This is my first experience of the Canadian writer, Mavis Gallant, but hopefully not my last. Dorian and Buried in Print have been urging me to read her for ages, and not without good cause. In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection.
The Cost of Living comprises twenty stories from 1951 to 1971 – rather helpfully, the pieces are dated and arranged in chronological order. I’m planning to read this collection in two or three chunks with the aim of spreading the stories over a few months; otherwise there’s a danger that everything will begin to merge, making it harder to reflect on each individual vignette before moving on to the next. So, this post covers the highlights from the first six stories in the set – hopefully another post on the rest will follow in due course.
Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves.
The collection opens with Madeleine’s Birthday, Gallant’s first story, published in The New Yorker in 1951. Seventeen-year-old Madeleine is self-sufficient and strong-minded, traits she has had to develop in response to her rather thoughtless mother – now living in Europe following her divorce from Madeleine’s father.
At her mother’s request, Madeleine is spending the summer at a country house in Connecticut, a property owned by Anna Tracy, a longstanding friend of the family. However, Anna simply cannot understand why Madeleine doesn’t seem particularly pleased to be there, especially as Anna views her Connecticut summers ‘as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world’. In truth, Madeline would much rather be on her own in her mother’s vacant New York apartment, amusing herself with trips to the movies and the like. To complicate matters further, the Tracys are also housing another guest for the summer – a German boy named Paul, whom Anna hopes will be a friend for Madeleine. Madeleine, however, resents having to share a bathroom with Paul, viewing him as yet another imposition on her freedom…
“I cannot cope with it here,” Madeleine had written to her father shortly after she arrived. “One at a time would be all right but not all the Tracys and this German.” “Cope” was a word Madeline had learned from her mother, who had divorced Madeleine‘s father because she could not cope with him, and then had fled to Europe because she could not cope with the idea of his remarriage. “Can you take Madeleine for the summer? she had written to Anna Tracy, who was a girlhood friend. “You are so much better able to cope.” (p. 7)
Things come to a head on the morning of Madeleine’s birthday, particularly when Anna tries to chivvy her along with patronising cheer and gaiety. In effect, Anna is treating Madeleine like a child – no different to her daughter Allie, who is six.
This is an excellent, nuanced story, one that taps into the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment.
The failings of motherhood also feature in Going Ashore, one of the standouts from Gallant’s early pieces. Following the break-up of the latest in string of doomed relationships, Mrs Ellenger has taken her twelve-year-old-daughter, Emma, on a cross-continental cruise in the hope of finding some male companionship. As a consequence, young Emma must amuse herself with the other passengers on the ship – individuals like the Munns, a dowdy mother-and-daughter pairing, complete with old-fashioned tweeds and pearls.
Mrs E is the sort of neglectful mother one finds in a Richard Yates novel, like Pookie from The Easter Parade or Alice from A Special Providence. There’s an air of tragedy here, characterised by an attraction to unsuitable men, typically fuelled by a fondness for drink.
The story ends with Mrs Ellenger returning the cabin she is sharing with Emma, tearful and emotional following another disappointing dalliance. As such, she makes a desperate appeal to her daughter, urging her never to get married – clearly no good will ever come of it.
Her mother had stopped crying. Her voice changed. She said, loud and matter-of-fact, “He’s got a wife someplace. He only told me now, a minute ago. Why? Why not right at the beginning, in the bar? I’m not like that. I want something different, a friend.” […] “Don’t ever get married, Emma,” she said. “Don’t have anything to do with men. Your father was no good. Jimmy Salter was no good. This one’s no better. He’s got a wife and look at how–Promise me you’ll never get married. We should always stick together, you and I. Promise me we’ll always stay together.” (p. 95)
In Going Ashore, Gallant has created a story in which the child is far more responsible than the adult, reversing the natural roles to great effect.
The disruption and dislocation caused by WW2 can be detected in a number of the stories here, perhaps most notably in An Autumn Day, another highlight from Gallant’s early pieces. This story revolves around nineteen-year-old Cissy Rowe, who has just travelled to Salzburg to be with her relatively new husband, Walt, a member of the US Army of Occupation. Cissy is still very much a child, with her girlish clothes and lack of life experience. Having spent most of their brief married life apart, Walt and Cissy barely know one another, a point that is plainly obvious right from the start.
With Walt fully occupied all day, Cissy is lonely and desperately in need of a like-minded friend. Walt wants Cissy to buddy up with Laura, the wife of his closest friend, Marv, also stationed at Salzburg. Laura, however, is forever complaining about Marv, something that Cissy finds awkward to discuss, especially as her own marriage seems far from ideal.
The truth was that he [Walt] and I never talked much about anything. I didn’t know him well enough, and I kept feeling that our real married life hadn’t started, that there was nothing to say and wouldn’t be for years. (p. 101)
A ray of hope for Cissy arrives in the shape of Dorothy West, an American singer who comes to stay at the farm where the Rowes are stationed, albeit temporarily. Cissy hopes she can befriend this woman whose voice and lyrics resonate with her deeply; unfortunately for our protagonist, the best laid plans never quite come to fruition…
The story ends with a missed opportunity, a development that prompts an outpouring of emotion, leaving Cissy distressed and Walt bewildered. It marks a transition for Cissy, signalling the need to move on, a longing for her marriage to finally ‘start’.
Your girlhood 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, the shell of the girl who had got down from the train in September, the pretty girl with all the blue plaid luggage. I could never be that girl again, not entirely. Too much had happened in between. (p. 114)
The spectre of war is also present in The Picnic, an excellent story of class prejudices and cultural differences set in the French countryside during WW2. The action revolves around a picnic, a symbol of unity between the local community and the American troops stationed nearby. This story features the most wonderful character, Madame Pégurin, who keeps all manner of treats by her bedside – sugared almonds, pistachio creams and sponge cakes soaked in rum, which she secretly feeds to the American children lodging at her house. In short, she is an utter delight!
Alongside her acute insights into the sadness of loneliness and alienation, Gallant also has a sharp eye for humour – something that comes to the fore in A Day Like Any Other, another tale of clashing cultures and social classes. I love this description of Mr Kennedy and his medical problems, a condition that has caused his family to trail endlessly around Europe from one ‘excellent liver man’ to another.
He cherished an obscure stomach complaint and a touchy liver that had withstood, triumphantly, the best attention of twenty doctors. (p. 53)
A weaker man might have given up, thinks Mrs Kennedy; but no, her husband appears to have an inexhaustible supply of patience, although not where his children are concerned.
Mr. Kennedy seldom saw his daughters. The rules of the private clinics he frequented were all in his favor. In any case, he seldom asked to see the girls, for he felt that they were not at an interesting age. Wistfully, his wife sometimes wondered when their interesting age would begin–when they were old enough to be sent away to school, perhaps, or, better still, safely disposed of in the handsome marriages that gave her so much concern. (p. 53)
These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.
The Cost of Living is published by NYRB Classics and Bloomsbury; personal copy.