Saturday, April 04, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Mavis Gallant

With "Saturday Story Hour," Fosco provides you with some of his favorite selections from the world of contemporary short fiction.

Fosco is going to stretch the meaning of the word "contemporary" today, in order to bring you an absolutely beautiful story from the Canadian expatriate Mavis Gallant. Mavis Gallant is one of those short story writers who is beloved by other short story writers, but who is much less well-known by the reading public at large. As a Canadian, she is also somewhat in the shadow of Alice Munro (as if Canada were allowed to have only one contemporary master of the short story...). She was born in Montreal in 1922 and has lived in Paris since the 1950s.

The story we're reading today is an absolute jewel. It's called "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street." It was originally published in The New Yorker in 1963 (hence the stretching of the term "contemporary"). If you are a New Yorker subscriber, you can access the story here. If you are not a New Yorker subscriber, do not fear: Fosco has procured the story as a .pdf file. You may download it here. It can be opened by any .pdf reader (including Acrobat).

The couple at the center of "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street" are Peter and Sheilah Frazier. They are living the good life, traveling the globe, depending on the generosity of their friends and families--all the while, dragging two dull children behind them. They are charming and they are hapless. Neither of them wants to grow up, to become responsible adults. They wear silk kimonos from Hong Kong at breakfast and consider their one great fortune to be Sheilah's Balenciaga gown. If you think these people sound horrible, well you're right; but they are also sympathetic and psychologically nuanced. As they move from absurd scheme to absurd scheme, you can't help rooting for them: after all, the alternative, as Peter thinks to himself, is to be one of the "white-hot Protestants," living "with a load of work and debt and obligation" (and who wants that?).

There are some amazingly delicate explorations of marriage and love in this story. Consider this bravura passage, as Peter and Sheilah arrive at a cocktail party in the Geneva snow:

She was born in an ugly city, and so was Peter, but they have this difference: She does not know the importance of the first snow--the first clean thing in a dirty year. He would have told her then that this storm, which was wetting her feet and destroying her hair, was like the first day of the English spring, but she made a frightened gesture, trying to shield her head. The gesture told him he did not understand her beauty.

"Let me," she said. He was fumbling with the key, trying to lock the car. She took the key without impatience and locked the door on the driver's side; and then, to show Peter she treasured him and was not afraid of wasting her life or her beauty, she took his arm and they walked in the snow down a street and around the corner to the apartment house were the Burleighs lived. They were, and are, a united couple. They were afraid of the party, and each of them knew it. When they walk together, holding arms, they give each other whatever each can spare.
I think that last sentence is absolutely exquisite.

What provides the dramatic conflict in this story is a mole-like young Canadian woman named Agnes, who becomes Peter's boss. Agnes comes from a hard-working poor family and finds herself increasingly repulsed by the Fraziers and the expatriate community in Geneva. Agnes is a fascinating study in the Protestant work ethic and Gallant is surprisingly sympathetic to a character that could have been nothing more than comic relief. Agnes's speech of accusation to Peter, after a particularly iniquitous party, is remarkably insightful and sad:
She said, "I'm from a big family. I'm not used to being alone. I'm not a suicidal person, but I could have done something after that party, just not to see anymore, or think or listen or expect anything. What can I think when I see these people? All my life I heard, Educated people don't do this, educated people don't do that. And now I'm here, and you're all educated people, and you're nothing but pigs. You're educated and you drink and do everything wrong and you know what you're doing, and that makes you worse than pigs. My family worked to make me an educated person, but they didn't know you. But what if I didn't see and hear and expect anything anymore? It wouldn't change anything. You'd all be still the same. Only you might have thought it was your fault. You might have thought you were to blame. It could worry you all your life. It would have been wrong for me to worry you."
This lament is impressively complex: it's pathetic, yes, but also quite funny--as much as she hates Peter and the other pigs, she still can't bring herself to "worry" him by killing himself. The mix of resentment and consideration is extraordinary. As someone who has had a somewhat similar upbringing to that of Agnes, Fosco can assure you that there is psychological verisimilitude here (note to Agnes: just give in and become one of the pigs--trust me, it's the only way out...)

And so, I hope you enjoy this story as much as I do. There is just something about it that seems strangely appropriate to our times. I hope you agree.

You can purchase Mavis Gallant by following these links:

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Jill said...

I tried, but the link only took me back to your post.

Jill said...

After reading, I'm left feeling quite melancholy.