Tag Archives: Canada

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1951-55

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.  

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

One of the things I enjoy about following other bloggers and reading their reviews is the discovery of ‘new’ things, interesting books that I might not have heard of otherwise. A case in point is The Incident Report (2009), an excellent novella by the Canadian author, Martha Baillie, which I bought after reading Max’s review. I very much doubt that I would have stumbled across this book had it not been for Max’s blog, and that would have been a shame as it’s a little gem.

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In some respects, Baillie’s book could be described as a fragmentary novella. The central figure here is Miriam Gordon, a thirty-five-year-old single woman who works as a Public Service Assistant at the one of the branches of Toronto’s Public Library. The book is written as a series of library incident reports. Whenever an incident occurs at library, the librarian in charge is required to complete the necessary forms detailing a description of the episode, the perpetrator, any witnesses, actions taken, etc. (There’s a template at the beginning of the book.)

The reports themselves cover quite a variety of different incidents ranging from minor offences (squabbles over the use of a computer) to health-related issues (a man who experiences recurring fainting episodes) to the downright bizarre (a guy who spends hours stripping the plastic covering from electrical wire with the aid of a pocket knife – it’s his own length of wire, not the library’s). Some reports are fairly innocuous, others more threatening and abusive. Here are a few to give you a flavour – all three are quoted in full.

Incident Report 61

A young patron, suspected of previous thefts, was caught at 10:30 this morning in the act of stealing a brand new Mad magazine. He was warned that his behaviour was ill-advised. The magazine, though slightly torn, was reinstated in the collection. (pg. 100)

Incident Report 9

At 11:20 this morning, a patron entered the library to report that a man outside, who was embracing a tree, appeared to be experiencing some distress.

By the time the ambulance arrived the man had lost hold of the tree and lay unconscious. He was lifted from the ground into the ambulance, which drove away without event. (pg 31)

Incident Report 67

At precisely 2:00 this afternoon, I received a telephone call from a patron who complained that the library ought not to hire librarians who “look like terrorists.” I thanked the caller for his advice and assured him that his concerns would be taken into consideration. He suggested that if all our librarians were dressed in cheerful uniforms, the public would feel less threatened by the severe demeanour and foreign physique of certain librarians. As soon as I’d hung up I reported his suggestion to our Branch Head, Irene Frenkel, thereby carrying out my end of the bargain. I remained uncertain as to what constituted his end of the bargain. (pg. 108)

As the book progresses, more details about Miriam herself start to emerge. Some incident reports have little to do with the library; instead they reveal something about Miriam’s life, her current situation and certain significant episodes from her past. In particular, Miriam reflects on her relationship with her father, a gentle, outwardly cheerful man who suffered terribly from an inner sense of despair.

It was all a performance, one he badly wanted to believe in, while inside his head he was whistling a private tune of grave self-deprecation and despair. A master of distractions, light on his feet for such a heavy man, and quick with his hands, he would have made a fine magician or boxer. Instead he wrote poems in rhyming verse that nobody would publish, and earned his living by selling insurance of various kinds.

I wanted to save him from humiliation. (pg. 34)

When Miriam was eleven, her father disappeared for three days. Even though she knew her husband was probably wandering around somewhere (almost certainly visiting bookstores), Miriam’s mother had a hard time accepting this, especially on his return. In time, her initial resentment turned to fear, a worry that almost certainly transferred to Miriam herself. There are more details of Miriam’s backstory in the book – in particular, the quiet tragedy of her father’s life – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves should you decide to read the book. These experiences have left their mark on Miriam, and she is reminded of her father during another incident at the library – it’s one of the most poignant episodes in the novel (quoted here in part).

Incident Report 44

At precisely 11 AM this morning, when the library was not yet full of urgency, John B, a regular, sat down and looked at me through his watery blue eyes. His long stiff legs stuck out in front of him. His bony hands rested on the Reference Desk. He asked that I locate the Web site of a small publishing house, Raccoon Jaw Press, and write down their address for him. I did so. He explained that the press was on the brink of publishing a collection of his poems.

“Very soon my book will be out. I’ll bring you a copy.”

I thanked him and handed him the address, the same address I’d copied out for him the week before and the week before that. Once a week he requested this address. (pg. 76)

The fallout from past events has left Miriam reluctant to form any lasting relationships with men. She is wary of getting too involved, fearful of exposing herself to the possibility of more suffering in the future. Even so, Miriam finds herself attracted to a man she meets in the nearby park where she likes to go for lunch. His name is Janko, a taxi driver from Slovenia. He is kind, gentle and sensitive, an avid reader and a talented artist. Maybe, just maybe, Miriam has found a soulmate.

Incident Report 55

Again I arrived at Janko’s apartment. His skin, and under his skin. What his left toe knew. The smell of him. The orbital smell of him. That our knees spoke willingly. Inexplicably, the taste of raspberries filled my mouth. (pg. 90)

In another book, I might have found that last passage a little annoying, but not here; it works perfectly within the context of Baillie’s story as snapshots of Miriam’s new life with Janko are threaded through the second half of the novella.

Certain other threads also recur: stories of some of the library regulars, typically those who come with their own habits and idiosyncrasies; incidents involving one of Miriam’s co-workers, an annoying woman named Nila who seems to delight in sounding off about the most trivial things at every opportunity; and perhaps most worryingly, details of a series of very creepy notes left in various places around the library, notes that appear to be targeted at Miriam herself.

In spite of its fragmentary nature, Baillie’s novella hangs together quite beautifully. For such a short work it’s surprisingly layered and satisfying. Everything comes together to build a picture of Miriam’s life, and when the ending comes it packs quite a punch.

One aspect that works so well here is the juxtaposition of different tones. Some of the reports concerning ‘true’ incidents at the library – numbers 61 and 9, for example – are, on the whole, factual and objective; others – the excerpts from Miriam’s life and even some of the episodes at the library itself – are more emotive, often embellished with subjective details which bring them to life. They are by turns, amusing, touching, melancholy and unsettling.

I enjoyed this book very much. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novella I quite liked in parts but not as a whole. To my mind, the Baillie is the more successful of the two, or maybe it’s just more my kind of book. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Incident Report is published by Pedlar Press.

A stunning Canadian Chardonnay from Norman Hardie

Last year I was very excited to see The Wine Society list their first couple of wines from Canada: a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay (both 2011 vintage) from the Norman Hardie Winery in Prince Edward Country, Ontario. Alongside the appeal of coming from a territory that’s new to me, I liked the idea that Norman Hardie adopts a minimal-intervention approach to winemaking, i.e. the winery uses indigenous yeasts, avoids the addition of sulphur and the wines remain unfiltered and unfined before bottling.

I was delighted to see a few of my favourite wine writers and bloggers recommending these wines: for example, here’s a link to Jamie Goode’s review of both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (published on his blog).

Keen to try at least one of the wines, last October I bought a bottle of the Pinot with the intention of keeping it a few months. And then a twitter conversation with Fiona Beckett (another trusted wine writer) prompted me to splash out on a bottle of the Chardonnay, too, so I could gain the full Norman Hardie experience.

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Last weekend I decided to open the Norman Hardie Chardonnay, and I’m very happy to say it did not disappoint; quite the opposite in fact, as it’s a stunning wine, reminiscent of a classy Burgundian in terms of style and finesse. Aromas of fresh lemon on the nose with a yeasty/bready note, too. It’s such a well-balanced and rounded wine with plenty of vibrant, lemony acidity, peachy fruit and a lovely creamy note. And this combination makes it a perfect partner for chicken, perhaps a chicken casserole or chicken and leek pie.

The Norman Hardie is a very sleek and refined Chardonnay indeed. As a splash-out treat, it’s right up there with another of my personal favourites, the Kooyong Clonale from Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia.

Wine stockist: I bought the Norman Hardie Unfiltered Chardonnay, 2011 from The Wine Society. Price: £20.