Today marks the launch of another Mavis Gallant short story collection): From the Fifteenth District. (Apologies for the double-post, but both Mavis Gallant and Margaret Atwood were scheduled to appear today: what a power-house duo!)
The first story in this collection is billed as a novella, which is curious as the second story is the same length. (This is convenient, however, as it fits into Novellas in November, celebrated by Laura and Rick, among others).
“The Four Seasons” does feel like it expands beyond its 35 pages. In this story of one family’s disruption, resides the soft simmering of chaos in Europe in the 1930s.
Many classic Gallant elements are evident in this work. If this is your first Mavis Gallant, it’s a grand beginning.
First, we see the emphasis on class and the opportunities tied to social status.
“The Unwins had had a cook, a char, and a nanny for the children, but when Carmela joined the household they dismissed the last of the three; the first two had been gone for over a year now.”
Val d’Orcia, Pienza, Italy (The Unwins lived north west of here, but this suits Carmela.)
The Unwins’ changing social status is significant, but its relationship to Carmela’s survival is crucial; she does not have stockings or shoes, a change of underwear or a dressing gown, and, by the time this story ends, she will not have work either.
Like Alice Munro, Gallant naturally inserts class into the landscape of story and, here, in Europe between the wars, hierarchies are shifting. (Two Munro stories which make particularly interesting reading companions are “Sunday Afternoons” and “Hired Girl”.)
With Carmela at the heart of the story, the Unwins are clearly situated above her, in a position of relative comfort and ease; but, as the story unfolds, there are other characters who wield more influence than they (for not only can they not afford additional household help, but they lack a water pump to care for the plants on their property, among other practicalities).
Next, and closely linked with matters of class, is the question of moving across borders and navigating new political boundaries.
Soon, Carmela can no longer shop across the Italian border in France to fetch the bread which Mr. Unwin adores. A community doctor who tended to the Unwin’s twin daughters and to Carmela’s welfare along the way (his presence having only been requested for the children but his compassion urging further intervention) is ousted. And a new clergyman faces censure when he dares to speak about tolerance and pacifism.
Gallant, who spent the majority of her life living as a Canadian in Paris, was attuned to the small distinctions that characterize a community. Although the Unwins are key to this narrative, many other members of the community appear on the page, each offering a glimpse of a slightly different experience of that specific time and place. (This also makes the work feel more like a novella than a short story, but many of Gallant’s stories are expansive.)
Third, as in so many of Gallant’s works, there is a solitary female figure at the heart of “The Four Seasons”.
Carmela is thirteen years old and, because she is underfed and malnourished, she looks younger. Nonetheless, she has had to make her own way in the world and, in her precarious position with no status in the Unwin household, she is unable to help her younger brother when he comes to the door looking for food, unable to secure a future for herself, in these uncertain times. She must interpret a strange and unwelcoming world around her, doing the best that she can.
Which leads to a fourth characteristic, another Gallant-ism: this imbalance between what is known and what remains unknown, and how that slants the story.
When Mr. Unwin observes the “beggar” at the door, he tells Carmela to give him something to eat. He isn’t aware that the young boy is Carmela’s brother and also isn’t aware that his wife keeps the larder locked so that Carmela cannot access it freely (he is also, seemingly, and in a privileged manner, unaware of Carmela’s hunger and discomfort).
Neither husband nor wife seems to be aware of any money that one of them gives to Carmela (a rare occurrence anyhow). And neither is aware that, over time, Carmela has come to learn English, and now understands not only conversations but the written word in letters. (Carmela gains a small sense of satisfaction in this circumstance, but it doesn’t lead to a tangible advantage. It does prove to readers that she is quick, smart and misjudged.)
Here the young daughters exist only on the edges of the story, but it is clear that, when Carmela is dismissed, they are the ones who will feel the loss keenly, who will cry about it. It’s sad to see Carmela say goodbye to an empty room when she realizes that it would only upset them for her to say goodbye in person.
That simple gesture, witnessed only by the reader, is one of those tender touches which are sprinkled throughout Gallant’s writing. The bulk of characterization resides in these observations. My favourite in this work is of Miss Lewis, who “looked into space and pursed her lips, like someone counting the chimes of a clock”.
For all its Gallantnesses, “The Four Seasons” is a remarkable tale, but what will stay with me is the image at the end of the story. It is tied to the beginning, which rests in Carmela’s remembrance of two framed images in the school she attended as a girl, one of the school’s founder and the other of Mussolini. But the figure which looms larger than both in her memory on the story’s page of the story is that of another, of one who showed her kindness.
The tight pleating of time and memory and what we pull from childhood into our present-day: “The Four Seasons” is rich and dense, like rum cake in a locked larder.
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 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 collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.
The Four Seasons / The Moslem Wife NOV7 / The Remission NOV14 / The Latehomecomer NOV21 / Baum, Gabriel, 1935 — NOV28 / From the Fifteenth District DEC5/ Potter DEC12 / His Mother DEC19 / Irina DEC26