But it’s also about novelist Henri Grippes and his imaginings of O. Poche, who will appear in countless fictions. This is the story of how author Grippes meets imaginary Poche, who “did not know how closely they were bound”.
Their meet cute is predictable. Grippes is a cash-strapped novelist who has returned to Paris from California, only to rediscover that he is suspected of concealing his earnings in a Swiss bank account to avoid taxation, and Poche is the curly-haired civil servant who is set to the task of righting Grippes’ financial affairs. Years pass, and they meet regularly, whenever Grippes announces a new publication, and eventually Poche moves to another department.
So, alright then: not a conventional romance.
But right there, if you peer closely, you will see that moment in which Poche moves, not to another department, but into Grippes’ imagination.
And Grippes does have an active imagination. Which partly explains how he ends up with so many regular meetings with Poche in the first place. For he actually has not concealed any earnings from his writing, but maintaining an American bank account after returning to France has flagged his account, and he is eager to put the matter to rest quickly. Not because he owes taxes on income from his book (the earnings were as dismal as reported) but because he owns three apartment buildings and his ownership has not yet been reported to the tax office. He imagines all sorts of horrors should he be discovered, so he falls into line with Poche.
Grippes was the beneficiary of an American patroness of the arts, the “last of a generous species”(Miss Mary Margaret Pugh, who appears in “A Painful Affair”, “Larry”, and “A Flying Start”). She left him three apartment buildings, including his place of residence in Montparnasse. Eager to maintain this secret, Grippes agrees to pay taxes on imaginary earnings, on a book which performed dismally, simply to avoid further investigation.
I mean, sure, he puts up a show of a defense. He tries to claim his cats as dependents. He expresses shock and dismay. He makes dramatic queries. He prepares his excuses, lest the apartments be discovered (now or later). And, meanwhile, he maintains his simple existence. His efforts to find appropriate offal for his cats must intensify (he has to travel a great distance for a single sheep’s lung) and he spends hours battling the cockroaches that live behind the stove.
And all the while, executing the minutiae of everyday life in Paris, he thinks about his work. He
recalls his characters, like Karen Sue, whom he tolerated, indulged even, which probably “weakened the book” (the project for which he now owes taxes). And he observes and reflects upon the changing hues of the file folders which contain his records and what this indicates about the status of his account and the world at large. And the status of his relationship with O. Poche.
Grippes “dared believe Poche admired him”, this Poche who is curly haired and like a “child with a box of paints”.
But as for this other Poche. The one transformed into prose. He is “trapped, cornered, threatened, watched” until finally he “yields”.
Until he makes appearances in multiple manuscripts (some are more satisfying than others, to Grippes’ taste).
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story in Overhead in a Balloon. 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 Recollection”.