Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Questions and Answers - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant - first published in The New Yorker - May 20, 1966

August 11, 1922 born in Montréal, in 1950 she moves to France to pursue her dream of being a writer 

February 18, 2014, dies in Paris, a place she dearly loved

"Questions and Answers"  appears in The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant and In Transit in addition to first being published, as were so many of her stories, in The New Yorker.

As "Questions and Answers" opens the narrator offers an opinion:

"ROMANIANS NOTORIOUSLY ARE marked by delusions of eminence and persecution, and Madame Gisèle does not encourage them among her clientele. She never can tell when they are trying to acquire information, or present some grievance that were better taken to a doctor or the police. Like all expatriates in Paris, they are concerned with the reactions of total strangers. She is expected to find in the cards the functionary who sneered, the flunky who behaved like a jailer, the man who, for no reason, stared too long at the plates of the car. Madame Gisèle prefers her settled clients – the married women who sit down to say, “When is my husband going to die?” and “What about the man who smiles at me every morning on the bus?” She can find him easily: There he is – the jack of hearts. One of the queens is not far away, along with the seven of diamonds turned upside down. Forget about him. He is supporting his mother and has already deserted a wife."

From this I garner an impression of a group I never thought about before, Romanian expates in Paris. Gallant has marvelously shaped our views, maybe we think yes course all Romanians are part Gypsy/Roma so of course they believe in cards and are completely clannish.  

Amelia is there asking questions about her long time friend Marie, both came from Bucharest:

"Madame Gisèle, who is also Romanian but from one of the peripheral provinces, replies, “Who cares?” She and Amalia both speak their language badly. Amalia was educated in French, which was the fashion for Bucharest girls of her background thirty years ago, while the fortune-teller is at home in a Slavic-sounding dialect."

Marie is trying to get a visa to move to America, Amalia says Marie came to Paris when there were plenty of jobs, probably 1936 or so.  Where Marie and her husband arrived much latter and have never even gotten a French passport.  Of course this may well just be an excuse or jealousy.  Like any skilled reader of cards, Madame Giséle tells her clients things that will keep them coming back.

In a way Gallant has turned us into readers of cards, seeing into the past and futures of the characters in the story based on bits of information.

We learn about the lives of the women while in Bucharest.  Now in Paris it is almost as if they never left Romania.  For a reason left unexplained many of Madame Giséle's clients ask whether or not other Romanians are insane.  They speak terribly about each other but cling.

"Amalia, remembering that she is paying for time, now takes the tack that Madame Gisèle is concealing what she knows. “It is up to you to convince me,” she says. “Will Marie go to America?” “Everyone travels,” says Madame Gisèle. Well, that is true. The American consulate is full of ordinary tourists who can pay their passage and will see, they hope, Indian ceremonial dances."

In just ten minutes Gallant has taken us into life in two great European cities, if you ponder the immigration paths you can reconstruct European history in the middle 20th century.

Please feel free to read along.  The project is projected to finish in September of this year. 

1 comment:

Buried In Print said...

I really enjoyed this story. First, for the small mystery of why the woman was so obsessed with asking for a reading about her "friend". Next, for the complications of teasing out the prejudices at work in this situation. And, also, for the backstories about the relationships, which only gradually fit together into a narrative.