Buried in Print's Mavis Gallant Reading Schedule
Mavis Gallant on The Reading Life
"In her preface to the present collection, Gallant advises her readers: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Such advice may be superfluous. When you finish each of Gallant’s stories, it’s instinctive to stop and regroup. As much as you might wish to resume and prolong the pleasure of reading, you feel that your brain and heart cannot, at least for the moment, process or absorb one word, one detail more." Francine Prose in her introduction to The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant
I have been reading short stories by Mavis Gallant (born Montreal 1922, died Paris, 2014) since 2013. I was delighted when a blogger I have happily followed for years, Buried in Print, announced they would be reading and posting on her many short stories (116 published in The New Yorker alone) on a weekly basis. I have on my E Reader The Collected Short Short Stories of Mavis Gallant (contains per Gallant about half of her stories) so I decided to try to read along with Buried in Print's weekly schedule as much as I might.
Gallant may have been born in Montreal but Paris was her spiritual home. In "The Other Paris", the first scheduled story, Gallant focuses on an American woman working in a government office, post World War II. She came to Paris expecting to find the city of Proust, Flaubert, expecting the women to be elegant and and the men handsome. Instead of living a life straight out of movies like Singing in the Rain or Gigi she was trapped in fifty shades of shabbiness. These elegant lines sum Carol's disappointment
"It was a busy life, yet Carol could not help feeling that something had been missed. The weather continued unimproved. She shared an apartment in Passy with two American girls, a temporary ménage that might have existed anywhere. When she rode the Métro, people pushed and were just as rude as in New York. Restaurant food was dull, and the cafés were full of Coca-Cola signs. No wonder she was not in love, she would think. Where was the Paris she had read about? Where were the elegant and expensive-looking women? Where, above all, were the men, those men with their gay good looks and snatches of merry song, the delight of English lady novelists? Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped."
Carol has met an American man at work, Howard, he is looking for a wife and Carol meets his conditions. When he proposed she accepted, fearing no other suitable man might ask. She did not love him but novels had taught her that could come in time. She wanted to be in love and for sure wanted to return home married. She works with an unmarried French woman, thirty, who has a relationship with a twenty two year old man, a displaced person without the paperwork required to work whose family were all killed during the war. He seems vaguely criminal and sinister. You can feel the unexpressed fear of Carol that this is the fate of aging unmarried women in Paris.
I don't want to tell much of the story line of "The Other Paris", after you have read the story, hopefully at least twice, I urge you to read the post by Buried in Print.
Gallant lets us see into the future of Carol and others in the story. We feel the impact of disappointment in their hopes for love on the women, we see how they are motivated to settle out of fear. The closing scene with the friend (that is what she calls him) of the French woman and Carol is devastating in bleakness, so far from the Paris of movie goers dreams, no madeleines, no visits to the opera, only a very unsentimental education, no cruises down the Seine on his house boat with a count far more lovely than Colette could imagine, no fashions shows at Chanel's, even Nana has seemingly a more interesting life.