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.
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”.