Jean-Paul Sartre visited Montreal in the 1940s for a speaking engagement. In marked contrast to the socially progressive nature of much of Quebec today, Quebec then cowed under the unyielding hand of the Church. Hostile to Sartre’s visit, the media barons instructed their reporters – perhaps tacitly, perhaps not – to be as unwelcoming as possible to this existential antichrist, so that he’d turn on his heel and leave.
They succeeded, and he left, but not before encountering a young journalist (and budding writer of fiction) who asked Sartre how much of himself was in his latest protagonist. Sartre, courteous and well-mannered, replied to the young Canadian woman (then writing fiction in secret): “You are in every character you write.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that in the sixty odd years since her exchange with Jean-Paul Sartre, Mavis Gallant, now 85 and living in Paris since 1950, has populated her stories with characters who are intelligent and thoughtful, clever and complex. Ex-pats, émigrés, displaced persons, and transients – the moved, the removed, and those on-the-move – have all sprung from Gallant’s fertile imagination, arriving fully formed on the page, in stories that betray both a keen, unsentimental, journalist’s eye and a humane artistic vision.
In From The Fifteenth District, an anthology of stories which were originally published in The New Yorker in the mid- to late 1970s, some characters are tethered by the thread of memory to people from the past, or simply to another time or another place. Other characters have managed to sweep the ghosts away. In the story “The Moslem Wife,” Netta Asher and Jack Ross, cousins whose ex-pat British families have run hotels in the south of France for decades, marry and begin to run the hotel, but are then estranged when Jack’s wanderlust leads him to America before the outbreak of the Second World War. Netta soldiers on as the impending war drives away those around her. Then there’s an evacuation, and upon Netta’s return, the Italian army has taken over sections of the hotel, reducing Netta to a squatter in her own home. Still later, long after the war has ended, Jack returns. Exchanging war stories, Netta contrasts Jack’s connection to the present with her own raging memory of the past. Gallant writes:
Jack, closed to ghosts, deaf to their voices, was spared this… She envied him his imperviousness, his true, unhysterical laughter…
I was always jealous. Not of women. Of his short memory, his comfortable imagination… I have a dark, an accurate, a deadly memory…
Memory should at least keep you from saying yes twice to the same person.
The Second World War casts its shadow over many of the stories in this collection. In “The Four Seasons,” thirteen-year-old Carmela serves as nanny to the Unwins, an ex-pat British family residing on the Ligurian coast. The Unwins and their fellow Britons living nearby remain naively convinced that neither Mussolini nor Hitler want war. For the Unwins, life in southern Europe is business as usual. Meanwhile, Carmela’s understanding of English is a detail that she has cleverly hidden from her employers: “Among the powerful and strange, she would be mute and watchful.”
In “His Mother,” the émigré tale is flipped around, Gallant’s eye turning to the family left behind. A grandmother, living in Budapest, her son having long ago transplanted to Glasgow, receives frequent letters from her son, with photos of his new Scottish family. She and other mothers of émigrés engage in a sort of one-upmanship. Points to the mother of the son who has immigrated to the most idealized locale. Points for frequency of letters, for quantity and quality of the stamps. It’s a bittersweet story – she’s the ghost left behind, the memory which begins to fade.
In the collection The Pegnitz Junction, Gallant places us in Europe, West Germany mainly, in the years and decades following the Second World War. The story “The Pegnitz Junction,” a novella really, takes place during one excruciatingly long day. In the final hours of a Paris getaway vacation, Germans Christine, her friend Herbert, and his young son little Bert have been summarily evicted from their lodgings at the crack of dawn. The story is essentially the train journey home, but this is a journey like no other.
Christine is the central character, and we read not only her thoughts, but due to her ability to channel the thoughts of those around her, we hear their thoughts, we read their lives. Christine has no control over this phenomenon, she regards it as “interference” with her own thoughts. It’s an inventive conceit, as we eavesdrop on some very private thoughts, like those of a German girl, passing herself off as American in her own country, “ashamed of being thought German by other Germans.” We even get into Herbert’s own mind, and learn that his late mother had been arrested and put in a camp when he was a boy. Gallant writes:
She had gone into captivity believing in virtue and learned she could steal. Went in loving the poor, came out afraid of them; went in for the hounded, came out a racist; went in generous, came out grudging; went in with God, came out alone.
We’re in Paris, 1963, for “Ernst In Civilian Clothes,” a story from the same collection. Ernst and Willi are old friends. Ernst, part Austrian, part German, former soldier turned Legionnaire, is staying with Willi in Paris but is on the verge of being deported, trapped as he is in a bureaucratic cul-de-sac. And his memory is broken:
Willi’s gas heater flames the whole day, because Ernst, as a civilian, is sensitive to weather. Ernst will let Willi pay the bill, and, with some iridescent memory of something once read, he will believe that Willi had free gas – and, who knows, perhaps free rent and light! – all winter long. When Ernst believes an idea suitable for the moment, it becomes true.
For a third of the collection Across The Bridge, ex-pat Gallant looks back to mid-century Montreal, to the social-climbing Carette family. In “1933,” we meet Madame Carette, widowed at 27, with two young daughters: Marie and Berthe. By the time of “The Chosen Husband,” sixteen years later, another inheritance has allowed the family to move (again), each time rising in social standing. The Carettes are trying to marry off Marie. Though Marie is hopelessly in love with a Greek young man, the Carettes have other ideas:
In the life of a penniless unmarried young woman, there was no room for a man merely in love. He ought to have presented himself as something: Marie’s future.
So they orchestrate the arrival of Louis Driscoll: part French Canadian, part Irish Catholic. Acceptable.
For every generation of Driscolls, (Louis told Madame Carette), there had to be a Louis, a Joseph, a Raymond. (Berthe and her mother exchanged a look. He wanted three sons.)
The remaining two Carette stories bring us up to date with Marie in middle age, then Marie as a grandmother – her son transplanted to Florida. For most of this anthology, though, we’re back in Gallant’s adopted France. In the story “Forain,” we meet Blaise Forain, friend and publisher to a roster of émigré writers, shopping around Cold War stories to a post-1989 audience. One such writer, Adam Tremski, has just died, and was to be buried in the one good suit that he owned:
He had never owned another, had shambled around Paris looking as though he slept under restaurant tables, on a bed of cigarette ashes and crumbs.
There’s a wonderfully candid CBC Radio interview with Mavis Gallant, recorded recently by Eleanor Wachtel for her Writers & Company series. You can listen to by going here. Scroll down, and then follow the instructions for audio. And a 1988 interview for the Aurora journal can be read here. In both, she discusses the craft of the short story; in the audio interview she peppers the conversation with anecdotes about her childhood in Montreal, her exchange with Sartre, and her dealings, early in her career, with an evil, thieving agent who pocketed her payments from The New Yorker, telling the magazine that she had moved to Capri!
Maybe some things are indeed best left forgotten.
What most émigrés settled for now was the haphazard accuracy of a memory like Tremski’s. In the end it was always a poem that ran through the mind – not a string of dates.