Mavis Gallant’s “The Remission” (1979)

Here, Eric inhabits a room like Carmela’s in “The Four Seasons”, in the Unwins’ home: the kind “assigned to someone’s hapless, helpless paid companions, who would have marvelled at the thought of its lending shelter to a dying man”.

And Eric is dying, like the father in “The End of the World”.

But this is a story of Bougainvillea and deck chairs too, a story set in Rivabelle (or Rivabella, depending whether one emphasizes the French or Italian Riviera connection), in this “paler version of colonial life”.

Because everything is paler here.

Alec:

“His blood was white (that was how he saw it), and his lungs and heart were bleached, too, and starting to disintegrate like snowflakes. He was a pale giant, a drained Gulliver, cast upon the beach, open territory for invaders.”

The children:

“They seemed to her and perhaps to each other thin and dry, like Alec.”

There are three of them, whom their mother, Barbara, wanted to name differently (Giles and Nigel for the boys, Samantha for the girl).

They are ten, eleven, and twelve years old, when the story opens. But time and space are changing, here in the this new place, far from England, far from the familiar.

unsplash-logoTom Grimbert

Corsica (French borders, Italian culture)

“Lou Mas at such times seemed to shrink to a toy house she might life and carry; she would remember what it had been like when the children were babies still, and hers alone.”

The children are beginning to belong to themselves. Or, at least, they seem to be separate and apart from the experiences of their parents.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, Alec was still able to consider moving into the room with the television; days later, he cannot move from his bed. But he remains in a bed for three more springs.

“That winter Molly grew breasts, she thought them enormous, though each could have been contained easily in a small teacup.”

But there are more similarities between the remission destination and England-left-behind than Barbara expected. And what appears to be colourful and glossy is simply a cover for the grey.

“Rivabella turned out to be just as grim and bossy as England – worse, even, for it kept up a camouflage of wine and sunshine and live trees and of amiable southern idiots who, if sacked, thought nothing of informing on one.”

And the cold.

“You live in an ice palace. There is so little happiness in life unless you let it come near. I always at least had an idea about being happy.”

This cheerful little bit is Barbara speaking to her daughter, Molly. Who has grown. (I’m guessing we’re talking coffee mugs rather than tea cups in this span of time.)

But Molly has so many reasons to be “shut and locked”. She and the boys have come to understand the family’s true position in this grey space on the Riviera.

“They could have drawn the social staircase of Rivabella on a blackboard, and knew how low a step, now, had been assigned to them.”

Readers can imagine her there, on that bottom step, her chin on her knees.

Expressionless and pale.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third 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 Latehomecomer”. Next collection: From the Fifteenth District, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.

The Four Seasons / The Moslem Wife / The Remission / The Latehomecomer NOV21 / Baum, Gabriel, 1935 — NOV28 / From the Fifteenth District DEC5/ Potter DEC12 / His Mother DEC19 / Irina DEC26

2018-11-17T17:23:59+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Naomi December 7, 2018 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    I think they all would have been much happier if they could have been living in the house pictured in your post. 🙂

    Mini report: I liked the historical tidbits (“The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this – migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”) I couldn’t help but feel as though they would have been just as well off staying in England. Alec didn’t really seem to be “enjoying” life any more than before.

    “Nobody wanted the bother of ironing flounces and tucks in a world without servants.” — Ha! I never thought about this before… the reasons behind the petering out of such practices. Thanks goodness!

    Details like: “their cook had worn a straw hat in the kitchen, so that steam condensing on the ceiling would not drop on her head” And then she wore the same hat to their father’s funeral! I think the details are what I like best about her stories.

    Feeling bad for Molly for the attention she received from men and boys once she grew breasts. I remember that icky feeling myself. And I also share the experience of seeing an older woman without clothes and worrying about the future of my body. Something I haven’t thought about in a while, but the image still pops up plain as day!

    This made me snort, even though it’s not funny: “Alec’s remission was not longer just miraculous – it had become unreasonable.”

    And then there’s Barbara. I couldn’t get a good grasp on her. She seemed kind of weak and passive, like she never really knew what to do about anything. But then again, I was often half-asleep while reading this story. What was your impression of her?
    I’m not sure how much she liked her children… “My children are prigs. But, then, they are only half mine.”

    Molly seemed wiser than her mother. “She knew better than that now, at fourteen: there was no freedom except to cease to love.”

    The last sentence of the story is very sad, but not at all surprising.

    • Buried In Print December 12, 2018 at 12:15 pm - Reply

      That last sentence is just overwhelming isn’t it, in all its simplicity? It is quietly devastating.

      Especially after, like you, I was snorting at the “miraculous” / “Unreasonable” observation. She uses very ordinary words and commands an unexpected emotional power through them.

      The way she sets us in the time – that lovely sentence you quoted about the merciful sky – it is perfect for the story, but it’s still relevant now. Which is what they say about classics, of course, but I am always renewedly excited to discover this relevance in older works.

      Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which recasts Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspectives, really brought home that idea about flounces to me. I’d never thought about it with that kind of detail – the mud in Lizzy’s skirts, yikes! And those long walks seemed so romantic until that burst my vicariously-privileged bubble!

      Barbara seemed like more of a shadow to me, too, for much of the story. I was surprised that she had enough of a personality to have developed a relationship outside her marriage, as though there was enough of her to connect with anybody (especially as there didn’t seem to be much of a connection with either her husband or the children). She seemed to feel so far away from her children. As though they weren’t hers at all. Maybe this is partly the author’s experience of childhood, being such an unhappy time in her life, coming through.

  2. heavenali November 18, 2018 at 4:11 am - Reply

    The more of your Mavis Gallant posts I read the more I am sure I would like her. I would probably would never have heard of her without you.

    • Buried In Print November 19, 2018 at 3:44 pm - Reply

      Which is such a tragedy because she deserves to be as well-known as Alice Munro and William Trevor! I’m so glad you are keeping her in mind. Eventually you’ll get to reading some…

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