It begins in darkness.
“Louise, my sister, talked to Sylvie Laval for the first time on the stairs of our hotel on a winter afternoon. At five o’clock the skylight over the stairway and the blank, black windows on each of the landings were pitch dark – dark with the season, dark with the cold, dark with the dark air of cities.”
And not simply a practical kind of darkness, being set in winter and indoors. But an inner darkness as well.
Both readers and characters lack comfort here. Louise buys soda biscuits for the narrator and for Patrick, but this story calls for more nourishment.
The description of Louise, which was written by Sylvie (she of the dark stairway), made me smile:
“She resembles the Miss Bronty [crossed out] Bronthee [crossed out] Brounte, the English lady who wore her hair parted in front and lived to a great old age after writing many moral novels and also Wuthering Heights.”
So it seems like Louise wouldn’t be the kind of woman who would find herself in Paris.
Nor is the narrator.The narrator is Louise’s sister: five years younger, 33 years old
“It happened that at the late age of twenty-seven I had run away from home. High time, you might say; but rebels can’t always be choosers. At first I gave lessons so as to get by, and then I did it for a living, which is not the same thing.”
But we do not have Sylvie’s description of the narrator.
And, if in fact she discovered it, she probably wouldn’t have wanted to share it.
Here is Sylvie, however:
“Someone ought to have drawn her – but somebody has: Sylvie was the coarse and grubby Degas dancer, the girl with the shoulder thrown back and the insolent chin. For two pins, or fewer, that girl staring out of flat canvas would stick out her tongue or spit in your face. Sylvie had the voice you imagine belonging to the picture, a voice that was common, low-pitched, but terribly penetrating.”
She is not only critical of others, but views herself as part of the scene, but simultaneously separate from it, with all its unpleasantness.
“I saw that everyone in this hotel was as dingy, as stationary, as I was myself, and I knew we were tainted with the same incompetence.”
Things are not as they were imagined to be. This story reminds me intensely of “The Other Paris”, a story of disappointment and disillusionment, not only of one’s self, but of the idea of marriage and the idea of a city in which romance should flourish.
Perhaps the problem is Paris. Perhaps if the story took place in Russia, things would have been better.
“In a book or a film one of us would have gone with him as far as the station. If he had disappeared in a country as big as Russia, one of us would have learned where he was. But he didn’t disappear; he went to a town a few hundred miles distant and we never saw him again.”
Louise has tried. And she has no patience with failure.
“Her most profound belief about herself was that she was too honest to fall in love. She believed that men were basically faithless, and that women could not love more than once. She never forgave a friend who divorced. Having forgotten Collie, she thought she had never loved at all.”
Sylvie, too, has failed. And enlisted others in her quest. Hence, also, implicating them with a degree of responsibility for her disappointments.
“Sylvie wanted a portfolio; she would take the photographs to the agency on the Rue Balzac, and then they would see how pretty she was and would give her a job. Louise had agreed, but she must have known it was foolish. Sylvie’s bloom, divorced from her voice and her liveliness, simply disappeared. In any photograph I had ever seen of her she appeared unkempt and coarse and rather fat.”
And the narrator? She, too.
“My imagination crawled, rampant, unguided, flowering between stones. Supposing Louise had never loved Collie at all? Supposing Patrick had felt nothing but concern and some pity? Sylvie knew. She knew everything by instinct. She munched sweets, listened to records, grimaced in her mirror, and knew everything about us all.”
Some go and some stay. But, ultimately, all that any one of them can do is wait for the darkness to lift.
“Often after Christmas there was a fall of snow, and one could be amazed by the confident tracks of birds. But in a few weeks it was forgotten, and the tramps, the drunks, the unrepentant poor (locked up by the police so that they would not freeze on the streets) were released once more, and settled down in doorways and on the grilles over the Métro, where fetid air rose from the trains below, to await the coming of spring.”
All they can do is wait for spring.
Wait for disappointment to thaw.
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 My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The Cost of Living. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.