Mavis Gallant’s “The Pegnitz Junction”

“’Once there we are almost home. Pegnitz is a junction. Trains go through every few minutes, in all directions. In most directions,’ he corrected.”

Herbert is careful to be exact when he’s speaking to his young son, Little Bert, who believes every word his father says.

Later when Herbert pulls the boy across the tracks, running to catch another train at the junction, he also warns Little Bert not to ever do such a thing.

That’s what it’s like in the world of this story: people intend to follow a certain set of rules but, even as they are articulating their importance, they are breaking them.

Salzburg, Austria

unsplash-logoDavid Hellmann

The train that Herbert and Little Bert and Christine are travelling was travelling elsewhere but has been rerouted, with Pegnitz deemed a suitable substitute to allow the passengers to make other arrangements from the junction.

Whether they are holidaying like our main characters or travelling to see an opera performance or conducting their own personal business, this disruption is stressful. Little Bert is the youngest passenger and Christine does her best to occupy him, but she is preoccupied with her own thoughts.

She has given up trying to read her book for the most part. When Little Bert asks her to read from it, she offers a sentence from early in the work, but quickly realizes that it won’t entertain the boy. “Shame and remorse are generally mistaken for one another,” she reads.

Is it shame or is it remorse, then, which has Christine and Herbert speaking French, instead of German?

Readers are unsure.

Just as we are unsure, when Christine notes that Little Bert’s voice is annoying other passengers, whether it is because of his tone or because he is not old enough to pretend to not be German.

Christine is a sensitive woman. She recognizes that the trip is likely felt to be even longer when the child cannot understand what his father and Christine are talking about for the entire day.

But she has other things on her mind, too, like the student of theology to whom she is engaged to marry.

And readers have other characters on their minds too.

Mavis Gallant takes care to describe so many of them in detail. Like this man:

“He was wearing his tartan waistcoat with George-the-Fourth buttons, his cream corduroy jacket from Rome, his cream silk turtleneck sweater, an American peace emblem on a chain, dark-green shorts, Japanese sandals, and, because the sandals pinched, a pair of brown socks. His legs were tanned and covered with blond fur. Although slim and fit, he seemed older than usual. This was on account of his teeth. He had recently acquired two new bridges, upper and lower, which took years off his face but were a torture, so today he had changed back to the earlier set.”

Each of the characters is struggling to find their footing in post-Hitler Germany. There is open discussion of reparations and there are unspoken presumptions about responsibility. There is open conflict about what is art and what is pornography (about what it suitable for exposure) and there are unspoken assumptions about identity based on fashion and facial expressions.

Ideas about “purity” and homogeneity aren’t limited to Germany however. A glimpse into the past, into the home of two German-Americans, contains commentary about how American neighbourhoods changed between the Depression and WWII, first the Catholics and then the blacks moving in.

The idea of this modern story revolving around a set of train tracks in Germany is particularly poignant given the resonance of trains and tracks having been used to transport millions of people to their deaths during the war.

Discussion of modern travellers not having any choice about their destination when travelling German rails does pale in importance and, yet, it is still a stress. How can one complain about being hungry when it’s such a small complaint, relatively speaking, and, yet, one is still hungry.

Tension infuses the story. Christine is perfectly placed to reflect this because she is connected to two people on this journey, whereas even in the group of opera attendees, nobody knows each other very well. So she is aware of the tensions in her trio, as well as those she observes in strangers nearby.

Everywhere, she sees more conflict, more tension. “As for the three men – Herbert, the conductor, and the Norwegian – something about the scene on the road had set them off dreaming; the look on their faces was identical. Christine could not quite put a name to it.”

In time, she does put a name to it: “To be truthful, said Christine to herself, all three of them seem to be thinking of rape.”

There are a lot of observations in this story, a lot of characters to observe. One might be scarred from having tried to escape beneath a barbed wire fence. One might be apologetic for having spoken too authoritatively. And most of the scenes can be imagined easily, thanks to Mavis Gallant’s careful descriptions. ‘

But the way that Christine names this look on the men’s faces: “thinking of rape”. It says more about Christine than it does about the men, but I find myself preoccupied by this image. I wonder how the other travellers might have described those faces.

Which is, I suppose, the point. That each of us is travelling. That we adjust our itineraries countless times, sometimes in company and sometimes alone. That we tell stories, to ourselves and to others, about how much choice we have and lack as we move in all directions. Most directions.

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 Pegnitz Junction. 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, next week: “The Old Friends”.

2018-05-15T09:41:01+00:00

6 Comments

  1. Buried In Print May 11, 2018 at 9:25 am - Reply

    There is only one other story, that I can think of, which considers the subject, so it’s even more interesting to see it come up here. It seems as though Gallant herself does, then, associate it with violence (not desire, which Christine seems to?) if she’s exploring it in the context of wartime life. I think you have three more of the other stories in this collection, so we’ll have to see it the theme resurfaces again!

  2. Naomi May 2, 2018 at 10:36 am - Reply

    When I first started reading this story I thought it was going to be about Christine choosing between Herbert and the theology student. Then I thought maybe it would be about Christine’s relationship with Little Bert, since I couldn’t help but notice that, despite the fact that Herbert is hopeful they will like each other, he was also always correcting Christine about what she said to him, or how she said it. I wouldn’t be very interested in marrying a man if that was how it was going to be with his son.
    But then I realized it was really just about what you have said – everyone’s journey in this time and place.
    I was also struck by what Christine said about the looks on their faces. I underlined it so I wouldn’t forget. I want to know what they looked like and why she thought of rape and not just seduction or a juicy hamburger.

    • Buried In Print May 2, 2018 at 2:48 pm - Reply

      It adds to my confusion when Christine says that she doesn’t think the look is directed toward the American girl because of the antipathy between German men and American women, the “fact” that you could count “on one hand” the number of American army wives raped by German men. Are we to understand, then, that Christine believes that rape is connected NOT to antipathy but to its opposite, to attraction then? That she believes rape is rooted in passion rather than violence? Or are we just supposed to understand that she thinks all German women are unattractive to American men and she’s not thinking any further than that? Her relationship with Herbert does seem to be an intimate one, but not a passionate one? And she must not be entirely (or at all?) satisfied with the theology student or she wouldn’t be with Herbert? We do spend more time with her than anyone else in the story, so I want to feel like I understand her…

      • Naomi May 3, 2018 at 10:53 am - Reply

        I was also confused by that German men / American women thing, too. I wondered if her definition/idea of rape was not the same as ours? (Which is what you touch on with the violence vs. attraction belief.)
        Christine didn’t seem very passionate about Herbert at all, which is one of the reasons I would like to have more of her story. Does she end up with him anyway, or does she opt for the theology student, or neither? Neither gets my vote!
        Thankfully, I don’t have to feel too badly for Little Bert in this story – Herbert seems like a good guy. I love that he has a sponge name Bruno!

        • Buried In Print May 8, 2018 at 9:31 am - Reply

          After reading “Old Friends” I am even more curious about these different understandings of and assumptions about rape. Now that we have Christine and Helena’s ideas, and now that they do not seem to align either. So it does seem to be character-driven and, so, revealing something about Christine in particular. Perhaps simply her inexperience?
          Yes, if we are voting – I don’t think she’s a good fit for either the theology student or Herbert (and she seems to have decided against the theology student partly anyhow, by virtue of being with Herbert). Perhaps she is simply drifting, exploring. And then the complications of being of German ancestry after the war is magnifying all her concerns about not fitting in, not fitting together?
          Isn’t Bruno a funny addition? I like how some characters seem to take Bruno in stride and others are charmed/critical, which says something about them indeed, while saying nothing about Bruno, who seems an extraordinarily amiable sponge!

          • Naomi May 9, 2018 at 11:04 am - Reply

            That’s exactly what I was wondering about when I read your review of “Old Friends” – I was wondering what she had to say about rape this time and whether or not it aligned with her feelings about it last time. I also wondered why it was showing up in her stories all of a sudden. (Well, to me it seems all of a sudden, but maybe not to you who have read so many more of her stories.)

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