, which sounds like it contains “shelves of calm regional novels and accounts of travel to Imperial Russia signed ‘A Diplomat’”.
Alas, it’s not that kind of store.
This is also not the kind of story in which characters say ‘Alas’.
Here we meet characters like the mother who is sitting near the radiator, “crouched all winter looking like a sheep with an earache”. Characters considering life’s unanswerable questions (“why money slumps, why prices climb, why it rains in August, why children are ungrateful”) only to determine that the “answers might easily come from a man with a box of slides”.
Others serve food in a restaurant like “setting out like little votive offerings the raw-carrot salad, the pot-roast vegetables without the meat, the quarter ounce of low-fat cheese, and a small pear”.
Occasionally there is a sharp observations like this one, in which “Speck described in the lightest possible manner how Henriette had followed her lover, a teacher of literature, to a depressed part of French-speaking Africa where the inhabitants were suffering from a shortage of Racine”.
For, while this story is securely rooted in Paris, “Speck’s Idea” has a much broader reach. Sure, you can trace Speck’s route in the early pages on a city map, as he zigzags from the 4th to the 7th arrondisements, finally ending up with a small gallery space in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
Speck’s gallery is east of the Eiffel Tower. There are so many beautiful images of the tower, but this one reflects my experience of Mavis Gallant’s writing in this story because it shows both decorative and utilitarian structures side-by-side. It’s up-close and contains a lot of detail, just like Speck spends a lot of time in his own head, thinking and over-thinking, muscling out something-like-sense from the surrounding chaos.
But Paris is rooted firmly in a European climate which is struggling to understand what it means when someone shouts “Fascist”. Speck’s discovery of a competing gallery owner in Italy, seeking to exhibit the same undervalued artist (Hubert Cruche) whose works Speck intends to display in his own gallery space, carries an additional significance.
But the actual significance is something Speck struggles to understand. And how he – and his plans for the gallery – fits into the picture is also complicated. (To say nothing of the fact that he is dealing with the now-deceased artist’s wife, who appears to be inconsistent if not unreliable, while still navigating the detritus of his second marriage, still hearing the echoes of his ex-wife’s cry as she left him. “Fascist!” Yes, that’s right. Because of course the personal is always political.)
“One could no longer lump together young hotheads whose passionate belief in Europe had led them straight to the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-S.S. and the soft middle class that had stayed behind to make money on the black market. Speck could not quite remember why pure Fascism had been better for civilization that the other kind, but somewhere on the safe side of the barrier there was bound to be a slot for Cruche.”
Francine Prose quotes a passage from “Speck’s Idea” to illustrate her admiration of Mavis Gallant’s prose: “Line by line, word by word, no one writes more compactly, more densely, with more compression.” (Source)
Speck is not a young hothead. He a 39-year-old vegetarian scribbling notes on a yellow lined pad of paper, trying to assemble a gallery showing, over a solitary meal in a restaurant he frequents. He’s struggling to remember who is/was all-Europe, struggling to differentiate between different intensities of fascism, struggling to remember why he is struggling in the first place, how he ended up so alone in the crowd.
There is no question that today’s readers will be able to locate themselves in this short story
Overhead in a Balloon‘s stories: Speck’s Idea / Overhead in a Balloon / Luc and His Father / A Painful Affair / Larry / A Flying Start / Grippes and Poche / A Recollection / Rue de Lille / The Colonel’s Child / Lena / The Assembly
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the first story in Overhead in a Balloon. 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: “Overhead in a Balloon”.