Mavis Gallant Short Fiction Analysis
The often somber tone of Mavis Gallant’s work is strengthened by the combination of acute lucidness and understated stylistic richness. Gallant is a remarkable observer. She succeeds in creating worlds that are both familiar and foreign, appealing yet uninviting. Her mastery in the restrained use of language and in her incomparable narrative powers make her undeniably one of the world’s greatest fiction writers.
“The Other Paris”
The title story of Mavis Gallant’s first collection strikes the pitch to which the others that follow it are tuned. Most of these stories are about young Americans in Europe just entering into marriage, uncertain about what they should feel, unsure of their roles, and unable to find appropriate models around them for the behavior that they think is expected of them. The young protagonists in the stories grope through their ambivalences, looking for guidance in others who seem more sure of themselves, or clutching written words from some absent sibling—advice recorded in a letter, or written down by themselves about appropriate responses to their present situation. In the other stories in which a parent is present, the other parent, usually ill or divorced, is absent, and the rules of conduct become equally tenuous because of that absence. The European stories are set in the early 1950’s, when the devastations of World War II are still being felt. Refugee figures haunt the fringes.
“The Other Paris” refers to the romantic illusions generated by films about that city which Carol feels she is missing. She is about to be married to Howard Mitchell, with whom she works in an American government agency, and with whom she is not yet in love. She keeps remembering her college lectures on the subject to reassure herself. Common interests and similar economic and religious backgrounds were what mattered. “The illusion of love was a blight imposed by the film industry, and almost entirely responsible for the high rate of divorce.” Carol waits expectantly for the appropriate emotions to follow the mutuality of their backgrounds: Their fathers are both attorneys, Protestants, and from the same social class. In Carol’s mind, the discovery of that mysterious “other Paris” is linked with the discovery of love. She believes the Parisians know a secret, “and if she spoke to the right person or opened the right door or turned down an unexpected street, the city would reveal itself and she would fall in love.” She tries all the typical tourist things, such as listening to carols at the Place Vendôme, but everything has been commercialized. Newsreel cameras and broadcast equipment spoil the atmosphere she seeks. Plastic mistletoe with “cheap tinsel” is tied to the street lamps.
Odile, Howard’s secretary, invites her to a private concert. Excitedly Carol thinks that she has finally gained entrance into the aristocratic secrets that are hidden from foreigners. Instead of the elegant drawing room she had anticipated, it is an “ordinary, shabby theatre” on an obscure street, nearly empty except for a few of the violinist’s relatives. Odile is thin, dark, seldom smiles, and often sounds sarcastic because of her poor English. She is involved with Felix, pale, ill, hungry, and without papers, who sells things on the black market. He is twenty-one, she is more than thirty years old, and Carol finds the gap in their ages distasteful. They have no common interests, no mitigating mutual circumstances; yet, one night in Felix’s dark, cluttered room, she discovers that they love each other. The thought makes her ill. In that dusty slum, with revulsion, she discovers that, at last, she has “opened the right door, turned down the right street, glimpsed the vision.” On this paradox, that the sordid reality reveals the romantic illusion, the story closes with a time shift to the future in which Carol is telling how she met and married Howard in Paris and making it “sound romantic and interesting,” believing it as it had never been at all.
“Autumn Day” is another initiation story of a nineteen-year-old who follows her Army husband to Salzburg. She has a list of instructions: “Go for walks. Meet Army wives. Avoid people on farm.” She attributes her unhappiness, her failure to feel like a wife, to the fact that they have no home. They are boarding in a farmhouse from which she takes dutiful long walks under the lowering Salzburg skies, gray with impending snow. An American singer practices a new setting of the poem “Herbsttag” (“Autumn Day”), whose most haunting line, which the narrator feels had something to do with her, is “who does not yet have a home, will never have one.” She feels that the poet had understood her; it was exactly the life she was leading, going for lonely walks. She slides a note under the singer’s door, asking if they might meet. After a complicated day in which she has had to listen to two sets of confessions, Laura’s and Mrs. de Kende’s, she returns to the farmhouse to find the singer had invited her to lunch and had returned to America. Walt, her bewildered husband, finds her crying. He tries, timidly, to console her by insisting that they “will be all right” when they get their own apartment. She wonders if her present mood is indeed temporary or whether their entire marriage will be like this.Your girlfriend doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again. The frontier is invisible; sometimes you’re over without knowing it. I do know that some change began then, at that moment, and I felt an almost unbearable nostalgia for the figure I was leaving behind.
It is in depicting these border states of consciousness that Gallant excels. Her portraits of girls who are trying to become women without having internalized a strong role model to emulate are moving because the portrayal of their inner sense of being lost is augmented by the setting; it is externalized into the...
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