Twentieth Century Calling

mavis-gallant

Source: Book’s End

Mavis Gallant: why did it take me so long to find her? Obsessed as I was, in my teens and early twenties, with early-to-mid-twentieth-century expats and rootlessness, I’m amazed that I was unaware of this author until only a few years ago. She writes what I would have loved to have been able to (would still be infinitely grateful if I could) put down on paper. And I still haven’t flushed it all out yet, but I get the sense that one of the reasons I’m so drawn to her is the fact that I’m a solidly twentieth-century girl– as she was a solidly twentieth-century author.

I’ll dig more deeply into this general admiration, and our era-bound sympathies, later. But I’ve just finished “The Cost of Living,” and it’s thrown me back to early adulthood and some of my own stints spent trying to feel significant and different by setting myself down, usually completely unprepared, in one part of Europe or another, where wide-eyed Americans like me were probably a dime a dozen.

The experiences didn’t amount to a string of totally ridiculous follies; for one thing, I met what was to become one of my best friends of all time while we were both studying in Germany, futilely attempting both to thicken our sensitive emotional skins to a degree at least approaching that of the locals, and to achieve the right sort of smile-free expressions on our ID cards while doing it. As I was reading Gallant’s story, in which one woman nurses both her sister and her lover through bouts of the flu (OK, she says “grippe;” how lovely), I was reminded of my friend’s expert care of me during my own round of miserable illness and total ignorance of the country’s medical care or what I would even do or how I would pay for it if I found a doctor’s office. Making my way through “The Cost of Living,” it was as if I were back in my friend’s room again, into which she’d moved me and where she began treating me with her certain cure-all of tea. (I’d never cared for the drink until then– but was converted from that point on.) One of us needed care; one was generous in giving it. In that situation of dependence and beneficence in a land most definitely not our own, somehow, we could stop pretending we didn’t enjoy smiling for no reason; we could resign ourselves to our weird inability to fit our North American bodies into European clothing; we could just admit that we were who we were.

A few years later, fleeing from reality’s slap in the face– namely, the fact that a college degree would really get you nothing more than a glorified secretary’s position, and that you’d just have to accept the soul-killing situation or starve– I cut and run with my paltry savings to Paris, where that same friend was working as a nanny, and had gotten in good with the expat scene. Gallant’s narrator in “The Cost of Living” is so honest– without being bitter– about her disillusion with the city, the people, in a way you hardly ever hear; it took me back to gray days sitting in garrets, a strange little paragon of unsophisticated sobriety watching middle-aged men bemoan old loves as they played Tom Waits records and inhaled pot that appeared out of nowhere and refilled bottles of wine from the wry barkeep below. I came to the conclusion that in real life, Henry Miller et al were probably real pains in the ass, and 90% losers to boot, and that I never would have been accepted among the literati of their, or any, day. Gallant’s assertion that “Friendship in bohemia meant money borrowed, recriminations, complaints, tears, theft, and deceit,” an assertion made close to forty years before my own experience, still rings true to memory.* Young and indignant and determined not to become another secretary in another dumb American office, I still just wanted to go home.

Hmm. I suppose there’s really no point in these ramblings, other than my own assertion that Gallant has reached across time and penetrated into the memories and sympathies of a kindred soul too young to have been around when she was describing very particular situations. The Europes we experienced surely didn’t resemble each other’s, in terms of practicalities or, in some ways, surface appearance– and what was allowable for me at the end of the 20th century was much greater, and in a much less noticeable way, than what any woman in the middle of that same century would have been granted. But there we were– are?– rootless and somehow grounded at the same time. Grounded enough, at least, to be unable to fool ourselves, to know when no change in geography would save us, and that, wherever we were, we would have to come up with workable answers on our own. I’m hoping that’s what her writing did for her; I’m hoping that’s what writing will one day do for me.

 

* Mavis Gallant, “The Cost of Living,” in The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), 208.

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