So many of Mavis Gallant’s characters inhabit between spaces.
Which is strange, because so many of Mavis Gallant’s other itinerant women are staying in hotels, but Netta is running one.
And she is just as between as the rest of them.
Once she said yes and, then, later, she said yes again: this story unfolds between yeses.
In “Poor Franzi”, guests gathered on a crowded terrace in the Austrian Alps, and a young woman wonders: “What will happen to me if I marry him….”
In “The Moslem Wife”, Netta marries Jack, and she warns him not to be so “pally” with the female guests at the hotel, but the warning is for naught.
In “Going Ashore”, the young daughter stays in a hotel with her mother on shore and reflects upon the many Uncles she has known, the many relationships her mother has had with men through the years. In “New Year’s Eve”, Amabel stays in a hotel, apart from the Plummers, who have a perfect relationship in her view (from that distance in the hotel).
In “The Moslem Wife”, Netta tells herself to make a different choice, but then follows the familiar pattern of forgiveness and acceptance: “What could I do…but let my arm be held, my steps be guided?”
In “A Day like Any Other”, Frau Stengel, the children’s governess, lives on the attic floor of a hotel, where she is surrounded by stony satin cushions, crocheted mats and pictures of kittens cut from magazines.
Netta and Jack keep the hotel in “The Moslem Wife” in beautiful condition, and there are many mentions of the changing light and reflections behind the meticulously painted and repaired green shutters over the windows (until the war, when everything changes).
“A Revised Guide to Paris” pokes gentle fun at the tourists who gather with the other members of their charter group to watch dubbed versions of “Gunsmoke” rather than explore the city.
The guests in “The Moslem Wife” are all too friendly, all too involved with their host and hostess (and Jack is not the only one in whom visitors take an interest, although Netta seems to decline the attentions paid to her).
In “Thieves and Rascals”, sixteen-year-old Joyce sneaks off from St. Hilda’s school to spend a weekend with a young man in Albany and in “My Heart Is Broken”, Jeanne meets a man in the hotel while Vern is working in the bush.
Infidelity is a consistent theme in “The Moslem Wife”: “Her happiness had always been great enough to allow for despair. She knew that some people thought Jack was happy and she was not.”
“In the Tunnel” displays a wonderful observation of prostitutes in front of a hotel with their “faces like dead letters” and sisters Louise and Sylvie Tate live in a hotel in “The Cost of Living”. In both of these stories, young women are disappointed by their relationships, tired and hungry, feeling more alone than they expected to feel.
Which is much as Netta has found the state of marriage in “The Moslem Wife”. But even after she lives alone in the wartime years, she welcomes Jack’s return: “Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first dog dies, but it never does. It should at least keep you from saying yes twice to the same person.”
Ironically, as much as this story focuses on the decades-long relationship between Netta and Jack, “The Moslem Wife” is as much about wartime conflict as marital conflict.
Mavis Gallant aligns the observations of suffering, the occupation and the hunger and the deaths and the camps and the murders, with the private and petty trials and losses of individuals:
“Neither the vanquished in their flight nor their victors returning to pick over rubble seemed half so vindictive as a tragic girl who had disliked her governess.”
Maybe Netta is saying yes this time simply because she survived.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second 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: “The Remission”.
Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.