There is, about an hour’s drive from Toronto, a small town called Paris, on the Grand River. I’ve visited it a couple of times and I have travelled through it, by train, countless times.
Rarely, on one of those rail journeys, did I miss that broad curve of the tracks, the glorious view of the river (often in the very early morning). Always in my mind, it was the Other Paris.
But even though Mavis Gallant lived for many years in Canada before she moved to France, she was not writing about Paris, Ontario in this story.
She was exploring the idea of Paris, France. Which makes me think of the line in 84 Charing Cross Road about visiting the London of English Literature.
Because of course it is there, Helene Hanff observes. If that is what you are looking for, you’ll find it, she says.
Implied is the fact that there are other Londons and other Englands too, which could also be found.
That there is always something other, when one’s expectations are at play, approaching the juncture with reality.
To suit Carol, who is only twenty-two years old, I set the stage for this reading with elements of the Real Paris.
With a Madeline, an Edith Piaf playlist, and my feet propped up on the radiator (as I imagine one would need to do in a garrett flat in Paris – or should that read, The Other Paris – this time of year): I began to read.
And how I do want to please Carol. She is setting about the ‘business of falling in love”. She and Howard have had a “satisfactory beginning” and she is looking forward.” Because as “[n]othing mattered until the wedding, and she could not see clearly beyond it. She was sorry for all the single girls of the world, particularly those who were, like Odile, past thirty.”
Everything is happening as it should be.
Except that it isn’t.
At least, not how Carol thought it would be with her Other Fiancé.
What happened to the scene she had imagined: “a scene that involved all at once the Seine, moonlight, barrows of violets, acacias in flower, and a confused, misty background of the Eiffel Tower and little crooked streets”?
Paris isn’t at all as it was supposed to be. “Where were the elegant and expensive-looking women? Where, above all, were the men, those men with their gay good looks and snatches of merry song, the delight of English lady novelists? Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped.”
Even when she demands that Howard put forth an extra effort, things go awry. Or, they don’t exactly go badly, just not as they should.
“Howard made an amusing story of their adventure in the Place Vendôme. She realized for the first time that something could be perfectly accurate but untruthful—they had not found any part of that evening funny—and that this might cover more areas of experience than the occasional amusing story. She looked at Howard thoughtfully, as if she had learned something of value.”
But she hasn’t really learned anything at all.
“I’m tired of the way everything is here—old and rotten and falling down.”
And the women she knows in Paris do not offer another viable perspective.
Neither the other American women with whom she works (although some of them seem to have found the proper Paris, or at least they have proper amusing stories about their experiences), nor Mme Germaine the dressmaker, nor Odile Pontmoret, the thirtysomething secretary.
Carol is on her own. “No wonder she was not in love, she would think.”
But she came to Paris to fall in love. “This was what everyone expected, and she had nearly come to believe it herself.”
Not the white-on-white wedding dress, not the failing Parma violets, not the carol singing in Place Vendôme, not the theatre in the second arondissement on some obscure street, not Odile’s sister Martine’s Bach violin concert, not the red brick tube of the Metro over Boul de Grenelle: none of these is Paris for Carol.
But something does happen. And Carol does think that she catches sight of it.
“For a moment, standing under the noisy trains on the dark, dusty boulevard, she felt that she had at last opened the right door, turned down the right street, glimpsed the vision toward which she had struggled on winter evenings when, standing on the staircase, she had wanted to be enchanted with Paris and to be in love with Howard.”
What happens, however, is much more significant than that, in the end. Carol constructs her own amusing story.
“Soon, she sensed, the comforting vision of Paris as she had once imagined it would overlap the reality.”
How do we imagine an ‘other’? For us readers, stories offer a key to understanding. But also to creating. And there and back again.
Have you had to reconcile an “other” version of a place you discovered in a story to fit with your experience?
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 the collection of the same name. 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: “Autumn Day”.
The Other Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.