To get on with it

I have had Mavis Gallant´s "From The Fifteenth District" ("Från det femtonde distriktet") on a short loan (14 days) from the library. This is a brand new translation and many are in line to read it, evidently. An attractive book it is, too. The author is pictured on the back cover, very chic indeed.

This collection of short stories were first published in 1978. It says on the cover that it´s one short novel and eight short stories. I have read them in the order of number of pages, the shortest one first, and the three longest ones I just haven´t had time for. These three are all roughly the same length, about fifty pages, and which one is the short novel, I can´t attempt to say without having read them all. I should borrow it again, at a later time, and try to find out.

Anyway, I started with the title story, "From The Fifteenth District". It´s a ghost story, of sorts. Three complaints, from dead people who are being haunted by the living. It´s a bit absurd, but it doesn´t take much of a think to see what she means. I think. A lot of people have a hard time letting go. Not just of people they love. Perhaps it´s hardest to let go of those we didn´t love, or who didn´t love us the way we had expected? Or the people we failed in some way. What I think she wants to say is not that we should let go, Gallant is no preacher, but how hard it can be to let go. And how much energy is used to chase ghosts.

A lot of the stories are about people who get separated, many as a result of the second world war or the cold war and the divide between eastern and western Europe. In exile and with passing time, memories start to change. The defective son writes to his mother for recipes of dishes she never made for him. She shares stories with other mothers of the loving son he never was. And grown children worry about their aging mother being alone over Christmas, not getting the hints that she has taken in an old lover. Much is about misconceptions, about the way we see each other mirrored in ideas of what a mother, a son, a father, or a lover should be.

She also deals with time and the divide between generations. Just reading her stories, most of which are set in the 1950´s, 60´s and 70´s, where old people are in their 40´s (shudder) and 16-year-olds are accountable adults, reminds me that a lot has changed in the way we think of age. In one story she follows Gabriel and his friend Dieter, two Germans making a living after the war in Paris, playing German soldiers and Jews in tv-films. The first years, the actors perform what they have seen and experienced. They age and younger actors come along, and they are performing what their grandparents saw and experienced. Think about how many actual young parents now weren´t even born when the Berlin wall fell! (Which feels like yesterday to me.) Same thing when I was born in 1966, only 21 years after the war ended. Perspectives all change very fast, and most of the time we don´t even notice.

There is a lot of tension in these stories about what people really are and what those who should be closest to them think they are. One point that she makes over and over is how closed off we are. How inaccessible every person is. There is no real affinity anywhere. But she is never sad. Her characters get over themselves and each other and get on with it. Even after the worst has happened. It´s what people do.

I like Gallant. I will read her again. She reminds me a little of Lorrie Moore and Grace Paley, other short story writers that I really enjoy. Do read more short stories. Most of them are long enough to read through in one sitting and they usually are more focused, thematically, than a novel. They can give a lot of food for thought.

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