Dedicated short story writers make choices with every sentence. Short stories aren’t novels that ended too soon. They’re not short because there’s a paper shortage or a deadline. Short fiction is short on purpose.
So, when a writer like Mavis Gallant chooses her words, it’s a deliberate process. Last week, I was struck by the descriptors ‘flickering’ and ‘imprecise’. And by how selectively Mavis Gallant uses words like this to guide readers and – occasionally – offer a clue to how the story can be interpreted.
When Gallant’s style is often spare and direct, it’s worth considering when that pattern shifts. When, for instance, more words are used, in instances where fewer words could have relayed the same content.
(For a less-experienced writer, this could be the result of an unusual number of cups of coffee – or tumblers of whiskey – consumed, or a newly acquired reference volume. An experienced writer, like Mavis Gallant, is making choices.)
It would be possible, for instance, to describe the way that Valerie styles her hair as back-combing. Succinct. But Stuart Fenwick, who oversees the bungalows that comprise the vacation colony in southern France, doesn’t see it that way. Via his perspective, readers observe one of the vacationers, Valerie, as she “clutched strands of ginger hair with her left hand and combed the wrong way, from the ends to the roots”.
You can almost feel the cluster of hair in your grip, the tension as the comb moves in the “wrong” direction. There is time, while you read this passage, to feel the resistance, the discord. (And this stands in contrast to the original idea behind the construction of these vacation homes, the initial impulse to draw holidaying folks from across Europe, post-WWII, when it was hoped that national differences would be dispersed and all prejudices effaced, towards harmony: “One Europe”. Impossible to say that these stories aren’t relevant for today’s readers.)
So, there is Stuart Fenwick, admiring Valerie on midsummer, with her back-combed hair and her stretchy flower-patterned pants.
Where “the metal drum the smell of fish spread out in widening rings”. (Not where the fish-smell emanates. As we read about the ‘spread’, we take time for those widening rings.)
Where another man “should have been a naval officer. Instead, he was dedicated, by his own choice, to Shell Oil for ever and ever.” (A lifer at Shell Oil – but, here, we can feel the weight of those years in the ‘ever and ever’, as well as alight on this increasingly global and corporate presence, which also aligns with the story’s intent.)
Where so many people have gathered to beat the “summer rush” and experience a “cross-section of Europe” but, in fact, actually gather in familiar groups (mostly three ethnicities), to speak English “the common language of this place and season”.
The shape of the narrative matters. The words chosen. Even to Stuart, who is mostly preoccupied by a sense that he is alone on Midsummer. By a sense that what has come before is different from what had been expected to come and different again from what is yet to come. Stuart notices all these words.
Because Stuart is attending to Valerie’s way of expressing her thoughts and how “there was nothing to do but walk on, for he could not see how to move on through this conversation, which seemed enclosed by some special Valerie-minded fence”. He cannot navigate the exchange, this barrier. “Either her mind spread and darted and flew, too fast for him to follow, or it tucked its head under its wing and slept.”
Things are moving in unexpected directions. Which is tremendously appealing and unsettling. Although neither emotion digs into readers’ experience of the story. It swells and unfolds, but at arm’s length. We are observers. We are eavesdroppers.
But what we collectively experience, as we read, is what all those extra words achieve. The way they unspool and create a sense of there being time for all of them, time to feel each one.
The prose is languid, it’s vacation-y: we have time to read all of this because it is June and people are on holiday. Even though it’s January and everything is back-to-work-y and new-year’s-resolution-y and outside it is half-raining and half-snowing and the weekend feels like it’s a month away.
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 fourteenth 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: “A Report”.