It seems to me that Mavis Gallant must have spent an inordinate amount of time on terraces. As places that seem associated with a view, this seems appropriate for a writer with a penchant for observation and acuity.
But even while terraces seem related to looking outward – especially with the Alps nearby, as settings for the stories Mavis Gallant tells, it feels as though the lens has been turned around.
So that rather than full-sized and admiring human beings looking outwards, admiring the scenery, we readers feel larger-than-life, our attentions turned toward this confined space, like a stage, where we can glimpse a few moments in the lives of strangers.
Here, as with “Jeux d’Ete” and “The Circus”, readers are afforded the opportunity to set that stage in advance. We know that, on the Sunday after Christmas, the air will be filled with the strange quiet that lingers after a disappointment. Because Christmas is never everything that one hoped for. Not so peaceful, not so rewarding.
But here, the mother and son whom readers observe, are carrying much heavier burdens of disappointment – the sort which span a lifetime rather than a season. And if we missed the titular cue for despondency, straight away we see a darkening valley:
“At a quarter to four the sun moved behind a mountain. The valley below us went dark, as if an enormous bird had just spread its wings. For a moment I understood what my mother means when she complains I give her the feeling of being outside life.”
The darkest part of this passage, however, is not the shadow, but the present-tense of the mother’s complaint: her son gives her the feeling of “being outside life” and she shares this with him directly.
Other moments in this story unfold in the past (not many, comparatively) but the mother’s disappointment is fresh. It’s ongoing and continues to unfold on the terrace and beyond. (One cannot help but think of Mavis Gallant’s personal disappointments revolving around her relationship with her mother – both parents, really, but seemingly more lastingly with her mother, at least according to interviews.)
The play of dark and light shifts through the story. (I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor and all her talk of sunsets and the sun’s movement – so striking in these stories where violence lurks in unexpected corners and crevices. Maybe I’m watching too intently for this. But we are in the mountains: everything is more dramatic and shadows arise before they show up on flatter terrains.)
Even though readers seem to be closer to Harold than to his mother, viewing things more from his perspective, Harold is more preoccupied by his mother’s feelings than his own. He is obsessively chronicling her emotions.
“The dark minutes between afternoon and night creep by: she looks surreptitiously at her watch; she imagines she has been walking beside me down a twilit street for years on end.”
She seems to inhabit this “outside life” space, this “twilit” space, even though simultaneously she observes that her son is only interested in sunlit spaces.
But how contradictory: how can both be true? “‘Harold sits for hours, as long as there’s sun,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t feel heat or cold. He wanted marvellous equipment; now he won’t use it. I don’t insist.’”
What does Harold feel? And does he really only sit in sunlight? And, if that’s so, how does his mother, in his company, only experience darkness falling and encompassing?
Because of course these seemingly extreme and oppositional forces can both be true: Harold’s experience, his mother’s experience are both real.
And what Harold feels is, for a few moments, most clearly revealed via the expressions and queries of a young American girl, who is in the company of the son and mother, who can see the pattern of light and darkness from a distance.
“I looked at the lights strung along the street, and the lights slowly moving out of the car park at the foot of the lift. I saw the girl shiver, as if she felt that great wing rushing over the valley.”
It’s enough to make you shiver, even from a distance: that great wing and all its rushing. That mother’s insistence on not insisting. That son’s year-long dream of lightlessness.
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 sixteenth 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: “April Fish”.