Mavis Gallant’s “The Latehomecomer” (1974)

Just four weeks ago, I was commenting on the first story in From the Fifteenth District, a novella, and noting how many key elements of Mavis Gallant’s storytelling were present in “The Four Seasons”.

In “The Latehomecomer”, not only do some familiar elements resurface, but an actual character reappears.

That’s right: Willi is the neighbour in this story and what a delight to recognize him here and to learn how his situation has changed.

Beginning with “Willi” and “Ernst in Civilian Clothes”, it’s fitting that he reappear in another story about how men were displaced after WWII. (I wonder what the final story about him will be like.)

But rather than give away Willi’s news, let me say just how brilliantly the structure of this story is woven through time and memory.

We’ve seen Mavis Gallant work this magic before, particularly in Its Image on the Mirror: A Short Novel, but here she has only twenty pages to cinch the connections.

“The Latehomecomer” begins, as so many of her stories do, with a simple statement:

“When I came back to Berlin out of captivity in the spring of 1950, I discovered I had a stepfather.”

Our narrator is in motion and readers are on notice: we are going to be in motion as well.

While our narrator learns of the changes which have transpired on the homefront since he left, readers will travel alongside via his thoughts and realizations, his dawning understanding and revisitations.

There is so much information to take in, not least of which is the change in his mother’s marital status, described so baldly in the opening sentence.

Because readers know that she was available to marry, this invites a series of questions about the past (say, the circumstances which led to her no longer being married to the narrator’s father and the manner in which she met the man who is now a step-father).

But readers also witness the present-day interactions between these two men and the way each member of the married couple reveals her/his expectations and preferences regarding family life going forward, which leads to more questions for disoriented readers (and the latehomecomer).

Back and forth, readers travel, with revelations and explanations in the present-day sparking memories. As quickly as readers can wonder something, the latehomecomer can think about it as well.

And, then, after we travel backwards, we are gently resituated. “This was still an afternoon in April, in Berlin, the first of my freedom.”

This idea, too, repeats, almost as often as the back-and-forth process, this idea of first, a release from captivity (in the opening sentence) and, later, as the reality of it begins to sink in, this first day of freedom.

Ironically, however, the latehomecomer feels crowded and restricted, even on this first day of freedom. If only crowded by the amount of change he must adjust to in short order.

“This was the hour when, in Brittany, I would begin peeling the potatoes for dinner.”

As difficult as some past experiences obviously were (in wartime and, afterwards, many years of scarcity and struggle), everything in the here-and-now is unfamiliar.

So much is shared in this short story, so many years passing in memory, so many losses: it seems that there should be a trail of dates, like a diary, heralding readers’ movement through a substantial amount of time.

But then there is the final sentence, to remind us (with a few other scattered clauses like the April in Berlin bit shared above) how heavy a few hours can weigh.

“As for me, I wished I was a few hours younger, in the corridor of a packed train, clutching the top of the open window, my heart hammering as I strained to find the one beloved face.”

Our narrator’s experiences are expansive and dramatic; another reader could certainly comment at length about what readers can learn about his wartime travails. (His mother’s story and the delicate references made to tremendous injustices of characters whose names are mentioned only once are profoundly affecting, for instance.)

But this opening sentence issued an irresistible invitation to marvel at Mavis Gallant’s intricate handling of movement through story.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth 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: “Baum, Gabriel, 1935 –“. Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.

The Four Seasons / The Moslem Wife / The Remission / The Latehomecomer / Baum, Gabriel, 1935 — NOV28 / From the Fifteenth District DEC5/ Potter DEC12 / His Mother DEC19 / Irina DEC26

2018-11-19T18:14:22+00:00

6 Comments

  1. Naomi December 8, 2018 at 11:10 am - Reply

    I loved this story. I don’t know if it’s because I actually got to read it all the way through in one sitting, or if I was actually awake while reading it. Or maybe I was just especially interested in this unique mother/son relationship. His mother doesn’t even know how to be around him – he’s been gone so long. And now he’s grown. And as he says in the story, “She had been raised to respect men, never to interrupt their conversation, to see that their plates were filled before hers – even, as a girl, to stand when they were sitting down. I was twenty-one, I had been twenty-one for three days, I had crossed over to the camp of the bullies and strangers.”
    And then I wondered, because he recognizes this, is he going to use it? Or will he treat her with respect?

    The way he saw 3yo Gisele also struck me: “She was all light and sheen, and she was the first person – I can even say the first thing – I had ever seen that was unflawed, without shadow. She was as whole and innocent as a drop of water, and she was without guilt.” That one passage (about the way he sees someone else) says a lot about him, his own life, and what he has seen around him. It gives a good sense of the enormity of the healing that needs to be done.

    • Buried In Print December 12, 2018 at 12:32 pm - Reply

      That’s an astute observation about the narrator’s observations of Gisele. There are a lot of other feelings he might have expressed inwardly, but he is preoccupied by her innocence: good point.

      Also, your having pulled that particular quote makes me think about the other water in this book, and the corresponding dry and arid parts of the stories (even Barbara’s observations about her children, being “thin and dry, like Alec”. I’ve just finished reading “Potter” and there are tears in there, too, warm as blood.

      As you mentioned in your comment about “The Remission”, MG is all about the details, so it’s hard to dismiss this: I feel as though the idea of innocence being like a drop of water is something which must have bounced around in her mind over the years, spending time with all her characters and seeping into a number of different stories through these characters’ experiences.

      And what a different kind of vision of motherhood than we had in “The Remission” too. But, maybe not so different after all? Still so distant, but this time because of the war? Or, maybe that’s too narrow. Maybe there is always a hardship for adults which makes it difficult for them to settle into parenthood?

      I feel like he still has a tenderness towards her, but you raise an interesting question. He certainly could choose to become like the step-father, for instance.

      • Naomi December 13, 2018 at 1:49 pm - Reply

        I really feel sad for the mother. Because of her sons going to war so young, she will never know them as well as she could have. I wonder if her other son will make it home?

  2. The Reading Life November 22, 2018 at 5:01 am - Reply

    I’m struck by how much the war aged the people in the story. It does as you said make great use of memory. We sense the pain of a defeated nation. Greatly enjoying the read along.

    • Buried In Print November 25, 2018 at 4:57 pm - Reply

      It feels so drawn, so taut. And all the detail – about the bath and the living conditions – makes it all the more wearing, even for us as readers, so we can’t help but imagine how much worse it must be for the characters inhabiting this time and space. (Me too!)

    • Naomi December 8, 2018 at 10:54 am - Reply

      I was struck by that, as well. He talks about his new stepfather as being old when he is only 49. And I had to keep reminding myself how young the latehomecomer was when he left home… how his mother must have felt having a 14yo son go off to war (and another not much older). No wonder she’s aged beyond her years.

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