Postwar Paris is a mythical place, dear to the hearts of a whole generation of Americans. Art Buchwald’s recent memoir, I’ll Always Have Paris, blends the familiar ingredients once again: Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Deux Magots, The Paris Review, Alice B. Toklas, Harry’s New York Bar (located at 5 rue Daunou, pronounced by American visitors “Sank Roo Doe Noo”), A. J. Liebling and Janet Flanner, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Romain Gary. It was Hemingway’s moveable feast, extended well into the 1950s. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, brilliant young Americans could shake the dust of Brooklyn or the Midwest off their feet while taking in the pleasures of Paris. These pleasures were their due as members of the conquering army—as winners.
There was another postwar Paris, of course, one that has not been romanticized and that most people have been eager to forget: that of the losers. The losers were bereft of their homes, their families, their money, their nationalities, often their self-respect. They were German, East European, Russian, Jewish, even French. To them World War II had been anything but the “good war” celebrated by American veterans: it comprised a historical moment of great collective shame, and left behind armies of dispossessed, displaced people.
Few writers have written of this other Paris, this other Europe, with the clear and unromantic vision of Mavis Gallant, the seventy-four-year-old author whose short stories, many of them first printed in The New Yorker, have recently been brought together for the first time.1 In Gallant’s postwar Europe,
no person was ever to blame for his own poverty or solitude. You would never have dreamed of hinting it could be his own fault. You never knew what that person’s past might be, or what unspoken grudge he might be hiding. There was also a joint past that lay all around us in heaps or charred stone. The streets still smelled of terror and ashes, particularly after rain. Every stone still held down a ghost, or a frozen life, or a dreadful secret. A social amnesty had been declared.
The speaker is German, but she might almost as easily be French or Italian. The continent had become a moral minefield and everyone, whether innocent or guilty, was implicated.
Some of the survivors amount to little more than human wreckage. For instance young Thomas, in “The Latehomecomer,” has spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Rennes, then five more being shuttled around France, a victim of bureaucratic muddle, before his eventual repatriation to Germany. He is well aware that his very person represents a truth of which Europe, busy reconstructing herself, has no wish to be reminded. “My appearance, my survival, my bleeding gums and loose teeth, my chronic dysentery and anemia, … all said ‘war’ when everyone wanted peace, ‘captivity’ when the word was ‘freedom,’ and ‘dry bread’ when everyone was thinking ‘jam and butter.’” Reconstruction is not simply a matter of economics but a subtle psychological process, a recreation of national identity and a new, carefully adjusted version of the past. For Germans, the war is now “the conflict” and the Nazi era “the Adolf-time.” For the French, the process of self-justification becomes almost an academic exercise: in “Speck’s Idea,” for instance, Sandor Speck, an East European art dealer long resident in Paris, reflects, decades after war’s end, that “there was right and right… . Nowadays the Paris intelligentsia drew new lines across the past, separating coarse collaborators from fine-drawn intellectual Fascists”—though Speck could “not quite remember why pure Fascism had been better for civilization than the other kind.”
There was another postwar Paris, of course, one that has not been romanticized and that most people have been eager to forget: that of the losers.
“The Other Paris,” written in the 1950s, is thematically characteristic of Gallant. Carol, a naïve girl from a “nice” Midwestern family, comes to Paris in the late Forties to work as a secretary in an American government agency. While there she becomes engaged to Howard Mitchell, a thoroughly appropriate young man. She is not in love with him, but feels that in Paris, the most famously romantic spot in all the world, it is only a matter of time before love comes. Yet the city’s romance eludes her.
It was a busy life, yet Carol could not help feeling that something had been missed… . When she rode the Metro, people pushed and were just as rude as in New York. Restaurant food was dull, and the cafes were full of Coca-Cola signs… . 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’s only French friend is Howard’s secretary, Odile, an unappealing, impoverished woman ten years her senior. Carol finds herself becoming inexplicably agitated by Odile’s down-and-out young lover Felix, an Austrian orphaned by the war, who has come to Paris without papers. Carol deflects her unacknowledged attraction to Felix with gusts of annoyance against him. Why does he hang about doing nothing? Why doesn’t he get a job? “For Carol, the idea that one might not be permitted to work was preposterous. She harbored a rigid belief that anyone could work who sincerely wanted to.” Through Odile’s and Felix’s sad lives, Carol is finally accorded a vision of the “other,” real Paris, but it is a vision of such loneliness, almost despair, that she immediately rejects it. By the time she returns to the States as Howard’s wife she will have invented, and come to believe, her own conventionally romantic, Paris-in-spring-time version of their courtship.
If Mavis Gallant writes of displaced persons, perhaps it is because she herself is one. She was born Mavis de Trafford Young in Montreal in 1922. Her parents were English and Protestant, but flying in the face of Montreal custom they did not isolate themselves among their own kind: plenty of their friends were French. “This overlapping … of French and English,” Gallant writes in her autobiographical study “Linnet Muir,” included in this collection, “of Catholic and Protestant—my parents’ way of being, and so to me life itself—was as unlikely, as unnatural to the Montreal climate as a school of tropical fish… . My parents and their friends were, in their way, explorers.”
The Youngs were a flighty, sexy couple far more interested in their social lives than in the company of a small child. At the incredible age of four, Mavis was packed off as a boarder to a French convent school, the first of seventeen schools she was to attend. Her parents were self-involved and pleased with themselves, and Gallant writes that, to her own young self, their lives had “seemed so enchanted, so fortunate and free that I could not imagine lesser persons so much as eating the same kind of toast for breakfast.” Parents who mythologize and glamorize their lives were to become a recurring theme in Gallant’s fiction: in “The Remission” a selfish, beautiful mother keeps an unloving grip on her daughter in order to retain her as a sort of moral hostage, proof to the world that she is beloved by her children; in “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” a good-for-nothing Canadian couple on a rapid downwardly mobile trajectory congratulate themselves on their glamour and joie de vivre while implicitly criticizing their cautious, colorless children.
Gallant’s own father died when she was a child; her mother remarried and moved to the United States, and Mavis was left with strangers. With a chillingly precocious sense of survival, she dissociated herself from her unsatisfactory mother and at the age of eighteen, quite alone in the world, she landed a job at a Montreal newspaper as their first and only woman reporter.
The week in culture.
Recommendations from the editors of The New Criterion, delivered directly to your inbox.
Nine years later Gallant decided that if she were ever to realize her ambition of writing fiction, she would have to leave the routine work of journalism and the security of a paycheck. “I believed that if I were to call myself a writer,” she says, “I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook, and live some other way.” The intransigence of this position is puzzling; many writers, after all, have produced first-rate work without supporting themselves with it.
Gallant left Canada for Paris. “No city in the world drew me as strongly as Paris. (When I am asked why, I am unable to say.) It was a place where I had no friends, no connections, no possibility of finding employment should it be necessary.” She gave herself three years to make a paying venture of fiction. The New Yorker rejected the first story she sent, but accepted the next, thus beginning her long, happy association with the magazine.
Gallant’s youth in Canada, and the jumble of cultures to which she was exposed there, provide her work with a richness that is especially apparent when she writes of her compatriots. In one of her most memorable stories, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” two Canadians, one on the way up and the other on the way down, meet in the middle. Peter Frazier comes from an upper-class Ontario family, but his inheritance— both financial and moral—had already been wasted before he grew up. “Peter’s father’s crowd spent… . Peter and his sister and his cousin lived on the remains. They were left the rinds of income, of notions, and the memories of ideas rather than the ideas intact.”
And Peter spends in his turn; he and his wife have squandered every job and every friendship that has come their way. Landing in Geneva, he becomes a clerk at an international agency, where his boss is Agnes Brusen, a lower-middle class young woman from a Scots family in Saskatchewan. Peter recognizes the family type: “the iron-cold ambition, and every member pushing the next one on.” “In the real world,” he reflects, “he would not have invited her to the house except to mind the children”—a brilliant touch, for what is the real world? Agnes and Peter, for all their mutual antipathy, represent something powerful to one another, and in fact Peter, looking back on his life years later, recognizes Agnes as the most vivid and mysterious part of it.
Gallant is an uncompromising writer, and of all the cruel portraits in her work, perhaps the most unflattering of all is the one she paints of the British living in self-imposed exile on the Mediterranean. Such characters are often Fascist sympathizers: “The Four Seasons,” the second story in the collection, gives a brutal picture of a third-rate crowd of English expatriates in Italy before the war, trusting in the Duce to keep them, and their pounds sterling, safe from harm. “In the Tunnel,” written in the 1970s, depicts an extroverted Canadian girl who is befriended by an insidious but superficially attractive trio of Brits, charming as long as the girl amuses them but ice-cold when she ceases to do so.
“No city in the world drew me as strongly as Paris. (When I am asked why, I am unable to say.) It was a place where I had no friends, no connections, no possibility of finding employment should it be necessary.”
Despite Gallant’s chosen subject, her work is not—at least not usually--depressing, for it has a strong satiric streak, which has grown with the years. The purely satiric fiction is not really the most effective: the Henri Grippes stories, for instance, whose place in Gallant’s work and life correspond roughly with that of the Pat Hobby stories in Fitzgerald’s, consist of irony to the exclusion of everything else, and so get quickly dull. But the majority of the stories balance irony and emotion and are effective on several levels. Even Gallant’s potentially tragic characters often display a certain absurdity. In “Baum, Gabriel, 1935–( ),” Gallant gives a sharp, amusing picture of the marginal existence of a group of German refugees in Paris who make their living acting in stereotyped war movies.
Dieter spread the paper on Gabriel’s table, sat down, and told him about the film. It would begin with a group of Resistance fighters who were being deported jumping out of a train. Their group would include a coal-miner, an anti-Semitic aristocrat, a Communist militant, a peasant with a droll Provençal accent, a long-faced Protestant intellectual, and a priest in doubt about his vocation. Three Jews will be discovered to have jumped or fallen with them: one aged rabbi, one black-market operator, and one anything.
The one anything will be me, Gabriel decided, helping himself to chestnuts. He saw, without Dieter’s needing to describe them, the glaring lights, the dogs straining at their leads, the guards running and blowing whistles, the stalled train, a rainstorm, perhaps.
The aristo will be against taking the three extra men along, Dieter said, but the priest will intercede for them. The miner, or perhaps the black market man, will stay behind to act as decoy for the dogs while the others all get in a rowboat and make for the maquis. The peasant will turn out to be a British intelligence agent named Scott. The Protestant will fall out of the rowboat; the priest will drown trying to save him; the Communist—
“We know all that,” Gabriel interrupted. “Who’s there at the end?”
Gallant, in short, never perceives her world one-dimensionally. She points to the essential humor in the dreariest and most aimless lives; she is adept at seeing the cold kernel of egotism within the warm swell of patriotism or parental love; she will find a few lost, pathetic strands of goodwill in the most debased people. Her stories, taken together, summarize the history of mid-twentieth-century Europe: not the great events themselves, but the small lives they dislocate.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 4, on page 69
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com