Readers never meet her directly, but we are told that she looks like the Holbein portrait of Lady Barker. (Here shown in such a way that it’s easy to imagine a wallet photo.) This is the mother of Hal and Dorothy. Once George Crawley’s wife.
On the surface, this seems to be a story about the effects of divorce on children (and the adults who are still responsible for ongoing parenting duties, but now in the context of a failed marriage). And it is. A common theme in Mavis Gallant’s stories, reflecting her own difficulties relating to her parents, together and separately, and her own short-lived marriage.
“He did not know how funny he sounded. He had a nose broken like a boxer’s, and a head of thick, curly grey hair. He did not look like their last memory of him, which was three years old, or their mother’s description, which was not physical but only that he was a poet. He did not resemble his pictures. He seemed heavier, softer.”
The children are undeniably important. But less so for themselves – although Gallant’s depiction of young characters is uniformly respectful and realistic – than because of their “Victorian expression, in watchful calm”. Which stands in contrast to the rest of the story lurking just beyond.
At the heart of the story are the events which have caused such substantial pain to the lodger, “a failed adult, therefore a kind of weed”, who shares a dwelling with the children’s father. The building is a sublet – a sunless, high-ceilinged place that smells like a petshop. Natasha sublets the apartment – and who is Natasha, we are intended to ask.
And what exactly is the nature of the torture which the lodger negotiates on a daily basis, which is largely invisible to the children (who likely picked up the “weed” metaphor from their father, as children do), until the undercurrent of its intensity is revealed unexpectedly and sharply to readers. “Quite often they were handed information they could not use and did not understand.”
The children make sense of things the best they can. Knowing that their father’s interpretation of the world is unreliable – “He lied only sometimes, suiting a fancy.” – though no more than anyone else’s. Knowing that his way of expressing himself differs from their American mother’s way – due to his way of translating from French into English, so that one might be described as “well-tempered” rather than “kind”.
Readers of The Testaments will hearken to the subtext of this story (encapsulated in the title), a comment on the tendency to worship, which alternates with the tendency to rewrite the past, as evident in what we preserve in stone.
We are meant to consider this in terms of a marriage, which was once filled with love and well-tempered behaviour that has been replaced with rancor and indifference. But also in broader political terms, for there were atrocities which continue to reverberate in the lives of individuals long after the reign of power has been officially dismantled.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the twelfth story in In Transit. 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: “Questions and Answers”.