Is it a bad omen to start a challenge (Kate’s revival of the Short Story Challenge) with a book I am not really enthusiastic about? At any case, this long-due discovery of Mavis Gallant is quite a surprise. I knew that she wrote short stories about France and Paris, but somehow I’d thought she was writing about the 1930s bohemia, Montparnasse etc.. I’d pictured her a bit like a female Hemingway and Henry Miller perhaps. Prejudices…
I was not expecting at all her portrait of the French bourgeoisie of the 1960s, 1980s and even more recent (it’s sometimes difficult to know precisely because her stories are timeless). And how well does she picture them! Conservative, stingy, cowards, stuck in their habits and blind to the society changes, because the most important thing is to remain “respectable”… Her characters are difficult to love, but strangely compelling and difficult to forget afterwards.
The title story is about Sylvie, a shy girl in the 1960s, whose parents have arranged a marriage to a relative and business partner, who rebels in a very meek and mild way, by getting infatuated in someone just as bland as her first fiancé. Thinking that things are serious, the mother throws the wedding invitations out into the Seine, but when she demands proofs that the other man has proposed to her daughter (as she has insinuated), there is none. The family loses face, scrambles to win back the first fiancé again, and the girl somehow concedes that she might start loving this man.
It’s difficult for me to come to terms with this portrayal of French society. But I can’t deny that it’s (was) also true! I guess I’m having a “Pride and Prejudice” moment. I can’t believe that a Canadian woman saw through the superficial aspects of the rancid Parisian bourgeoisie so well, a bit like Gide (Yes, Gallant has to be compared with big names!)
In another story, a petit-bourgeois woman writes to a Portuguese woman who had sublet a room in her flat more than ten years ago, shared the family life for a while, before she disappeared after an abortion and made it “big” as a TV actress. Of course, a classic story would have the Portuguese tenant as the main character, with her ambition, own secrets and tragedies. But the focus on the stingy landlady and how she consistently misunderstood the girl and projected her small life on her is revealing of this collection’s voice. Gallant use sidelong glances into small worlds that she paints with delicate brushes.
There are also stories about Eastern Europeans intellectuals and refugees in Paris, living in memories of a faded world. It was quite delicate and moving, but the timeless context made it difficult for me to relate, especially as later on, I realized they were supposed to live in the post-1989 world!
The first few stories in the collection are linked and tell the story of 3 generations of a French Canadian family in Montreal. I loved the first one best, set in 1933, when the widowed mother instructs her 2 daughters never to tell that she had to work as a seamstress. They must instead say that their mother “was clever with her hands”.
The last story, “The Fenton Child”, also departs from the rest of the collection. The teenaged heroin, Nora Abott, has to take care of a new-born baby for a few hours while a hushed drama unfolds in the background. I’d have loved to see more of this tone, because Nora was a lot more bright and active than the rest of the characters.
All in all, after a bumpy start, I’d like to try other stories by Mavis Gallant, now that I better know what to expect. Have a nice weekend everyone!