Mavis Gallant is not exactly a household name as a writer though not obscure either. She is a Canadian writer, mostly known for her short stories, and unfortunately unless you have some highly acclaimed novel as part of their opus, short story writers tend to get the accolades they deserve. The short story is a small canvass, and the petite scale dampens prestige. I presume she is more widely known in Canada. Her Wikipedia entry mentions she published 116 stories in The New Yorker magazine, which means she was considered among the top short story writers of her day.
I remember reading Gallant in college for what I think was a women’s fiction course. She had a short story in one of the collections. I no longer remember the story (I guess I could find it since I’ve kept the collection) but I must have been impressed enough to remember her. So when Amazon included in their daily specials (I get their emails) for Gallant’s collection, Across the Bridge: Stories, for $1.99, I jumped at it. I try to keep collections of all major short story writers. That collection is now back to regular Kindle price.
The first four stories of Across the Bridge center around members of the Carette family, and follow chronologically from 1933 to 1980. You can read more about Gallant and this collection at John Self’s reading blog, Asylum. I so enjoyed the first story that I will plan to read one every year. “1933” is the opening story set with the premature death of family’s father and the wife and two daughter’s move to a reduced home. The Carette’s are a French Catholic family in Montreal. Just noticed the wonderful details of a time and place: the furniture that is handed down, the horse-drawn sleigh, the local neighborhood, the clothes, and the French Catholic cultural memes. I was surprised to learn that Gallant grew up and has always been Protestant. She really picked up the Catholic cultural life. In fact, the climax of the story results at Mme. Carette’s realization and guilt that her ill will toward her new landlord, Mme. Grosjean, is a sin. “No sooner had she said this than she covered her mouth and spoke through her fingers: “God forgive my unkind thoughts.” She propped her arms on each side of her plate, as the girls were forbidden to do, and let her face slide into her hands.”
Finally here is the opening section of “1933,” where the move takes place from a “comfortable flat” to “smaller place.”
About a year after the death of M. Carette, his three survivors—Berthe and her little sister, Marie, and their mother—had to leave the comfortable flat over the furniture store in Rue Saint-Dennis and move to a smaller place. They were not destitute: there was the insurance and the money from the sale of the store, but the man who had bought the store from the estate had not yet paid and they had to be careful.
Some of the lamps and end tables and upholstered chairs were sent to relatives, to be returned when the little girls grew up and got married. The rest of their things were carried by two small, bent men to the second floor of a stone house in Rue Cherrier near the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. The men used an old horse and an open cart for the removal. They told Mme. Carette that they had never worked outside that quarter; they knew only some forty streets of Montreal but knew them thoroughly. On moving day, soft snow, like graying lace, fell. A patched tarpaulin protected the Carettes’ wine-red sofa with its border of silk fringe, the children’s brass bedstead, their mother’s walnut bed with the carved scallop shells, and the round oak table, smaller than the old one, at which they would now eat their meals. Mme. Carette told Berthe that her days of entertaining and cooking for guests were over. She was just twenty-seven.
They waited for the moving men in their new home, in scrubbed, empty rooms. They had already spread sheets of La Presse over the floors, in case the men tracked in snow. The curtains were hung, the cream-colored blinds pulled halfway down the sash windows. Coal had been delivered and was piled in the lean-to shed behind the kitchen. The range and the squat, round heater in the dining room issued tidal waves of dense metallic warmth.
The old place was at no distance. Parc Lafontaine, where the children had often been taken to play, was just along the street. By walking an extra few minutes, Mme. Carette could patronize the same butcher and grocer as before. The same horse-drawn sleighs would bring bread, milk, and coal to the door. Still, the quiet stone houses, the absence of heavy traffic and shops made Rue Cherrier seem like a foreign country.
Change, death, absence—the adult mysteries—kept the children awake. From their new bedroom they heard the clang of the first streetcar at dawn—a thrilling chord, metal on metal, that faded slowly. They would have jumped up and dressed at once, but to their mother this was still the middle of the night. Presently, a new, continuous sound moved in the waking streets, like a murmur of leaves. From the confused rustle broke distinct impressions: an alarm clock, a man speaking, someone’s radio. Marie wanted to talk and sing. Berthe had to invent stories to keep her quiet. Once she had placed her hand over Marie’s mouth and been cruelly bitten.
They slept on a horsehair mattress, which had a summer and a winter side, and was turned twice a year. The beautiful stitching at the edge of the sheets and pillows was their mother’s work. She had begun to sew her trousseau at the age of eleven; her early life was spent in preparation for a wedding. Above the girls’ bed hung a gilt crucifix with a withered spray of box hedge that passed for the Easter palms of Jerusalem.
Marie was afraid to go to the bathroom alone after dark. Berthe asked if she expected to see their father’s ghost, but Marie could not say: she did not yet know whether a ghost and the dark meant the same thing. Berthe was obliged to get up at night and accompany her along the passage. The hall light shone out of a blue glass tulip set upon a column painted to look like marble. Berthe could just reach it on tiptoe; Marie not at all.
Marie would have left the bathroom door open for company, but Berthe knew that such intimacy was improper. Although her First Communion was being delayed because Mme. Carette wanted the two sisters to come to the altar together, she had been to practice confession. Unfortunately, she had soon run out of invented sins. Her confessor seemed to think there should be more: he asked if she and her little sister had ever been in a bathroom with the door shut, and warned her of grievous fault.
On their way back to bed, Berthe unhooked a calendar on which was a picture of a family of rabbits riding a toboggan. She pretended to read stories about the rabbits and presently both she and Marie fell asleep.
They never saw their mother wearing a bathrobe. As soon as Mme. Carette got up she dressed herself in clothes that were in the colors of half-mourning—mauve, dove-gray. Her fair hair was brushed straight and subdued under a net. She took a brush to everything—hair, floors, the children’s elbows, the kitchen chairs. Her scent was of Baby’s Own soap and Florida Water. When she bent to kiss the children, a cameo dangled from a chain. She trained the girls not to lie, or point, or gobble their food, or show their legs above the knee, or leave fingerprints on windowpanes, or handle the parlor curtains—the slightest touch could crease the lace, she said. They learned to say in English, “I don’t understand” and “I don’t know” and “No, thank you.” That was all the English anyone needed between Rue Saint-Denis and Parc Lafontaine.
In the dining room, where she kept her sewing machine, Mme. Carette held the treadle still, rested a hand on the stopped wheel. “What are you doing in the parlor?” she called. “Are you touching the curtains?” Marie had been spitting on the window and drawing her finger through the spit. Berthe, trying to clean the mess with her flannelette petticoat, said, “Marie’s just been standing here saying ‘Saint Marguerite, pray for us.’”
Some might complain that the story is just a slice of life rather than a more traditional story where conflict and resolution is more pronounced. I would disagree with that. The conflict and resolution is there, only in a muted and subtle fashion. This muted story line form was common in The New Yorker in the last few decades of the last century. In this tribute in that magazine, Deborah Treisman says this about Gallant’s stories:
It’s that quality—Gallant’s “like-lifeness,” her unresolved presentness—that makes her stories sit so solidly, almost bad-naturedly, in memory. They have come to dinner, and, no matter how late the hour, you just can’t show them to the door. You’re haunted both by the moments of beauty and intelligence and by the scenes of devastating loneliness or disappointment.
I agree. Gallant’s stories seem to capture life in a sincere way.