Mavis Gallant's
30-Dimensional Character

“What I want to tell you about has to do with the present and the great joy and astonishment we felt when we saw you in the oven-cleanser commercial last night.”

The brilliance of Mavis Gallant’s story Mlle. Dias de Corta lies in the difficulty the reader has in condemning a character who has shown herself worthy of nothing more. This is not achieved through means as simple as making this narrator seem pitiful, apologetic, or pathetic – nor via a direct appeal to a compassionate reader’s basic sympathies. Instead, the structure of the story creates an oscillation between intimate detail and political statement (mostly ill-informed), between affectionate memory and precarious reality, between straightforward judgement and nuanced re-consideration, all of which colludes to problematize our relationship with and assessment of this narrative voice. The writer Claire Messud said of Gallant, “she frequently writes stories that expand like accordions, containing within them entire lives, a novel’s worth of life,” and this is certainly the sense gained from spending twelve pages in the company of this narrator, an unnamed Parisian widow who has lived alone since both her son and the addressee of the story’s content, Alda, departed some time before.

The story’s narrative style is that of “a first-person narrator addresses the you on the level of narration, who also refers to their interaction on the story level in the past” (Olson, 2011), as the narrator operates on different temporal levels, moving from recollection to present address, and as the story nears its conclusion, into potential future actions also. She speaks directly to Alda, discussing at various points her memories of when they shared a residence, her concepts of immigration, integration, and of national or racial characteristics, other social and political issues du jour, and her hopes for what creating this epistolary account may initiate. Lauren Alwan, writing in 2016, described this as “a political story, yet particularized detail anchors every thought, creating… an intimate story of relationship”, and it is a very peculiar form of relationship, viewed only from one side and exposing relatively little of the character of Alda (and which seems from the outset to be steeped in resentment and condescension).

The story’s opening paragraph in full:

You moved into my apartment during the summer of the year before abortion became legal in France; that should fix it in past time for you, dear Mlle. Dias de Corta. You had just arrived in Paris from your native city, which you kept insisting was Marseilles, and were looking for work. You said you had studied television-performance techniques at some provincial school (we had never heard of the school, even though my son had one or two actor friends) and received a diploma with “special mention” for vocal expression. The diploma was not among the things we found in your suitcase, after you disappeared, but my son recalled that you carried it in your handbag, in case you had the good luck to sit next to a casting director on a bus. (p149)

The strange nature of their past relationship/present dynamic is immediately apparent. Although we don’t yet know the details of exactly why the date of legal abortion would be used as a convenient reference-point, the topic and tone are of obvious portent. An unambiguous hostility arises several times in this short excerpt – the implication that Alda was not actually French as she claimed, and the narrator’s continuing emphasis on this point (“which you kept insisting was Marseilles”), the term “dear” with its faint air of critique, the scorn attached to “some provincial school” that “we had never heard of”, and the accusatory tenor of the phrase “after you disappeared”, coming as a pre-emptive defence to the projected complaint over them going through Alda’s possessions. This phrase also serves to open up the story-world without needing to trudge back through their shared experience in full for the reader’s benefit. It permits the narrator to filter through moments from their lives in a more sophisticated and intriguing manner. Indeed, it is only by the third page, when the narrator recalls how Alda came to live with them, that we become aware their relationship may still stand for something more than a lingering bitterness:

You called from a telephone on a busy street. I could hear the coins jangling and the traffic going by. Your voice was low-pitched and agreeable and, except for one or two vowel sounds, would have passed for educated French. (p151)

It is a subtle method of doing so of course; there is no expression of affection, in fact this remark contains yet another criticism of Alda for failing to pass as ‘educated French’, but the fact that the memory includes the sound of coins jingling, traffic in the background, the distinction that Alda’s voice was low and ‘agreeable’, betray an odd level of detail for a seemingly unimportant event that occurred a long time before (indeed decades ago, as is made clear later).

The story continues to modulate through a similar pattern, intersplicing inner/personal thoughts, social/external opinions, and present/interactional commentaries. It is as though the narrator is wary of coming to her own point, circling it slowly, revealing more of herself in the process; which is inadvertent, and rather damning. Gallant uses the method of commentary in such an adroit fashion, allowing the narrator to spend an inordinate amount of time describing and discussing when her and Robert and Anny saw Alda in a commercial, then later in a movie on TV. It feels like diversion, an attempt to slowly talk the addressee onto her side, yet it flows so well, the reading experience becoming so pleasurable that we are (temporarily at least) seduced into identification and sympathy for her by these passages of poignant familial recollection. On page 158, she makes note of a TV documentary that immediately followed on from Alda’s advert:

One man shouted above the others that there were people who sincerely wanted to be ill. No amount of money poured into the health services could cure their muddled impulses. Certain impulses were as bad as any disease. Anny, still standing, cut off the sound (her only impatient act), and we watched the debaters opening and shutting their mouths. (p158)

The narrative perspective of the story makes it impossible to know whether “Certain impulses were as bad as any disease” is a rendering of what the man in the documentary said, or whether our narrator is back in control at this point, superimposing her own opinions of the issue at hand. In the context of the story, it could even be interpreted as a covert/subconscious concession and apology to Alda for the stereotyped, xenophobic opinions and statements that come so naturally to her mind and her pen.

The characterization of this narrator is executed beautifully throughout the story – primarily because it is never done in a simplistic fashion. Even when oppositions are set up in the text, they are never simple binaries between the narrator being a callous racist or a loving maternal influence; both positions contain contradictions and caveats. I agree completely with Jhumpra Lahiri when she said Gallant’s characters were “not simply three-dimensional but 30-dimensional”, and this can be examined with reference to some quotations.

Ryan Ruff Smith in his excellent consideration of Gallant’s work for the Cincinnati Review wrote:

She’s a virtuoso of exposition and summary who doesn’t seem to have any particular regard for scene, that workhorse of most literary realism … Gallant seems to care less about the usual beats of fiction than about sketching the contours of a life, or more precisely, a particular consciousness and sensibility, shown at a slant.

… I fear that it’s become something of a cliché to say about a mean but funny writer—someone like Muriel Spark or Flannery O’Connor—that she is acerbic and cruel to her characters and yet also deeply sympathetic and fair. If this commonplace observation can be true, it’s certainly true of Gallant, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that her characterizations are so fully fleshed out, so deeply imagined, that the questions of kindness and fairness become unyoked.

… rather than relying on plot and external event, Gallant builds narrative arcs out of the tension between the dispassion of observation and the vulnerable subjectivity of interior thought.

As articulate and perceptive as this passage undoubtedly is, I don’t believe it applies to Mlle. Dias de Corta. Although this is a tricky issue to negotiate, as there is an inherent difficulty with the word “scene”. “Scene” implies artifice, a calculated set-up, something that is a constituent part of a whole but which could be extracted and viewed in isolation – it is a term more befitting of film or TV. Literary art in its greatest form, like here in the best short stories of a writer such as Gallant, is not operating at the level of consciously contrived and distinct scenes, but as a continuous, encompassing composition; ie, the story itself, a unitary whole. However, if the use of the particular word is ignored, or if it is replaced by ‘interaction’, or ‘incident’, or ‘action’, or even ‘moment’, the point can then be disagreed with in a more straightforward manner. This story does indeed “sketch the contours of a life” and rely on “the tension between the dispassion of observation and the vulnerable subjectivity of interior thought”, and, accordingly, much of the narrative is this narrator meandering around her own mind, betraying more about herself as she does so, but this should not detract from the fact that the “scenes” (ie, moments of detailed interaction between characters) are where so much of this story’s energy, tragedy, and depth originate.

Near the beginning of the story, our narrator describes when Alda was still adjusting to her new life with them:

We borrowed a folding bed and set it up at the far end of the hall, behind a screen, but you found the area noisy. The neighbors who lived upstairs used to go away for the weekend, leaving their dog. The concierge took it out twice a day, but the rest of the time it whined and barked, and at night it would scratch the floor. Apparently, this went on right over your head. I loaned you the earplugs my husband had used when his nerves were so bad. You complained that with your ears stopped up you could hear your own pulse beating. Given a choice, you preferred the dog.

This appears to me as an archetypal example of what Ryan Ruff Smith means when he uses the term “scene”, and Gallant illustrates this so brilliantly, even with a very condensed, sparse rendering. The sense of a domestic claustrophobia, of the awkward integration of the new person into this environment of folding beds and screens and concierges and earplugs and dogs that scratch at the floor; it is all so well-drawn.

These moments convey beautifully the tension and the humour of these two formidable women suddenly occupying the same space, capturing both the narrator’s scepticism over her lodger’s complaints (“Apparently, this went on right over your head”), and Alda’s headstrong obstinacy over the situation, a refusal to be oppressed or shamed into docility.

As the story progresses, we see a strange form of tenderness grow from these initial skirmishes, and their burgeoning relationship is revealed in a later “scene”:

I gave you one of my own dresses, which, of course, had to be taken in. You were thinner than ever and had lost your appetite for breakfast. You said you thought the apricot jam was making you sick. (I bought you some honey from Provence, but you threw that up, too.) I had finished basting the dress seams and was down on my knees, pinning the hem, when I suddenly put my hand flat on the front of the skirt and said, “How far along are you?” You burst into tears and said something I won’t repeat. (pp157-8)

Again, the close proximity of their domestic situation can be felt acutely here, not only as the narrator is spending her time working on physical alterations for Alda’s clothing and appearance, as she poses and waits for this help to be given, but also in the maternal role that has been adopted via supporting Alda as a parent would, providing her with food and care (in addition to a home). The detail of this passage and the narrator’s choice to recollect it here underline its significance to her: this was when she was the person closest to Alda, the one who noticed and who opened up something Alda had been bearing alone, which of course would traditionally be a mother’s role.

In addition to being another instance of great writing of those “usual beats of fiction”, this interaction is crucial to how the narrator’s character functions in the story. This seemingly close and tender moment between them is followed immediately by the narrator’s refusal to help Alda to get an abortion (“It’s against the law and, besides, I wouldn’t know where to send you”), as though she is always caught somewhere between a motherly compassion and a callous nature.

This dichotomy was the subject of an insightful essay on the story by Ariel Katz:

The concurrence of her fondness for and superiority towards Alda, her simultaneous disdain for and disorientation within France’s changing cultural landscape, and her increasing isolation as she ages alone create a nuanced exploration of foreignness and familiarity.

… The intense specificity of the narrator’s observations contrasts with her reliance on the stereotypes she uses to judge Alda in the previous scene. It seems that perhaps the narrator’s bigotry isn’t inherent but is in some way related to her isolation, her insistence on the past.

… the narrator can no longer be read simply as a caricature. She’s afraid of France’s changing cultural landscape, but her biggest regret is that she herself wasn’t allowed to evolve … The larger idea Gallant is getting at, perhaps, has to do with the danger of denying particularity and self-actualization—of failing to see individuals as specific and familiar.

These layers of contradiction and complexity are what Jhumpra Lahiri was referring to when stating that Gallant’s characters were “30-dimensional”. This narrator both loves Alda and looks at her as a lower form of being. She cherishes their moments together, yet treats her with coldness in her time of great need. She wants understanding and love in her own life, but seems to preach against an occurrence of this in wider society. The narrator is a character who must exist in debate between readers’ perceptions, because there can’t really be a definitive presentation of her as either a pitiful bigot or a pitiable old widow – Mavis Gallant will not make any judgement for us.

Towards the end of Mlle. Dias de Corta, some of the writing and sentence structure is quite stunning. Lenore Myka, writing for ‘Fiction Writers Review’, stated there are “no more perfect concluding words to a story than Gallant’s Mlle. Dias de Corta, capturing the pain inherent as we come close to the end of life, and the hope that lingers nonetheless”. This sensation does indeed build, specifically across the last three pages after the final spacebreak. Pain over her losses, her life as it is, society, loneliness, it all transmits to us through her veiled entreaties to the voiceless Alda. By the close of the story, having grasped just how much time has passed in comparison to how long Alda actually lived with them, there is the creeping sense that the closeness between them was largely perceived and fantasized and felt only by our sorry, loveless narrator, and that the relationship she wishes to rekindle is a mirage, long forgotten by the addressee of the letter.

A special appreciation must be given to Mavis Gallant for the magnificence of that concluding paragraph – how the speaker’s character is not bowed or broken, her pride and personality persist, yet the last lines leave us as nothing more than a plea, left hanging in the closing space of the page, never to be realized: a plea of an imagined future, from a fabricated past. ●


Primary Source:

Gallant, M. Across the Bridge (1993) Carroll & Graf Publishers, NY

Secondary Sources:
- Paris Stories & Javelin Rain by Lauren Alwan (2016)
- Olson, G. Current Trends in Narratology (2011) Walter de Gruyter
- Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories by Ryan Ruff Smith (2016)
- Foreignness and Familiarity in Mavis Gallant’s “Mlle. Dias de Corta” by Ariel Katz (2018)
- “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” by Mavis Gallant by Lenore Myka (2015)

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