This is one of those strange Paris-soaked stories that I imagine Mavis Gallant writing on an afternoon in a café when she has had too many cups of espresso.
When she is in that creative mode where every gesture seen, every syllable overheard, every small intimacy observed between strangers translates into an electric kind of scene work.
And a similar love for experimental form in works like “Siegfried’s Memoirs” (1982), where we have a writer who is writing an imaginary review.
And, oh, what was that one about the hauntings in the church? That one, too.
But here we are in a relatively ordinary (not-haunted) setting.
The story begins with a plausible and uneventful reason for a group of people to assemble.
“M. Alexandre Caisse, civil servant, employed at the Ministry of Agriculture, bachelor, thanked the seven persons sitting in his living room for having responded to his mimeographed invitation. Actually, he had set chairs out for fifteen.”
Actually, we don’t know the reason for their gathering initially. But the mimeographed invitation heralds that it is a matter of some importance.
Immediately, however, we are caught up in the back-and-forth of conversation.
And we are also immediately grateful that only seven people responded to M. Alexandre Caisse’s invitation.
Because if we had to keep fifteen voices distinct in our minds, phew!
Or, perhaps not. Each voice seems remarkably clear.
And Mavis Gallant’s ear for dialogue is astonishingly clear, even with the decades that have passed since “The Assembly” was collected/written.
There are so many concerns which arise and recede in this handful of pages, succinct and sharp reminders of societal pressures and ailments (whether considering a violent incident, a simmering layer of xenophobia, a difference of opinions): in some ways, this is a strange note for the collection to end on, in other ways, it’s a perfectly controlled chaos, a fine- tuned chorus.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in Overhead in a Balloon. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next collection: in Transit.