In ‘The Storyteller’ (an essay on the work of Nikolai Leskov), Walter Benjamin considers what impresses a story upon the memory: ‘chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis’. The narrator of Mavis Gallant’s story needs the condensed subtotaling cruelty of an inventory to remember all that is on loan to her lodger Mlle Dias de Corta, an aspiring young actress who leaves abruptly and wordlessly. I could close my eyes and rattle by rote the items in that Paris bedroom: ‘You promised not to damage or remove without permission a double bed, two pillows and a bolster, a pair of blankets, a beige satin spread with hand-knotted silk fringe . . .’ And so on it goes, all the way to the electric heater which ‘gave useful service for six years but which you aged before its time by leaving it turned on all night’. The narrator, a bigoted and fearful Parisian widow, desperately gropes back in time for details to fuel her vituperative, disappointed and yearning address to Mlle Dias de Corta.
This narrator makes long work of prosecuting Mlle Dias de Corta, during which she reveals dibs and dabs of her own life as wife, widow and mother: a husband who used earplugs ‘when his nerves were bad’ and whose ‘illness was the result of eating too fast and never chewing his food’, a son who gets waited on ‘hand and foot’. When asked if he loved his mother: ‘His answer was self-evident: We were closely related.’ But in the story’s late movement this woman’s anger transforms into lovelorn supplication: she wants nothing more than the return of Mlle Dias de Corta and a restoration of whatever imbalance the tenant brought to her life.
The story is preoccupied by disequilibrium and incursion. The narrator notes her tenant’s ‘long southern o’ as a mark of ‘language decline’ wrought by ‘uncontrolled immigration’. She dreads the take-over of Paris by Asians, Arabs and Africans, and ‘unskilled European immigrants’, and in the forecast proportions of one-third, three-quarters and two-fifths. She anticipates getting broken into. ‘You will notice the row of mailboxes in the vestibule. Some of the older tenants won’t put their full names on the box, just their initials.’
But I am most drawn to infiltration of another type: television. Gallant makes brilliant formal use of an ad campaign for oven cleaner and a television film. Several years have passed since Mlle Dias de Corta’s disappearance, and here she reemerges, a face seen through an oven door, a hand holding a spray can. ‘You assured us that the product did not leave a bad smell or seep into food or damage the ozone layer.’ The television film is a particularly funny device, and it’s funny in the particulars. Gallant dares to stay with its shabby love-plot and characterization for a disproportionate chunk of narrative time. The narrator watches the entire film, addressing Mlle Dias de Corta as her film character, Camilla, and as herself. ‘Right at the beginning you make a mistake and choose the architect, having rejected the singer because of his social manner, diffident and shy.’ When Camilla throws a bunch of roses in her architect’s face, the narrator nods in familiarity to Mlle Dias de Corta: ‘I recognized your quick temper.’ I love Gallant’s pert flickers between the story’s mainframe and the film that consumes us. The film ends with Camilla on a roadside. As for how the story ends, well, I continue to rewind its final five sentences and surmise at how Gallant reached their thrilling inevitability.
Photograph © Steve Murez