August 11, 1922 born in Montréal, in 1950 she moves to France to pursue her dream of being a writer
February 18, dies in Paris, a place she dearly loved
Buried in Print, whose blog I have followed for years, is doing a read through of the 123 Short Stories of Mavis Gallant. I have on my E Reader about 90 of Gallant’s stories and i am endeavoring to read along as I can.
“In the Tunnel” centers on Sarah, a college student from Canada. Her father fears she has fallen under the spell of a married professor. He sends her to France, telling her he wants her to directly absorb the glories French culture, hoping to break the professor’s romantic hold on her.
This is the way a master opens a short story:
“SARAH’S FATHER WAS a born widower. As she had no memory of a mother, it was as though Mr. Holmes had none of a wife and had been created perpetually bereaved and knowing best. His conviction that he must act for two gave him a jocular heaviness that made the girl react for a dozen, but his jokes rode a limitless tide of concern. He thought Sarah was subjective and passionate, as small children are. She knew she was detached and could prove it. A certain kind of conversation between them was bound to run down, wind up, run down again: You are, I’m not, yes, no, you should, I won’t, you’ll be sorry. Between eighteen and twenty, Sarah kept meaning to become a psychosociologist. Life would then be a tribal village through which she would stalk soft-footed and disguised: That would show him who was subjective. But she was also a natural amoureuse, as some girls were natural actresses, and she soon discovered that love refused all forms of fancy dress. In love she had to show her own face, and speak in a true voice, and she was visible from all directions. One summer, after a particularly stormy spring, her father sent her to Grenoble to learn about French civilization –actually, to get her away from a man he always pretended to think was called Professor Downcast.”
This is really a wonderful story. Buried in Print has done a wonderful job recounting the story line so I will just talk about a few of the several things that struck me.
Gallant very insightfully depicts the relationship of Sarah and her father. Sarah is at the stage in life, many a parent will see this, where she feels she is entitled as an adult to make all her own decisions while avoiding adult responsibilities and obligations. Sarah seems to define herself in terms of how far she can go from her father’s protection without losing his support. At one point she is hoping for a cable saying “come home”.
By herself, an older man, Roy, he was for a longtime a prison guard in French Indo-China, invited Sarah to be his guest at lunch. Reasoning since it is broad daylight there is no danger she agrees. We later learn Roy has a practiced routine for starting relationships with young women visiting France.
Sarah ends up staying at his place, an apartment in a building owned by a British couple at least in their sixties. Roy calls the place, “The Tunnel”. We get to know the couple and learn more about Roy. Of course Sarah feels out of place with these much older people. She learns Roy has brought back other young women. This is not exactly the French adventure she dreamed about, Roy is just a retired prison guard, not a highly cultured sophisticated Parisian who can open up new worlds to her.
The ending is very interesting. The characters are brilliantly developed. With three daughters 20,22, and 25 I wondered how I would react were I Sarah’s father. Of course I tell myself my wife will know what is best.
I just checked and it looks like The Collected Short Stories are no longer available as a Kindle edition but there are several smaller editions of her stories on Amazon as kindles.