Mavis Gallant’s “Willi” (1963)

Recalling the distanced and pseudo-analytical view of a man’s life in the very short story “Siegfried’s Memoirs”, readers can contrast that with “Willi”, an emotionally driven and heartful short piece.

“Willi was a prisoner of war in France until the end of 1948. He dreamed of home, but when he got there one of his sisters had an American boy friend and the whole family were happy as seals around a rich new brother-in-law, a builder in Stuttgart.”

That’s fun, isn’t it? “Happy like seals”? But, actually, the brother-in-law is a problem, having prospered from a wartime economy while Willi still inhabits his painful memories as a prisoner of war.

And it’s not only the brother-in-law. It’s not only any single thing.

Willi is chronically disappointed by the world and its inhabitants, those to whom he is related and strangers alike.

Perhaps he would be less unhappy if he could put some distance between himself and his wartime memories.

But Willi works in the film industry, which is bent upon keeping the war fresh in viewers’ minds. In fact, the last job he had, he got a part for his friend, Ernst, too.

Ernst was also a prisoner of war, and now he has no job and no home and no training; he joined the Legion and served in Indo-China and Algeria and now he is battling the bureaucracy in France for his pension. A pension he desperately needs.

Meantime, Willi helps Ernst by arranging for him to be cast in a bit part, which requires that Ernst confront and arrest a pair of actors playing a Jewish professor and his wife.

This is difficult for Ernst, however. So difficult that Willi is concerned that Ernst might lose the role, because Ernst cannot bring himself to intervene roughly with the “professor”, despite Willi’s whispered advice.

Finally, Willi suggests that Ernst imagine that the professor is standing between Ernst and his pension. The scene is a marked success.

Also ironically, however, the star of the film feels that Ernst has overdone things. The wife’s loaf of bread falls to the ground in one dramatic take. In another, the professor’s spectacles fall off.

The film star disapproves. She must be imagining a more civil type of wartime exchange, some kind of polite negotiation before a confronted Jew is marched off-scene.

But, then, the film is not intended to recreate a historical truth. It is intended to capture an emotional truth.

Anyhow, this is just one film in Willi’s experience. Just one production. And not one he is particularly enjoying. Just one more production then.

And Willi is looking to cast his own production in fact. The film work is a means to an end.

“He sometimes meets a girl and hopes something will come of it – he is still looking for that – but he has never been sure he had the right girl.”

The girls he has met so far – well, they are not the right kind of girl. The casting is off and Willi remains in the role of lone and stalwart survivor.

“Willi couldn’t fit in, and presently he came to Paris. He must be in his middle thirties but looks twenty-five. He looks his age when he is puzzled, or doesn’t understand what took place, or has lost control of a situation – has given someone else the upper hand.”

Mavis Gallant’s stories often consider the lingering effects of war in European countries and here readers observe a man suffering the effects of political decisions made by men who had the “upper hand”.

Willi is tired of being puzzled, of not understanding, of having lost control.

But he remains cast as an extra. Longing for a leading role.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the nineteenth story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “One Aspect of a Rainy Day”.



  1. Deepika Ramesh January 2, 2018 at 2:31 am - Reply

    Thank you for this post, B.I.P. I should tell you about my problem. While reading, when particular phrase arrests my attention, it’s hard for me to break that trance, that joy. ‘Happy as seals’ did that me and I kept turning the phrase in my head, envisaging happy seals, their innocent faces, their whiskers, their bulbous eyes. Sorry, I digress. But, thank you! And Happy New Year! May 2018 be kind to you and may you be buried in more books. 🙂

    • Buried In Print January 2, 2018 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      Isn’t it wonderful? I had the same moment. And this is one reason why I appreciate Gallant’s stories so much, because I don’t think I would ever have thought about seals looking happy until I read the phrase and now it just seems perfect. I do hope you will be buried in more and more books in 2018 as well, Deepika: thank you for all your enthusiastic and generous comments here and in Bookland!

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife December 28, 2017 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    That does sound good, kind of sad but not overwhelmingly so. I like character study pieces like this. I really do need to start reading Gallant.

    • Buried In Print December 29, 2017 at 6:23 pm - Reply

      Maybe it doesn’t seem too too too sad because Willi does seem to believe that there might still be another perfectly cast partner for him in the future. Perhaps if the story was set twenty years later, it’d be simply sad sad sad.

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