Grief, Memory, Three O'Clock in the Morning: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diary, December 23, 2022
Fifteen Commonplaces for Christmas
Merry Christmas, and happy holidays, however and wherever you observe or avoid them. Much of North America is storm-wracked on this day, 12.23.22, and I hope if this note-in-a-bottle washes up on your shore that it finds you in some safe harbour.
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This blog has been dormant since August. 08.11.22 was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mavis Gallant (MG), and the honouring of her Centennial year was my sole purpose in writing. Once the day had come & gone, and whatever dust I’d been able to kick up had settled, I put the beast to bed. Now, with Christmas on the verge, it stirs, mildly and inconsequentially: a brief interruption of a hibernation I’d imagined as unassailable and enduring. A Yuleblog, if you will. As what follows is self-explanatory, I won’t say much by way of preamble except to note that Christmas was, to judge by the evidence in the stories, a charmed season for MG. My guess would be — of course I have no way of knowing this, but it seems a reasonable surmise — that, as a more than usually sensitive and intuitive child — and, also, as a child who, from the age of four, was abstracted from the familiar comforts of home, was frequently boarded out to one school or another — she must felt even more acutely and enduringly than do most young people the electric anticipation that attaches both to the day and to the long buildup to Christmas morning, with all its nods to family, hearth, and domesticity. She routinely touches on Christmas / New Year in her writing, often more than glancingly; it would be easy enough to put together an anthology that could withstand the rubric of “Christmas stories.” MG is MG and she never gets weepy or treacly on the subject; how she marked Christmas in her own long heyday I have no idea — probably with friends and feasting and, sometimes, with travel, probably more as a secular than a religious occasion — but that she pays it so much mind in her stories suggests to me that it was for her something more than an environmental condition that could be handily turned to fictive purposes. Were someone in a position to know to tell me that her relationship with the day wasn’t unalloyed, I wouldn’t be in any way surprised. Nor would I be surprised to learn — in fact, I’d be astonished were this not the case —- that she was a disciplined sender of Christmas cards. I bet she was, and I bet they were fantastic in every way. What follows is my own card, entirely cribbed from the MG canon; the source is named after each citation. I offer this MG Christmas message to all Friends of Mavis (FOM) with thanks for your kind attention, kind words, and with my best wishes and hopes that you all enjoy a happy and prosperous New Year.
Christmas is a special season for us. My parents are atheists. My grandmother is a European of her time and class — Socialist, bluestocking, agnostic, and a snob. Like my parents, she objects to Christmas, but on different grounds. My parents complain about the sentimentality, and the commercialization of a myth. My grandmother patiently explains her aversion to the pagan tree, and why she will not have one in her house. We seem to be entirely apart. In my Catholic pensionnat in Montreal, where I am a day student, instructed by my family to learn French and keep out of the chapel, Christmas is marked by four weeks of fever. On the last day, I receive a present — a pen-wiper — from a skimpy tree. There is a creche; Bethlehem seems to be a town in Quebec. The holy family and the attending animals, angels, and kings are knee-deep in cotton snow. In my classroom, the board is decorated by the most artistic of the nuns. We watch her drawing with coloured chalk: green holly, red berries, angels with yellow hair. The blackboard, no longer available for sums, holds all the excitement of a pagan season my parents despise.
We do, however, exchange presents. I am bearing gifts to Grandmother — three drawings on parchment, and a heavy book. We arrive at Grandmother’s without adventure. And here the hallucinations begins. Rose
The bar, suddenly, was full of noise. Most of it was coming from a newly installed loud speaker . “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” Emma heard, even before she opened the heavy glass doors. Under the music, but equally amplified, were the voices of people arguing, the people who, somewhere on the ship, were trying out the carol recordings. … Crew members, in working clothes, were hanging Christmas decorations. There was a small silver tree over the bar and a larger one, real, being lashed to a pillar. At one of the low tables in front of the bar Mr. Cowan sat reading a travel folder.
“Have a good time?” he asked, looking up. He had to bellow because “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” was coming through so loudly. Going Ashore
Uncle Ludwig, who always sounded like a piece of metal machinery… and his man Jurgen had come here to see about buying thousands of Christmas tress for the market next December. … The men smelled of aftershave lotion — lilac and carnation — that they’d been given last Christmas by the family women. The Pegnitz Junction
I have light hair, without a trace grey, and hazel eyes. I am not fat, because, unlike my colleagues, I do not hide pastry and petit fours in my room to eat before breakfast. My calves, I think, are overdeveloped from years of walking and climbing in low-heeled shoes. I am a bit sensitive about it, and wear my tweed skirts longer than the fashion. Because I take my gloves off in all weather, my hands are rough; their untended appearance makes the French and Italian parents think I am not gently bred. I use the scents and creams my pupils give me at Christmas. I have few likes and dislikes, but have lost the habit of eating whatever is put before me. I do not mind accepting gifts. An Autobiography
At a quarter to two this Christmas Eve, my Uncle Theo turned up here again. The watchman was already dressed in his overcoat, standing by the glass doors with a bunch of keys in his hand. The banks, the grocers, the bookshops, the hairdressers were shut tight. The street outside looked dead, for those who weren’t down with Asian flu were just getting over it. Uncle Theo slipped in past the porter. He wore his best winter pelisse with the seal collar and his seal hat. He looked smaller than ever, because of the great-coat and because of a huge brown paper parcel he was carrying. He made as if to come straight over, but I frowned and looked down. The cashier was on sick leave, too, and I was doing double duty. I knew the parcel was our Christmas goose. Uncle Theo buys one every year. Now, that he chooses well; it’s not an imported Polish bird but a local goose, a fine one. …. I could have piled all our sad Christmases on the counter between us — the Christmas when I was thirteen and we were firebombed, and saved nothing except a knife and fork my mother owned when she was little. She still uses them; “Traudi” is engraved on the handle of each. It worries my mother to find anything else next to her plate. It makes her feel as if no one considered her — as if she were devalued in her own home. I remember another Christmas and my father drinking wine with Uncle Theo; wine slowed him down, we had to finish his sentences for him. They say when he left us he put an apple in his pocket. My Aunt Charlotte packed some of his things afterward and deposited them with a waiter he knew. The next Christmas, my Uncle Theo, the only man in the house now, drank by himself and began to caper like a little goat, round and round the tree. I looked at the table, beautifully spread with a starched cloth, and I saw four large knives and forks, as for four enormous persons. Aunt Charlotte had forgotten about my mother.
“Oh, my own little knife and fork, I can’t see them!” cried my mother, coming in at that moment, in blue lace down to her ankles.
“Oh, my own little arse,” said Uncle Theo, in my mother’s voice, still dancing. …
A gust of feeling blew round the table. Yes, Christmas is sad. Everyone has a reason for jumping out the window at Christmas and in the spring. …. Yesterday in the cemetery, at six o’clock, there were lovers standing motionless, like a tree. I had to step off the path; snow came over the tops of my boots. I saw candles burning in little hollows on some of the graves of children. What shall I do when I have to bury the family? O Lasting Peace
At Christmas, Carol begged him to take her to the carol singing in the Place Vendome. Here, she imagined, with the gentle fall of snow and the small, rosy choirboys singing between lighted Christmas trees, she would find something — a warm memory that would, later, bring her closer to Howard, a glimpse of the Paris other people liked. But, of course, there was no snow. Howard and Carol stood under her umbrella as a fine, misty rain fell on the choristers, who sang over and over the opening bars of “Il est né, le Divin Enfant,” testing voice levels for a broadcast. Newspaper photographers drifted on the rim of the crowd, and the flares that lit the scene for a newsreel camera blew acrid smoke in their faces. Howard began to cough. Around the square, the tenants of the Place emerged on their small balconies. Some of them had champagne glasses in their hands, as if they had interrupted an agreeable party to step outside for a moment. Carol looked up at the lighted open doorways, through which she could see a painted ceiling, a lighted chandelier. But nothing happened. None of the people seemed beautiful or extraordinary. No one said, “Who is that charming girl down there? Let’s ask her up!”
Howard blew his nose and said his feet were cold; they drifted over the square to a couturier’s window, where the Infant Jesus wore a rhinestone pin and a worshipping plaster angel extended a famous brand of perfume. “It looks like New York or something,” Carol said, plaintive with disappointment. As she stooped to to close her umbrella, the wind carried to her feet a piece of mistletoe and, glancing up, she saw that cheap tinsel icicles and bunches of mistletoe had been tied on the street lamps at the square. It looked pretty and rather poor, and she thought of the giant tree in Rockefeller Center. She suddenly felt sorry for Paris… The Other Paris
A bunch of holly hanging upside down at the entrance to her hotel was the first thing Lottie Benz saw in all of Paris that seemed right to her. Even a word like “hotel” was subject to suspicion, since it was attached to a black facade in no way distinguished from the rest of the street. The people walking on the street did not look as if they had sisters or brothers or childhood friends, and their clothes and haircuts in no manner indicated to her a station in life. The New Look had spread from this place, but none of the women appeared to have given it a thought. As for the men, alike in their gray raincoats, only their self-absorbed but inquisitive faces kept them from seeming unemployed. Lottie, whose mother had made the dress she was wearing from a Vogue pattern, could have filled the back seat of the taxi with polk-dots, the skirt was so wide. Stepping down, she shook order into the polka-dots and her mother’s ankle-length Persian lamb coat, lent for the voyage. This was when she saw the holly. Even as the taxi-driver plucked every bit of change from her outstretched hand, she turned to this one familiar thing. A city that knew about holly would know about Christmas, true winter, everything. Virus X
The Burleighs had sent the Fraziers a second-guest list Christmas card. It showed a Moslem refugee child weeping outside a tent. They treasured the card and left it standing long after the others had been given to the children to cut up. The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street
One evening, his wife had looked up from the paperback spy novel she was reading at dinner and — having waited for him to notice she was neither eating nor turning pages — remarked that Amabel Bacon, who had been Amabel Fisher, that pretty child Catherine roomed with in school, had asked if she might come to them for ten days at Christmas.
“Nothing for children here,” he said. “And not much space —”
“She must be twenty-two,” said his wife, “and can stay in a hotel.”
They stared at each other, as if they were strangers in a crush somewhere and her earring had caught on his coat. Their looks disentangled. That night Mrs. Plummer wrote to Amabel saying they did not know any young people; that Mrs. Plummer played bridge from three to six every afternoon; that the Colonel was busy at the embassy; that it was difficult to find seats at the ballet; that it was too cold for sight-seeing; Lenin’s tomb was temporarily closed; there was nothing in the way of shopping; the Plummers, not being great mixers, avoided parties; they planned to spend a quiet Christmas and New Year’s; and Amabel was welcome. New Year’s Eve
One of Irina’s grandsons, nicknamed Riri, was sent to her at Christmas. …
“You will sleep well,” his grandmother promised, pulling the feather quilt over him. “You will dream short dreams at first, and by morning they will be longer and longer. The last one of all, just before you wake up, will be like a film. You will wake up wondering where you are, and then you will hear Mr. Aiken. First he will go around shutting all the windows, then you will hear his bath. He will start the coffee in an electric machine that makes a noise like a door rattling. He will pull on his snowboots with a lot of cursing and swearing and go to fetch our morning papers. Do you know what day it will be? The day after Christmas.” Irina
(A measure of how brilliant a story is Irina is that it’s pretty much impossible to excerpt. It’s so well-built that you can’t consider a single brick or foundation stone away from the whole. It’s a brilliant story about old age, childhood, family relationships, displacement: all the themes that preoccupied Mavis Gallant the whole of her writing life. It’s also just a great, loving story about, well, Christmas. BR)
He was a divorced parent, which meant he had children and grandchildren but no place in particular to go. … It was not in his nature to put out emotional ultimatums. In the past, it could have been his business — he should have made it his business — to observe the pattens of exchange among his real children, even if the information, tabulated, had left him depressed and frightened. He could have taken them on as an independent republic and applied for entry. Even now, he considered next Christmas. He would surely obtain the limited visa no one dares refuse a homeless old man, a distinguished relative, not poor, needing only consideration — notice taken of his deafness, his stiff shoulder, his need to get up and eat breakfast at five o’clock, his allergies to butter and white wine.
What to take on the Christmas exploration? The first rule of excursions into uncankered societies is: Don’t bring presents. Not unless one wants to face charges of corruption. But then, like any scholar fending off a critic, he could justify gifts, telling himself that another visitor might taint the society in a manner deadlier still, where as he, Misserna, sat lightly. He had been a featherweight on his children; he had scarcely gone near them. A present from parent to child surely reinforces a natural tie. When they were young, he used to bring home one wristwatch and make them draw lots. Kingdom Come
Berthe Carette’s sister, Marie, spent eight Christmases of her life in Florida, where her son was establishing a future in the motel industry. Every time Marie went down she found Raymond starting over in a new place: his motels seemed to die on his hands. She came back to Montreal riddled with static electricity. Berthe couldn’t hand her a teaspoon without receiving a shock, like a small silver bullet. Her sister believed the current was generated by a chemical change that occurred as she flew out of Fort Lauderdale toward a wet, dark, snowy city. Florida
The absence of sun in Paris brought on a kind of irrationality at times, just as too much sun can drive one mad. … I know that I had never become accustomed to the northern solstice. The whitish sky and the evil Paris roofs and the cold and sun suggested a destiny so final that I wondered why everyone did not rebel or run away. Often after Christmas there was a fall of snow, and one could be amazed by the confident tracks of birds. But in a few weeks it was forgotten, and the tramps, the drunks, the unrepentant poor (locked up by the police so they would not freeze on the streets) were released once more, and settled down in doorways and on the grilles over the Metro, where fetid air rose from the trains below, to await the coming of spring. The Cost of Living
''Christmas in France isn't Christmas. To celebrate that particular Feast in a nightclub is absurd, wrong even. Still, it's what I did.'' That was Maurice Sachs, writer, actor and professional con artist, on Dec. 26, 1919. He may not have been to a nightclub at all; he was a tireless liar. He may have gone to church. He was always in and out of some religious fantasy. Still, he was right in that first sentence, if one changes ''France'' to ‘’Paris.''
Parisians have never known what to do about Christmas except get out of town. Those left behind go to restaurants. In one Left Bank restaurant a few seasons ago, a table of diners who thought the servings of the Venison Christmas Special were unreasonably skimpy sprayed the place with tear gas. While the other customers stood outside in the sleety night drying their tears, the protesters made off with a painting dear to the owner and a clutch of unwashed cutlery.
They were lucky to have been offered the choice of venison. Christmas turkey is the only thing the French cannot cook. Avoid it, and the petrified chestnuts, and the disagreeable cake known as a buche de Noel. It looks like a log, and it tastes like soft wood with butter frosting. The whole meal is repeated at the New Year, with only a week in between to recover. By Jan. 2 it is quite forgotten, and you can begin to eat normal French food again.
Paris When It Shimmers, New York Times Magazine, October 4, 1987
Finally, from Eleanor Wachtel’s account of interviewing Mavis Gallant, published on cbc.ca August 5, 2022.
Mavis Gallant has been keeping journals since her arrival in France more than 50 years ago. She's been going through them with an eye to publishing excerpts. I was asking about what it's like for her to look back on some of this material. She said that what she reads now isn't exactly what rose to the surface at the time. Then she launched into a long account of Christmas Day 1962. It wasn't a happy time. She'd been invited to Germany by a quite close friend, a journalist, who had recently married. She and her new husband had bought a house and she wanted Mavis to meet the new husband and see the new house. Mavis described how she'd been ill but had recovered. So what would be better than to buy some new clothes and go to a place she hadn't seen? The trip was a disaster: her friend's mother took an instant dislike to her. The husband's family wouldn't receive foreigners. Mavis was left on her own on Christmas Eve while the friend went to her husband's family and the mother went to Midnight Mass without her. So there she was, alone in a strange house with huge picture windows and the blackness outside. "I couldn't draw the drapes," she said, "and I saw every ghost. I was frightened, I was scared to death. There were two huge sheep dogs growling." (She growls.) The parrots' cage was open and two parrots hopped and flapped about (their wings had been clipped). "I was terrified. I kept seeing headlines in the Globe & Mail: 'Canadian writer mauled to death by dogs, parrots and man with a knife!’" Finally, she got to her room and locked the door, called the airport to book the next flight out, but got only an answering machine saying everything was shut down for the holidays. At the end of the tale, Mavis said, "Of course you can't use this.” (This happened repeatedly — during another story she added, "You know, I'm just talking.”) Later, which is why you're getting to read this, she revised her view, concluding that her friend and her mother were likely dead and she didn't care about the husband anyway.
Thanks for reading Oh, MG: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diaries! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Goodness what a writer she was. I have to stop and take breaths, what with all the beauty. Many thanks for this and much appreciated.
So interesting - Thank you for the ongoing update. Pat G.