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Lost & Found: Chris Beha on Mavis Gallant
Chris Beha introduces the work of Mavis Gallant, a writer whose short stories are reliably sublime, in today’s Lost & Found from the vault. Read more of Chris’s own most excellent prose (if we do say so ourselves) in his debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, out from Tin House Books this June.
I suspect that many readers have a single literary moment they repeatedly turn to. A line, a stanza, paragraph, or page that offers on demand that acute delight one can work through a shelf of well-crafted books without stumbling across. Lately, I come back to Mavis Gallant, the expatriate Canadian short story writer. Gallant, the who was born in Montreal and lives in Paris but writes in English, is one of the finest living writers our language has.
“The Moslem Wife”—the story to which I return for my reliable shot of the sublime—begins in 1919, in the aftermath of a war so gruesome that “there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again.” Netta Asher’s father signs a hundred-year renewal of the family lease on the Hotel Prince Albert and Albion on the French Riviera. Eleven-year-old Netta watches, understanding that this lease has determined much of her life. The scene is followed by a lengthy stretch of summary. Netta marries her first cousin, Jack Ross. She takes over the hotel. Her parents die. Jack’s ailing mother comes to live with them. Most of this is lightly told, but a few themes are examined closely: Jack’s easy going philandering, and Netta’s insistence that “the past holds no attractions.” “There are no ghosts,” she thinks, when she enters the room where her parents died. “If there were, I would know.”
Times passes so unobtrusively—twenty years in twenty pages—that it seems almost curious when talk of an impending war begins. Didn’t we agree not so long ago to be done with that business? As the talk grows inevitably more serious, Jack leaves for England, planning to be gone a few weeks.
Line break. Then: “About five years after this, Netta wrote to Jack.”
The shock I felt when I first saw what Gallant had done returns every time I read “The Moslem Wife.” She brings us almost casually to the edge of the tragic, then passes it over like a playful child leaping a puddle. But this is more than just minimalist trickery. The years that have just been elided—years of occupation, first by Italians, then by Germans and Vichy French; years that Jacks spends safely in America while Netta watches her family legacy fall to ruins—are eventually described in powerful detail. It is only that they are remembered rather than lived. Such experiences, Gallant suggests, must be planted in memory before blooming with meaning. Which is also to say: they are only available to those who can see ghosts.
The bulk of Gallant’s Collected Stories are organized chronologically by the time in which they take place, rather than by date of composition, thus a story from 1993 directly follows one from 1953. And thus “The Moslem Wife”—one of two stories set primarily before and during World War II—leads off the collection, though it was written midway through Gallant’s fifty-year career. It’s an apt arrangement for a writer so preoccupied with memory—its uses and failures, what it offers and what it withholds. Gallant is a writer of great range, but the element common to all her best work is retrospection. In “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” a couple who have recently returned to Canada from nine years abroad “sit in the kitchen, drinking their coffee, slowly, remembering the past.” In “The Latehomecomer,” a German soldier returned from the war is advised, “Forget everything.” The earliest story in the collection—“The Other Side of Paris,” written more than half a century ago—ends with a young American, thinking of her miserable stay abroad, looking forward to when “mercifully removed in time, she would remember it and describe it and finally believe it as it had never been at all.”
As this last quote suggests, Gallant remains suspicious of memory even as she knows it is often all we have. At best, it is a provisional bulwark against the passage of time; at worst, it distorts more than it preserves. And even when it gets things right, gives us some brief chance at truth, there is still the matter of what to do with our newfound knowledge.
Jack returns to Netta after the war. They walk through town, under the arches where Parisians were once hanged. By now, Netta sees ghosts everywhere. “Jack, who knew about this way of dying from hearsay, chose a café table under a poor lad’s bound, dangling feet.” Jack wants Netta back. And so, despite all she remembers, she lets him steal a kiss beneath these arches, where the ghosts still hang. “Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first dog dies,” Netta finally allows. “But it never does.”
Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He contributes frequently to the New York Times Book Review. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is his first novel.