A talk given on the occasion of the unveiling of a plaque by the Writers’ Chapel Trust at St. James the Apostle Anglican Church in Montreal on October 9, 2015, to celebrate and honour the work of Mavis Gallant.
In the academic year 1983–84, Mavis Gallant was writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and was awarded during her tenure the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, an alternating award designed to deepen the two countries’ knowledge of each other’s literature. The Australian High Commission in Ottawa arranged a luncheon in her honour in a private room in the National Arts Centre. Mavis had apparently requested my presence.
We had been in touch by correspondence prior to this. In 1978 she’d had kind words for my novella Girl in Gingham, and in 1982 she’d written an essay to accompany two of her stories I’d anthologized in Making it New, an essay called “What is Style?” which she later plundered to use in the introduction to her Selected Stories.
I strolled up to the NAC and found the room. I was alone except for a man fighting starched napery on a makeshift bar. Then Mavis sailed in ahead of her escort, a visibly cowed suit from External Affairs. Mavis inspected the table and went around reading all the name-cards.
Picking up a card that was beside her own, she said, “I have no intention of sitting next to that odious little man!” She switched the name card of this eminent Canada Council functionary for mine, seating me beside her and him, with further juggling, at the greatest possible remove.
“He accepts a salary from the Canadian government,” she said, “and comes to Paris making speeches espousing separatism.”
Lunch proceeded with a litany of complaints from Mavis about the interminable line-ups at the Ontario Health Insurance office, the architectural brutality of the Robart’s Library, the sullen ugliness of this windowless – eyeless, she said, in Gaza – National Arts Centre, the tardiness of professor Sam Solecki in providing her with a typewriter, the appalling manners of that very bearded man, you know – flapping a hand – in Alberta…
She spread about her a certain tension and constraint.
I thought of the various occasions on which my wife Myrna and I had walked past her apartment building in Paris, No. 14 rue Jean-Farrandi; in the sixth arondissement, not even daring to think about intruding to pay our respects.
After dessert, waiters refilled the glasses and the high commissioner rose and made a deft and graceful little speech ending with the words:
“And now let us drink a toast to Mavis Gallant and to the day she sets foot on our shores.”
In a very loud voice, a Lady Bracknell, “a HANDBAG!” voice, Mavis said, “GO to Australia! I have no intention of GOING to Australia! Why would anyone think…I’m in the middle of a book. Who in their right MIND…”
We can only imagine the misery of Mavis Gallant’s childhood.
In “What is Style?” she obliquely refers to “the grief and terror that after childhood we cease to express.” Her British father died young, yet the child Mavis was taught to believe until she was thirteen that he had returned to England. Heartbreakingly, when you think about it, she wrote about those years, “I kept waiting for him to send for me.”
Mavis’s mother is best described by that splendid American phrase, “a piece of work”; she was spectacularly unstable, being arrested for cross-dressing and other violations of the then-prevailing codes of sexual conduct, public this and that, bigamy, that sort of thing. Mavis was essentially abandoned, abandoned to boarding school and the tender mercies of rigidly uneducated nuns. After the age of ten she was in the care of guardians. She ended up in New York at the Julia Richman High School for Girls at East 67th and Second Avenue.
Terry Rigelhof, who has been sharing his biographical research with the co-editors of Mavis’ Journals, which is being prepared in New York, wrote to me the other day, “Did you know that she was right at ground zero at the birth of the Bund in New York in 1936?” He went on to say, “I have it on the authority of one of the editors at the New Yorker that many of the leading Bundists not only sent their daughters to Julia Richman but congregated in the neighbourhood. Mavis’s adolescent essay “Why I am a Socialist” seems to have been written in response to the political ferment at the school, though it’s hard to tell because within a year or eighteen months of her enrollment, she was expelled for truancy. She thought the New York Public Library offered a better education.”
(The General Jewish Labour Bund was a secular socialist movement founded in 1897 in the Russian Empire. It split during the Revolution into communist and socialist factions, was revisited as a secular democratic socialist movement mainly in Poland, was decimated there by the Nazis, and reborn in the US, spreading from there to many other countries, including Canada.)
Mavis’s prying mother found “Why I am a Socialist” and responded, “You had better be clever because you will never be pretty.”
(I take this detail from “The Linnett Muir Stories” in Home Truths,from a piece called “In Youth is Pleasure.” I treat this detail as factual rather than fictional because the Linnet Muir “stories” are manifestly not stories at all but lightly veiled memoir or autobiography. One only has to look at the shapes. When one considers the date of the book (1981) it is perhaps not fanciful to see the “Linnett” stories in the tradition of the New Journalism – that fruitful blurring of fact and fiction. Joan Didion’s books, for example, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), Truman Capote’ In Cold Blood (1965), Norman Mailer’s various excursions in the field.)
Mavis arrived back in Montreal at the age of eighteen. She was living entirely independently. She spread the impression that she was older. Her “library” consisted of “a few beige pamphlets from the Little Lenin Library purchased second hand in New York. I had a picture of Mayakovsky torn out of Cloud in Trousers and one of Paddy Finucane, the Irish RAF fighter pilot, who was killed the following summer.”
[Mayakovsky was a communist, later Soviet, poet, artist, Futurist. Cloud in Trousers was his most famous book of poetry.]
The little detail of the photograph of Mayakovsky brings to my hopelessly meandering mind an autobiographical fragment by Beryl Bainbridge about venturing to London’s lure.
“I left the North of England when I was sixteen and ran away to London, taking with me in a brown carrier bag from Lewis’s my best skirt and jumper, a box of paints, my ration books and a framed photograph of Rasputin.”
How precious and adorable, these young rebels!
Unless, of course, they happen to be your daughter.
She got herself an office job where she soon became known as “Bolshie,” a cartoon character of the period who went around “carrying one of those black bombs with a sputtering fuse,” also common British slang in that British immigrant-staffed office for one who was awkward by nature, constitutionally in opposition, deriving, of course, from Bolshevik.
When she was twenty-one she was taken on at the Montreal Standard by its art director, the painter Philip Surrey, himself a Trotskyite. She moved on to become a staff writer on the Standard, writing gritty contrarian articles on such topics as the failure in integrating immigrants and their exploitation in what amounted to “truck” systems. The more radical of Mavis’s friends were painters and some of the actors at the Montreal Repertory Theatre.
The RCMP routinely harassed Party members under Section 98 of the Criminal Code. This section was declared illegal by Parliament in 1937, but in that same year, Quebec, under the Union Nationale, passed the anti-communist Padlock Act. This act was not declared ultra vires (that is, beyond Quebec’s legal power as being under federal rather than provincial jurisdiction) until 1957.
Terry Rigelhof’s research shows that Philip Surrey was visited by the RCMP in 1949 or 1950, their intention to investigate Mavis’s political affiliations and activities. It must be remembered that 1950 was the opening year of disgustingly hysterical McCarthyism in the US and remembered also that the activities of the RCMP and the FBI were not unconnected. The RCMP were additionally Standing on Guard following the revelations of Igor Gouzenko in 1945. Surrey fended the RCMP off but the situation was considered grave. John McConnell, proprietor of the Standard and patron of the arts (he was instrumental in the career of Maureen Forrester) gave Mavis a year’s salary and an open return ticket to Montreal, much, according to Terry Rigelhof, to the vast relief of McConnell’s wife, and Mavis left for Europe.
I have gone at such great length into Mavis’s childhood and political convictions because both inform all her mature work, work that was grudgingly received in Canada, standard dreary nationalism suggesting that stories set in Europe rather than in Canada were of no concern to us. Her first five books were not even published in Canada and her reputation among the literati was not really rehabilitated until Geoff Hancock brought out a Mavis Gallant Special Issue of Canadian Fiction Magazine in 1978 and I’m happy to tip a grateful hat to him this evening.
The second book of the unpublished five was Green Water Green Sky, a still-unappreciated novel. It appeared from Houghton Mifflin in 1959. Below is the opening paragraph, sounding in images all the notes of the book’s burden:
“the morning muck”
“the soft, dull slapping”
“the outrage” of his cousin’s hair across his face.
How wonderfully un-Canadian such writing is; in 1959 in Canada, Mavis Gallant was writing in a league of her own, a league of one.
They went off for the day and left him, in the slyest, sneakiest way you could imagine. Nothing of the betrayal to come showed on their faces that morning as they sat having breakfast with him, a few inches away from the Grand Canal. If he had been given something the right length, a broom, say, he could have stirred the hardly-moving layer of morning muck – the orange halves, the pulpy melons, the rotting bits of lettuce, black under water, green above. Water lapped against the gondolas moored below the terrace. He remembered the sound, the soft, dull, slapping, all his life. He heard them say at the table they would never come here in August again.
They urged him to eat, and drew his attention to the gondoliers. He refused everything they offered. It was all as usual, except that a few minutes after he was in an open boat, churning across to the Lido with Aunt Bonnie and Florence. Flor and Aunt Bonnie pushed along to the prow and sat down side by side on a bench, and Aunt Bonnie pulled George towards her, so he was half on her lap. You couldn’t sit properly: her lap held a beach-bag full of towels. The wind picked up Flor’s long pony-tail of hair and sent it across George’s face. His cousin’s hair smelled coppery and warm like it’s colour. He wouldn’t have called it unpleasant. All the same, it was an outrage, and he started to whine: ‘Where are they?
The last of those five books not published in Canada was The Pegnitz Junction, which was published first in New York in 1973 by Random House and in 1974 in the UK by Andre Deutsch. I can’t resist here a bibliographic meander. The first edition of Pegnitz is now quite scarce. I remember being one afternoon in Bill Hoffer’s Vancouver warehouse and gazing at case after case of pristine copies of the book; Bill, in piratical mode, had bought from Random House the entire remaindering. On the other hand, he had almost nothing of Alice Munro’s early work. “I didn’t buy it when they were coming out,” he said. “I just didn’t rate her.”
The Pegnitz Junction is, I think, Mavis’s best book. That, or From the Fifteenth District. It is certainly the most radical book in technical terms. It clouds our ability to read it if we think of it in Canadian terms, if we are comparing it to such contemporaneous titles as Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974), Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), Hugh MacLennan’s Return of the Sphinx (1967), W.O. Mitchell’s The Vanishing Point (1978), Carol Shield’s Small Ceremonies (1976).
Mavis Gallant lived in Paris and read routinely in English, French, and German. Her influences and genius were not provincial. If we are to enter through her rhetoric and techniques into the emotional worlds of her stories we should more fruitfully be considering her in the light of such writers as Samuel Beckett and, say, Harold Pinter. Waiting for Godot was first performed in Paris in 1953, twenty years before the appearance of The Pegnitz Junction, and Beckett had been writing in French and English for twenty years before that. Pinter’s extraordinary plays, The Birthday Party, in 1958, ranging through The Caretaker (1960) to Old Times (1971) and No Man’s Land (1975).
When I was rereading The Pegnitz Junction, a novella on one level recounting a train journey, the comparison that came immediately to mind was the journey by car in V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, a journey into ratcheting fear. Neither book is essentially concerned with a literal journey.
The central facts, intellectual and emotional, in Mavis’s Europe, are Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler, the faces of fascism, and the stories in The Pegnitz Junction probe what it is in us, the man in the street, as it were, that makes us culpable in the horrors of the twentieth century.
Her subject matter is “loss and bewilderment” – people displaced, uprooted, bereaved, impoverished, living in countries foreign to them, the century’s walking wounded. Mavis’s own history of “loss and bewilderment”:
“I kept waiting for him to send for me”
fuses with the greater losses. The helpless children in her work (never sentimentally observed) are the victims of injustice, autocratic authority, and power – who wields it and how, a question often buzzing in the events of the stories. These innocents set up reverberations into ideas of social structure, politics, the leaders and the led.
In the story “An Autobiography” from Pegnitz Junction, the narrator says “… what I have wanted to say from the beginning is, do not confide your children to strangers. Watch the way the stranger holds a child by the wrist instead of by the hand, even when a hand has been offered.”
Another meander is forced upon me. A friend, Nancy Baele, sometime visual arts critic for the Ottawa Citizen and friend of Mavis Gallant whom she visited annually and corresponded with, told me recently that Mavis had said that her two favourite writers of the twentieth century were Elizabeth Bowen and Penelope Fitzgerald. Further, that of Elizabeth Bowen’s work, her favourite book was The House in Paris (1935). Of this book Mavis said, “The conversation of the two children in front of the fireplace is one of the most shining things I’ve ever read.”
The portrait of the child Véronique in “An Autobiography,” an unaccompanied child of four dispatched by her parents by aeroplane, consigned towards the care of strangers, is fierce with anger and compassion. It is a moving portrait, both of child and narrator, and sounds plangent notes which shimmer inside the story both backwards and forwards. The more deeply we respond to the veracity and vitality of the portrait of Véronique, the more profoundly do we understand and sympathize with the narrator because the brilliant structure of the story, a juxtaposition of two seemingly separate blocks, employs Véronique to illuminate the narrator’s life.
“An Autobiography” brings clamorously to mind Clark Blaise’s remark: “…what, pray tell, is the difference between a Mavis Gallant story when she’s working at her richest and fullest and most polyphonic and someone else’s novel? It’s just that the novel becomes smaller and thinner than her story:
I fastened her seatbelt, and she looked up at me to see what was going to happen next. She had been dressed for the trip in a blue-and-white cotton frock, white socks, and black shoes with a buttoned strap. Her hair was parted in the middle and contained countless shades of light brown, like a handful of autumn grass. There was a slight cast in one eye, but the gaze was steady. The buckle of the seat belt slid down and rested on one knee. She held on to a large bucket bag – held it tightly by its red handle. In the back of the seat before her, along with a map of the region over which we were to fly, were her return ticket and her luggage tags, and a letter that turned out to be a letter of instructions. She was to be met by a Mme. Bataille, who would accompany her to a colonie de vacances at Gsteig. I read the letter toward the end of the trip, when I realized the air hostess had forgotten all about Véronique. I am against prying into children’s affairs – even “How do you like your school?” is more inquisitive than one has the right to be. However, the important facts about Mme. Bataille and Gsteig were the only ones Véronique was unable to supply. She talked about herself and her family, in fits and starts, as if unaware of the limits of time – less than an hour, after all – and totally indifferent to the fact that she was unlikely ever to see me again. The place she had come from was “Orly”, her destination was called “the mountains”, and the person meeting her would be either “Béatrice” or “Catherine” or both. That came later, the first information she sweetly and generously offered was that she had twice been given injections in her right arm. I told her my name, my profession, and the name of the village where I taught school. She said she was four but “not yet four and a half”. She had been visiting, in Versailles, her mother and baby brother, whose name she affected not to know – an admirable piece of dignified lying. After a sojourn in the mountains she would be met at Orly Airport by her father and taken to the sea. When would that be? “Tomorrow.” On the promise of tomorrow, either he or the mother of the nameless brother had got her aboard the plane. The Ile-de-France receded and spread. She sucked her mint sweet, and accepted mine, and was overjoyed when I said she might put it in her bag, as if a puzzle about the bag had now been solved. The stewardess snapped our trays into place and gave us identical meals of cold sausage, Russian salad in glue, savory pastry, canned pears, and tinned mineral water. Véronique gazed onto a plateau of food nearly at shoulder level, and picked up a knife and fork the size of gardening tools. “I can cut my meat”, she said, meaning to say she could not.
Wanting to show readers how Mavis Gallant embodies “loss and bewilderment,” impoverishment, diminishment, life in the wreckage of Europe, I can do no better than to point to the masterly opening paragraphs of “His Mother,” a story in From The Fifteenth District set in Budapest. Mavis Gallant does not illustrate such abstractions as “loss and bewilderment” but rather embodies them in detail, in the ratty realness of unbrushed hair and an old fur coat worn as a dressing gown. These paragraphs are seemingly effortless, unmarked by verbal fireworks, the voice meditative, elegiac, the whole intensely moving:
His mother had come of age in a war and then seemed to live a long grayness like a spun-out November. “Are you all right?” she used to ask him at breakfast. What she really meant was: Ask me how I am, but she was his mother and so he would not. He leaned two fists against his temples and read a book about photography, waiting for her to cut bread and put it on a plate for him. He seldom looked up, never truly saw her – a stately, careless widow with unbrushed red hair, wearing an old fur coat over her nightgown; her last dressing gown had been worn to ribbons and she said she had no money for another. It seemed that nothing could stop her from pestering him with questions. She muttered and smoked and drank such a lot of strong coffee that it made her bilious, and then she would moan, “God, God, my liver! My poor head!” In those days in Budapest you had to know the black market to find the sort of coffee she drank, and of course she would not have any but the finest smuggled Virginia cigarettes. “Quality,” she said to him – or to his profile, rather. “Remember after I have died that quality was important to me. I held out for the best.”
She had known what it was to take excellence for granted. That was the difference between them. Out of her youth she could not recall a door slammed or a voice raised except in laughter. People had floated like golden dust; whole streets of people buoyed up by optimism, a feeling for life.
He sat reading, waiting for her to serve him. He was a stone out of a stony generation. Talking to him was like lifting a stone out of water. He never resisted, but if you let go for even a second he sank and came to rest on a dark sea floor. More than one of her soft-tempered lovers had tried to make a friend of him, but they had always given up, as they did with everything. How could she give up? She loved him. She felt shamed because it had not been in her to control armies, history, his stony watery world. From the moment he appeared in the kitchen doorway, passive, vacant, starting to live again only because this was morning, she began all over: “Don’t you feel well?” “Are you all right?” “Why can’t you smile?” – though the loudest sentence was in silence: Ask me how I am.
After he left Budapest (got his first passport, flew to Glasgow with a soccer team, never came back) she became another sort of person, an émigré’s mother …
Over twenty years ago now I compiled with J.R. Struthers an anthology called Canadian Classics. It was lavishly published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson but proved, according to their salesmen, “too difficult” for undergraduate study and faded from sight. I can usefully quote from that unknown tome.
In the Canadian Fiction Magazine interview by Geoff Hancock, Mavis Gallant gives some background for her deep interest in politics. She talks of “being twenty-two, being the intensely left-wing political romantic I was, passionately anti-fascist,” and seeing the first pictures out of the concentration camps. She was bewildered that Germany could have allowed this to happen. And she thought: “If we wanted to find out how and why this happened it was the Germans we had to question. There was hardly a culture or a civilization I would have placed as high as Germany.”
Thinking back, she comments: “I have never lost interest in what happened, the why of it, I mean. Nothing I ever read satisfied me … I had the feeling that in everyday living I would find the origin of the worm – the worm that had destroyed the structure. The stories in The Pegnitz Junction are, to me, intensely political for that reason. It is not a book about Fascism, but a book about where Fascism comes from. That is why I like it better than anything else. Because I finally answered my own question. Not the historical causes of Fascism – just its small possibilities in people.”
Her interest in politics is not in party politics, in advancing a theory or a cause. She is concerned with the emotional lives of individuals and families within social and political structures. In the Debra Martens interview [in So to Speak: Interviews with Contemporary Canadian Writers. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1988]she says: “I would think that everything is political, in a certain sense, in people’s lives. They don’t always realize it; they’re either the victim of it or not aware of it … I don’t think I could consider people, even in a small domestic entanglement –even if I didn’t mention it or write about it – without saying what the structure was that they lived in, and what created it, and what at that particular moment was acting on it …”
But always her concern is the individual within the structure.
Bearing these ideas in mind and bearing in mind also that Mavis Gallant breathed an international air that had been charged by such as Beckett, Pinter, and Gunter Grass (these three names simply shorthand for the idea of internationalism) the following quotation from near the beginning of The Pegnitz Junction begins to blossom slowly into something much more complex than a bizarre altercation in a cheap hotel; with rereadings we come to see this scene as being, in musical terms, prelude.
The dramatis personae: Herbert, a thirty-one-year-old divorced man with a young son, little Bert, and Christine, Herbert’s girlfriend, who is just twenty-one. They are German, on holiday for a week in a Paris hotel which is slated for demolition.
Christine woke up alone at five. The others were awake too – she could hear little Bert’s high-pitched chattering – but the bathroom was still empty. She waited a polite minute or so then began to run her bath. Presently above the sound of rushing water, she became aware someone was pounding on the passage door and shouting. She called out “What?” but before she could make a move, or even think of one, the night porter of the hotel had burst in. He was an old man without a tooth in his head, habitually dressed in trousers too large for him and a pajama top. He opened his mouth and screamed, “Stop the noise! Take all your belongings out of here! I am locking the bathroom – every door!”
At first, of course, she thought that the man was drunk; then the knowledge came to her – she did not know how but never questioned it either – that he suffered from a form of epilepsy.
“It is too late,” he kept repeating. “Too late for noise. Take everything that belongs to you and clear out.”
He meant too early – Herbert, drawn by the banging and shouting, kept telling him so. Five o’clock was too early to be drawing a bath. The hotel was old and creaky anyway, and when you turned on the taps it sounded as though fifty plumbers were pounding on the pipes. That was all Herbert had to say. He really seemed extraordinarily calm, picking up toothbrushes and jars and tubes without standing his ground for a second. It was as if he were under arrest, or as though the porter’s old pajama top masked his badge of office, his secret credentials. The look on Herbert’s face was abstract and soft, as if he already lived this, or always had thought that he might.
The scented tub no one would ever use steamed gently; the porter pulled the stopper, finally, to make sure. She said, “You are going to be in trouble over this.”
“Never mind,” said Herbert. He did not want any unpleasantness in France.
She held her white towelling robe closed at the throat and with the other hand swept back her long hair. Without asking her opinion, Herbert put everything back in her dressing case and snapped it shut. She said to the porter in a low voice, “You filthy little swine of a dog of a bully.”
Herbert’s child looked up at their dazed, wild faces. It was happening in French; he would never know what had been said that morning. He hugged a large bath sponge to his chest.
“The sponge isn’t ours,” said Herbert, as though it mattered.
“Yes, it’s mine.”
“I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s name is Bruno,” said Little Bert.
We should slowly pick up that there are undercurrents in the story. In the passage I have referred to as “prelude”, the drunk or epileptic porter denouncing them for running a bath “too late” and Herbert’s rational response that the porter means “too early,” and Herbert’s acceptance of the outrageous situation, his refusal to “stand his ground for a second” – something strange is happening here and we should be alerted.
“It was as if he were under arrest, or as though the porter’s old pajama top masked his badge of office, his secret credentials. The look on Herbert’s face was abstract and soft, as if he had already lived this, or always thought that he might.”
The porter’s last words are: “Dirty Boches, you spoiled my holiday in Bulgaria. Everywhere I looked I saw Germans. The year before in Majorca. The same thing. Germans, Germans.”
At the railway station there is a bronze plaque on the wall.
“The plaque commemorated a time of ancient misery, so ancient that two of the three travellers had not been born then, and Herbert, the eldest, had been about the age of little Bert.”
We must assume from context that this railway plaque commemorates the deportation of French Jews to the camps.
As they settle into their carriage Christine refuses Herbert’s offer of newspapers and starts reading her paperback of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s essays.
[Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian and pastor. In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, he wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
He was arrested in 1943 for his resistance to anti-semitism and sent to Buchenwald. He was hanged at Flossenbürg in 1945.]
Herbert talks to little Bert about having lunch early on the French train because the German train at Strasbourg would not have a restaurant car. His actual words were “Because there will be no facilities on the second transport.”
With that dreadful word, Mavis Gallant is signalling to us not only that Herbert is stultifyingly pompous, but that the journey we are about to share has correspondences with, ineradicable connections to, that “time of ancient misery,” the locked cattle-car transports of the nuit et brouillard.
She is first going to immerse us in Herbert, Christine, and little Bert and then, through them, in the experience of Germany past in Germany present; she will show us pictures and let us listen to voices as she quests for understanding of that “time of ancient misery.” These details of the seeming surface, as they accumulate, take on the story’s emotional burden.
And a last quotation from the story “Old Friends.”
A commissioner of police joins a popular young actress for lunch. He has known her since she was a struggling unknown. Back then, he had once tried to pick her up on a train at night thinking her to be a prostitute. Since those days he has had her past investigated and now considers her to have been unjustly arrested and sent to transit camps as a child; she was, after all, only partly Jewish, and she should not have been “forced to mingle with Poles and Slovaks, and so on.” She has now become, for him, in a reversal of roles, a reversal of power, a kind of necessary pet, his last connection to youth and vitality.
She is laughing, so she must be pleased. She is giving the commissioner her attention. On crumbs like these, her laughter, her attention, he thinks he can live forever. Even when she was no one, when she was a little actress who would travel miles by train, sitting up all night, for some minor, poorly paid job, he could live on what she gave him. She can be so amusing when she wants to be. She is from – he thinks – Silesia, but she can speak in any dialect, from any region. She recites for him now, for him alone, as if he mattered, Schiller’s “The Glove” – first in Bavarian, then in Low Berlin, then like an East German at a radio audition, then in a Hessian accent like his own. He hears himself in her voice … he is laughing so hard he has a pain; he weeps with it. He has to cross his arms over his chest to contain the pain of his laughter. And all the while he knows she is entertaining him – as if he were paying her! He wipes his eyes, picks up his fork, and just as he is trying to describe the quality of the laughter (“like pleurisy, like a heart attack, like indigestion”), she says, “I can do a Yiddish accent from Silesia. I try to imagine my grandmother’s voice. I must have heard it before she was killed.”
And in that last, seemingly casual sentence, “before she was killed,” the axe falls.
Martha Gellhorn, journalist and short-story writer, is quoted in Caroline Moorhead’s biography:
“It was in Dachau, she said, that she really understood for the first time the true evil of man. ‘A darkness entered my spirit’ and ‘there in that place in the sunny early days of May 1945’ she stopped being young. Later she said, ‘It is as if I walked into Dachau and there fell over a cliff and suffered a lifelong concussion, without recognizing it.’”
In that seemingly casual remark of the young actress, Mavis Gallant swings the axe. “Each work of literature,” said Kafka, “must be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.”
For one so “passionately anti-fascist,” as Gallant describes herself, “Ernst in Civilian Clothes,” the jewel in the crown of The Pegnitz Junction, is a wonder of imaginative compassion. It fuses Gallant’s attempts to understand the roots of fascism with her emotional need to explore the trauma of wounded childhood and to employ those wounds as a bedrock truth in the later, wider world. “Ernst in Civilian Clothes” essentially revolves around two scenes, two words: the French word maman and the German child-word meaning “mummy:” mutti.
The story concerns Ernst and Willi, two men now in their thirties who, as boys, were captured in Germany by the Americans and shipped as prisoners to France. Ernst had been in the Werewolves, Himmler’s ineffectual attempt to create a partisan force operating behind Allied lines. In the French prison camp, Ernst, seeing that the food is plentiful in the section for French Foreign Legion recruits, decides to sign up. As the story starts, he has just been demobilized from the Legion, his time served. Mention is made of his having fought in Indo-China in the siege of Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated by the Viet-Minh led by General Giap (1946-54). He would also inevitably have served in the Algerian War against the Front de la Libération Nationale.
(I cannot resist urging on the interested reader a book that marked me deeply – A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–62, by Alistair Home.)
Before his capture, Ernst buried his identification papers and his arms outside a village somewhere of which he remembers only that, “It begins with L.” On the run, “he vomited bark and grass and the yellow froth of fear.”
Before being taken, “He walked all one night to the town where his mother and stepfather were. The door was locked, because the forced-labour camps were open now and ghosts in rags were abroad and people were frightened of them. His mother opened the door a crack when she recognized the Werewolf’s voice (but not his face or his disguise) and she said, ‘You can’t stay here.’ There was a smell of burning. They were burning his stepfather’s S.S. uniform in the cellar. Ernst’s mother kissed him but he had already turned away. The missed embrace was a salute to the frightening night, and she shut the door on her son and went back to her husband.”
In the “locked freight car” to France –
a wry allusion to the deportation of the Jews from France – Ernst glimpses the rubble of Mainz and subsequently attests to its being his birthplace. His birthdate, too, shifts lower when he learns in the camp that those under eighteen are given double rations. So his release papers from the Legion stated his date of birth and his place of birth incorrectly but they are official papers validated by officialdom: “his identification is given substance by a round purple stamp on which one can read Préfecture de Police.”
Again: “He pledged his loyalty to official papers years ago – to officers, to the Legion, to stamped and formally attested facts.”
Life to Ernst seems shifting, dreamlike, phantasmagorical.
Willi, meanwhile, continues to believe that the Americans sold their prisoners at fifteen hundred francs a head. To whom is not clear. I take this as being some sort of confusion in Willi’s head, perhaps deriving from Eichmann’s cash-dickerings for Hungarian Jews in 1944. (See Kastner’s Train, by Anna Porter.)
Ernst, the eternally defeated, could know the difference between victory and failure, if he would apply his mind to it; but he has met young girls in Paris who think Dien Bien Phu was a French victory and he has let them go on thinking it, because it is of no importance. Ernst was in Indo-China and knows it was a defeat. There is no fear in the memory. Sometimes another, younger Ernest is in a place where he must save someone who calls “Mutti!” He advances; he wades in a flooded cellar. There is more fear in dreams than in life. What about the dream where someone known – sometimes a man, sometimes a woman – wears a mask and wig? The horror of the wig! He wakes dry-throated. Willi has always been ready to die. If the judge he is waiting for says “This is true, and you were not innocent,” he says he will be ready to die. He could die tomorrow. But Ernst, who has been in uniform since he was seven, and defeated in every war, has never been prepared.
History, real or mythological, has little meaning for Ernst. As he trudges through the Jardin des Tuilleries he sees the black sculptures of Mercury, of the Rape of Deidamia, the roman emperors, as mere shapes amidst the ranks of the winter trees black against the bleak sky.
(The text prints Deidamia for Deianeira. She was the wife of Hercules who was “raped” (i.e. “carried off”) by the centaur Nessus.)
Willi, meanwhile, has remained in France eking out an existence as a guide and interpreter for German tourists, a translator, and actor playing bit roles as S.S. officers in films about the war.
Ernst, waiting in Willi’s apartment on the rue de Lille to leave the next day for Stuttgart and a promised labouring job, is wearing civilian clothes “as normal dress for the first time since he was seven years old.”
“His Austrian mother was desperately poor even after she married his stepfather, and when Ernst put on his Hitler Youth uniform at seven it meant, mostly, a great savings in clothes. He has been in uniform ever since. His uniforms have not been lucky. He has always been part of a defeated army. He has fought for Germany and for France and, according to what he has been told each time, for civilization.”
Willi keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about World War II.
“Willi is waiting for . . . the rational person who will come out of the past and say with authority, ‘This was true’ and ‘This was not.’ The photographs, the films, the documents, the witnesses, and the survivors could have been invented or dreamed. Willi searches the plain blue sky of his childhood and looks for a stain of the evil he has been told was there. He cannot see it. The sky is without spot.
‘What was wrong with the Hitler Youth?’ says Willi. What was wrong with being told about Goethe Rilke Wagner Schiller Beethoven.”
(Wearing my writer hat, I’m fascinated by how Mavis Gallant uses non-punctuation to dig more deeply into Willi.)
On this day of waiting for Willi’s return from escorting German tourists to Napoleon’s Tomb and a strip joint in Pigalle, Ernst overhears the uproar in a neighbouring apartment.
Early in the morning, the mother’s voice is fresh and quick. The father leaves for work at six o’clock. She takes the child to school at a quarter to eight. The child calls her often: “Maman, come here.” “Maman, look.” She rushes about, clattering with brooms. At nine she goes to market, and she returns at ten, calling up to her crony that she has found nothing, nothing fit to eat, but the basket is full of something; she is bent sideways with the weight of it. By noon, after she has gone out once more to fetch the child for lunch, her voice begins to rise. Either the boy refuses what she has cooked for him or does not eat quickly enough, but his meal is dogged with the repeated question “Are you going to obey?” He is dragged back to school weeping. Both are worn out with this, and their late-afternoon walk is exhausted and calm. In the evening the voice climbs still higher. “You will see, when your father comes home!” It is a bird shrieking. Whatever the child has done or said is so monstrously disobedient that she cannot wait for the father to arrive. She has to chase the child and catch him before she can beat him. There is the noise of running, a chair knocked down, something like marbles, perhaps the chestnuts, rolling on the floor. “You will obey me!” It is a promise of the future now. The caught child screams. If the house were burning, if there were lions on the stairs, he could not scream more. All round the court the neighbours stay well away from their windows. It is no one’s concern. When his mother beats him, the child calls for help, and calls “Maman” His true mother will surely arrive and take him away from his mother transformed. Who else can he appeal to? It makes sense. Ernst has heard grown men call for their mothers. He knows about submission and punishment and justice and power. He knows what the child does not know – that the screaming will stop, that everything ends. He did not learn a trade in the Foreign Legion, but he did learn to obey.
In Willi’s scrapbook he [Ernst] turns over unpasted clippings about the terrorist trials in Paris in 1962. Two ex-Legionnaires, deserters, were tried – he will read to the end, if he can keep awake. Two ex-Legionnaires were shot by a firing squad because they had shot someone else. It is a confusing story, because some of the clippings say “bandits” and some say “patriots.” He does not quite understand what went on, and the two terrorists could not have understood much, either, because when the death sentence was spoken they took off their French decorations and flung them into the courtroom and cried, “Long Live France!” and “Long Live French Algeria!” They were not French, but they had been in the Legion, and probably did not know there were other things to say. That was 1962 – light years ago in political time.
Ernst is going home. He has decided, about a field of daffodils, My Country. He will not be shot with “Long Live” anything on his lips. No. He will not put on a new uniform, or continue to claim his pension, or live with a prostitute, or become a night watchman in Paris. What will he do?
When Ernst does not know what to do, he goes to sleep. He sits on the floor near the gas heater with his knees drawn up and his head on his arms. He can sleep in any position, and he goes deeply asleep within seconds. The room is as sealed as a box and his duffelbag an invisible threat in a corner. He wades in the water of a flooded cellar. His pocket light is soaked; the damp batteries fail. There is another victim in the cellar, calling “Mutti,” and it is his duty to find him and rescue him and drag him up to the light of day. He wades forward in the dark, and knows, in sleep, where it is no help to him, that the voice is his own.
Ernst on this feet, stiff with the cold of a forgotten dream, makes a new decision. Everyone is lying: he will invent his own truth. Is it important if one-tenth of a lie is true? Is there a horror in a memory if it was only a dream? In Willi’s shaving mirror now he wears the face that no superior officer, no prisoner, and no infatuated girl has ever seen. He will believe only what he knows. It is a great decision in an important day. Life begins with facts: he is Ernst Zimmerman, ex-Legionnaire. He has a ticket to Stuttgart. On the twenty-eighth of January, in the coldest winter since 1880, on the rue de Lille, in Paris, the child beaten by his mother cries for help and calls “Maman, Maman.”
What historical, psychological, sociological insights does the story offer?
Mavis Gallant does not descend into pallid intellectualism; she does not traffic in such ersatz wares.
In the Canadian Fiction Magazine Geoff Hancock interview with Mavis Gallant (CFM No. 28) she says:
Try to put yourself in the place of an adolescent who had sworn personal allegiance to Hitler. The German drama, the drama of that generation, was of inner displacement. You can’t tear up your personality and begin again, any more than you can tear up the history of your country. The lucky people are the thoughtless ones. They just slip through …
She wishes us to experience something of Ernst’s life. She offers us not an analysis of “a mercenary’s” feelings but an entry into Ernst’s feelings, one man on January 28 in an apartment in Paris on rue de Lille, a man shabbily discharged from the Foreign Legion, a real, singular man, in an exactly caught Paris where the early morning café windows are “fogged with the steam of rinsed floors,” where “the Metro quais will smell of disinfectant and cigarette butts,” and where the smell of chestnuts burning in the vendors’ braziers is “more pungent than their taste.”
And finally, Mavis Gallant gave me, among so many gifts, a simple question to emblazon on my banner as I hoist my old carcass up on to Rosinante and urge her forwards yet again towards the windmills, a question that so cleanly cuts through all the clutter and baroque obfuscations of recent criticism.
She wrote: “Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death. The only question worth asking about a story – or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall – is, ‘Is it dead or alive?’”
From CNQ 94 (Winter 2016)