Flickering and Imprecise: the first words I jotted down, while reading this Mavis Gallant story. It struck me that perhaps one of the reasons that her stories have endured is that her style is uncluttered and direct: there aren’t a lot of adjectives or adverbs, so when something – or, in this case, someone – is described, it stands out.

So, here we have Madame Gisèle observing Amalia Moraru, over the course of two years, determining that Amalia’s curiosity is flickering and imprecise. So flickering and imprecise, in fact, that Madame Gisèle charges her for the time she spends with her, bills her “like a garage” would bill.

Despite my intention to pay attention to the use of descriptors in this story, however, I only had time to register that they are uncommonly displayed, before I became absorbed by the very matter which is preoccupying Gisèle, the language fading in importance and the story taking hold.

And the nature of this matter? Gisèle is preoccupied by what is preoccupying Amalia, and what’s preoccupying Amalia is whatever is preoccupying Marie. Amalia seeks Gisèle’s expertise with reading cards, as a way of unearthing Marie’s private thoughts and motivations, but Amalia never receives an answer or accepts a suggestion in any way which puts her at ease.

Gisèle is a talented reader and she announces when Amalia has taken as talent something which Gisèle has simply observed and deduced rather than seen in the layout. But she doesn’t know what to make of Amalia and her obsession with Marie, which stands out when most women want to ask questions about their husbands or about another man in their lives. Gisèle is frustrated, which is understandable, but it’s hard to tell how much of her frustration is rooted in Amalia’s manner and how much is rooted in Gisèle’s prejudice against Rumanians.

Although Amalia’s concerns seem a little off too. During the war, to avoid persecution, Amalia and her husband were able to leave Hungary for Paris, with the assistance of Marie, who stayed behind. How much this assistance actually mattered, readers are unsure. What we do know for certain is that Amalia doesn’t want to dwell on the exact nature of that assistance.

Instead, Amalia is relieved (and simultaneously suspicious) that Marie doesn’t outwardly refer to the jewellery and valuable items which Marie gave to the couple so that they could sell and trade them, as needed, on their journey. On one hand Amalia describes particular items to Gisèle and what they exchanged them for (downplaying the usefulness of these transactions) and on the other hand she insists that diamonds were the only truly valuable commodity.

The jewellery is a distraction, however, because the point is that Amalia could leave that place and Marie remained. And Amalia promised Marie that she would send for her, and surely that was in Marie’s mind when she handed over her valuables. But Amalia never did send for Marie.

Amalia even seems a little put out that Marie has made it to Paris on her own steam after all. That there is no question that they will offer her a place to sleep in their cramped quarters, but that there are a hundred other questions besides that.

In a dozen pages, readers have a glimpse of Amalia and Marie’s young lives, of the courtship between Amalia and her husband, of their married life before-Paris and after-Paris, and of the strain that Marie’s arrival in Paris has caused (and what parts of that strain are long-standing and what parts are fresh).

Most of the questions remain unanswered, but enough of the background trickles through that readers can assemble a narrative of sorts. We can understand that whatever else stands between Amalia and Marie, Marie’s world is open in a way that Amalia finds unsettling, threatening even. And one of the biggest clues we have for Marie’s character is this pair of descriptors: flickering and imprecise. Presented by a steady and precise story-teller, who knows the power of a forecast but prefers to leave readers to interpret the layout for themselves.

The remaining stories in this collection are even shorter than this one. But even a short Mavis Gallant story offers a lot to consider.

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 thirteenth 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: “Vacances Pax”.