Mavis Gallant has a unique talent for distilling the sense of otherness one feels abroad into something tangible and utterly understandable. In this collection, she relates the stories of those stranded in relationships, places, and even times in which they don’t belong.
In “The Moslem Wife” a woman is entrusted to look after a hotel in France when her husband is trapped in America after the breakout of World War II. As the situation progresses, the two grow in surprising and profound ways. In another tale, a German prisoner of war is released from France and returns home to a mother whose personality has been as irrevocably changed by the war as his has. In one of the most poignant entries, Gallant follows the life of a Holocaust survivor, illustrating how his experiences tint his outlook on life forty years later.
With its wide breadth of subject matter and the author’s characteristic way with nuance, From the Fifteenth District is classic Mavis Gallant.
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From the Fifteenth District
By Mavis Gallant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Mavis Gallant
All rights reserved.
THE FOUR SEASONS
THE SCHOOL Carmela attended for much of six years was founded by Dr. Barnes, a foreigner who had no better use for his money. It had two classrooms, with varnished desks nailed to the floor, and steel lockers imported from England, and a playing field in which stray dogs collected. A sepia picture of the founder reading a book hung near a likeness of Mussolini. The two frames were identical, which showed the importance of Dr. Barnes—at least in Castel Vittorio. Over their heads the King rode horseback, wearing all his medals. To one side, somewhat adrift on the same wall, was the Sacred Heart. After Carmela was twelve and too old to bother with school anymore, she forgot all the history and geography she'd learned, but she remembered the men in their brown frames, and Jesus with His heart on fire. She left home that year, just after Easter, and came down to the Ligurian coast between Ventimiglia and Bordighera. She was to live with Mr. and Mrs. Unwin now, to cook and clean and take care of their twin daughters. Tessa and Clare were the children's names; Carmela pronounced them easily. The Unwins owned a small printing press, and as there was a large Anglo-American colony in that part of the world they never lacked for trade. They furnished letterhead stationery, circulars, and announcements for libraries, consulates, Anglican churches, and the British Legion—some printed, some run off the mimeograph machine. Mr. Unwin was also a part-time real-estate agent. They lived in a villa on top of a bald hill. Because of a chronic water shortage, nothing would grow except cactus. An electric pump would have helped the matter, but the Unwins were too poor to have one put in. Mrs. Unwin worked with her husband in the printing office when she felt well enough. She was the victim of fierce headaches caused by pollen, sunshine, and strong perfumes. The Unwins had had a cook, a char, and a nanny for the children, but when Carmela joined the household they dismissed the last of the three; the first two had been gone for over a year now. From the kitchen one could look down a slope into a garden where flowering trees and shrubs sent gusts of scent across to torment Mrs. Unwin, and leaves and petals to litter her cactus bed. An American woman called "the Marchesa" lived there. Mrs. Unwin thought of her as an enemy—someone who deliberately grew flowers for the discomfort they created.
Carmela had never been anywhere except her own village and this house, but Mrs. Unwin had no way of knowing that. She pressed a cracked black change purse in Carmela's hand and sent her down the hill to the local market to fetch carrots and not over a pound of the cheapest stewing beef. Carmela saw walled villas, and a clinic with a windbreak of cypress trees and ochre walls and black licorice balconies. Near the shore, work had stopped on some new houses. One could look through them, where windows were still holes in the walls, and catch a glimpse of the sea. She heard someone comment in an Italian more precious than her own, "Hideous. I hope they fall down on top of the builder. Unwin put money in it, too, but he's bankrupt." The woman who made these remarks was sitting under the pale-blue awning of a café so splendid that Carmela felt bound to look the other way. She caught, like her flash of the sea, small round tables and colored ices in silver dishes. All at once she recognized a chauffeur in uniform leaning with his back to a speckless motorcar. He was from Castel Vittorio. He gave no sign that he knew Carmela. Her real life was beginning now, and she never doubted its meaning. Among the powerful and the strange she would be mute and watchful. She would swim like a little fish, and learn to breathe under water.
At the beginning, she did not always understand what was said, or what Mrs. Unwin expected. When Mrs. Unwin remarked, "The chestnut trees flower beautifully up where you come from, though, of course, the blossoms are death for me," Carmela stopped peeling vegetables for the English stew Mrs. Unwin was showing her how to make and waited for something more. "What have I said now to startle you?" said Mrs. Unwin. "You're like a little sparrow!" Carmela still waited, glancing sidelong, hair cut unevenly and pushed behind her ears. She wore a grey skirt, a cotton blouse, and sandals. A limp black cardigan hung on her shoulders. She did not own stockings, shoes, a change of underwear, a dressing gown, or a coat, but she had a medal on a chain, an inheritance from a Sicilian grandmother—the grandmother from whom she had her southern name. Mrs. Unwin had already examined Carmela's ears to see if the lobes were pierced. She couldn't stand that—the vanity of it, and the mutilation. Letting Carmela's ears go, she had said to her husband, "Good. Mussolini is getting rid of most of that. All but the medals."
"Have I pronounced 'chestnut' in some peculiar way? My Italian can't be that bad." She got a little green dictionary out of the pocket of her smock and ruffled its pages. She had to tilt her head and close an eye because of the cigarette she kept in her mouth. "I don't mean horse chestnuts," she said, the cigarette waving. "How very funny that is in Italian, by the way. I mean the Spanish chestnuts. They flower late in the season, I believe."
"Every flower has its season," said the child.
Carmela believed this conversation to have a malignant intent she could not yet perceive. The mixture of English and unstressed Italian was virtually impossible for her to follow. She had never seen a woman smoking until now.
"But your family are up the Nervia Valley?" Mrs. Unwin insisted. "Your father, your mother, your sisters and your cousins and your aunts?" She became jocular, therefore terrifying. "Maria, Liliana, Ignazio, Francamaria ..." The names of remembered servants ran out.
"I think so," said Carmela.
Her mother had come down to Bordighera to work in the laundry room of a large hotel. Her little brother had been apprenticed to a stonemason. Her father was dead, perhaps. The black and the grey she wore were half-mourning.
"Mussolini is trying to get away from those oversized families," said Mrs. Unwin with confidence. She sat on a high stool, arranging flowers in a copper bowl. She squashed her cigarette suddenly and drank out of a teacup. She seemed to Carmela unnaturally tall. Her hands were stained, freckled, old, but she was the mother of Tessa and Clare, who were under three and still called "the babies." The white roses she was stabbing onto something cruel and spiked had been brought to the kitchen door by the chauffeur from Castel Vittorio. This time he had given Carmela a diffident nod.
"Do you know him?" said Mrs. Unwin instantly.
"I think I saw him in the town," said Carmela.
"Now, that is deceitful," said Mrs. Unwin, though without reproach. "He knows who you are, because he vouched for your whole family. 'Hard-working, sober, the pride of the Nervia Valley.' I hope there is to be none of that," she added, in another voice. "You know what I mean. Men, giggling, chatting men up in the doorway, long telephone calls."
The white roses were a peace offering: a dog belonging to the next-door neighbor had torn up something precious in the Unwins' garden. Mrs. Unwin suddenly said that she had no time to stroll out in pink chiffon, wearing a floppy hat and carrying a sprinkling can; no time to hire jazz bands for parties or send shuttlecocks flying over the hedge and then a servant to retrieve them; less time still to have a chauffeur as a lover. Carmela could not get the drift of this. She felt accused.
"I don't know, Signora," she said, as though some yes-or-no answer had been required point-blank.
Where the roses had come from everything was white, green, lavish, sweet- smelling. Plants Carmela could not have put a name to bent over with the weight of their blooms. She could faintly hear a radio. All of that belonged to the Marchesa. She was the one who had said, "Hideous."
POLLEN CARRIED on the wind from the Marchesa's garden felled Mrs. Unwin in May. She was also assaulted by a large tree-like shrub on the Marchesa's side called a datura; some of its bell-like creamy flowers hung over the cactus patch. Their scent, stronger than jasmine, was poison to Mrs. Unwin's nervous system. From her darkened room she sent for Carmela. She opened a leather box with a little key and showed her a sapphire set in diamonds and a loose emerald. She told Carmela the names of the stones and said, "I do not believe in hiding. I am telling you where they are and that the key is in my handkerchief case." Again Carmela felt she had been accused.
The babies sat on their mother's bed meanwhile. They were placid, sleepy children with yellow hair Carmela enjoyed brushing; only one thing was tiring about them—they were too lazy to walk. One or the other had to be carried by Carmela, hooked like a little monkey above her left hip. She began to stand with her spine slightly bent to one side, as a habit. What she remembered of that spring was the weight of Clare or Tessa pulling her shoulder down, and that she was always hungry. Carmela had never known people to eat so little as the Unwins, not even among the poor. They shared a thin cutlet for lunch, or the vegetable remains of a stew, or had an egg apiece or a bit of cooked ham. The children's food and Carmela's was hardly more abundant. Mrs. Unwin did not mean to undernourish her own children; she sincerely believed that very little was enough. Also, meat was expensive. Fruit was expensive. So were cheese, butter, coffee, milk, and bread. The Unwins were pinched for money. They had a house, a printing establishment, furniture, a garden, a car, and they had Carmela, but they had nothing to spend. The drawing-room carpet was scuffed and torn, and the wine-red wallpaper displayed peony-shaped stains of paler dampmold. Mrs. Unwin counted out the coins she gave Carmela for shopping, and she counted the change.
On Fridays the Unwins would send Carmela across to France, where a few things, such as chocolate and bananas, were cheaper. That was not the only reason; it seemed that vegetables grown in Italy gave one typhoid fever. Carmela rode in a bus to within a few yards of the border, walked over (the customs men on both sides came to know her), and took a narrow road downhill to an avenue along the sea. She went as far as the marketplace, never beyond it. She always brought back a loaf of French bread, because it was one of the few things Mr. Unwin could eat with any pleasure. His chronically poor appetite was one of the reasons so little food came into the house. Carmela would break off one end of the loaf to eat on the spot. Then she would break off the other end, to make the loaf symmetrical, but she always kept that crust for later.
Carmela had two other reasons to be anxious that spring. One had to do with the room she slept in; the other was the sea. Although she had spent her life not many miles from the sea, it made her uneasy to be so close to it. At night she heard great waves knock against the foundations of the town. She dreamed of being engulfed, of seeking refuge on rooftops. Within the dream her death seemed inevitable. In the garden, coaxing the twins to walk, she said to the chauffeur from Castel Vittorio, "What happens when the sea comes out?"
In his shirtsleeves, walking the Marchesa's dogs on the road outside, he stopped and laughed at Carmela. "What do you mean, 'out'?"
"Out, up," said Carmela. "Up out of where it is now."
"It doesn't come up or out," he said. "It stays where it is."
"What is there where we can't see?"
"More water," he said. "Then Africa."
Carmela crossed herself—not out of a more ample fear but for the sake of her father, who had probably died there. He had been conscripted for a war and had never come back. There had been no word, no telegram, no congratulations from Mussolini, and of course no pension.
As for her room, it was off the pantry, almost higher than long, with a tiled floor and a good view, if one wanted that. Someone had died there—a relative of Mrs. Unwin's; he had come for a long visit and had been found on the tiles with an electric bell switch in his hand.
"A peaceful death," said Mrs. Unwin, utterly calmly, talking as if Carmela would need to know the history of the place. "Not even time to ring."
The old man's heart was delicate; he could not climb stairs. Who would have heard the bell? It rang somewhere in the passage. The servants they'd kept in those days slept out, and the Unwins took sleeping draughts, yellow and green, prepared in the kitchen and carried up to bed. Carmela felt the sad presence of the poor relation who had come ailing to a good climate and had been put in the meanest room; who had choked, panicked, grabbed for the bell, and fallen on it. The chauffeur from Castel Vittorio had still another version: this house had belonged to the old man. The Unwins had promised to look after him in his lifetime in exchange for the property. But so many debts had come with it that they could not raise any money on it. They were the next thing to paupers, and were known along the coast more or less as steady defaulters.
The chauffeur had often seen the uncle's ghost walking to and fro in the garden, and Carmela herself was often to hear the thud as his body fell between her bed and the door. Under the bed—as beneath any bed that she knew of—was a devil, or a demon, waiting to catch her. Not for a fortune would she have sat on the edge of the bed with her feet dangling. At night she burrowed beneath the bedclothes with a mole tunnel left for breathing. She made sure that every strand of hair was tucked out of sight.
Mornings were tender—first pink, then pearl, then blue. The house was quiet, the twins were awake and smiling. From their upstairs window the sea was a silken cushion. White sails floated—feathers. The breeze that came in was a friendly presence and the fragrance of the Marchesa's garden an extra gift. After a time Carmela's phantoms were stilled. The softness of that June lulled them. The uncle slept peacefully somewhere, and the devil under the bed became too drowsy to stretch out his hand.
LATE IN JUNE, Carmela's little brother ran away from the stonemason and came to the kitchen door. His blond hair was dark with sweat and dirt and his face streaked with it. She gave him a piece of bread she had saved from a French loaf, and a cup of the children's milk out of the icebox. The larder was padlocked; Mrs. Unwin would be along to open it before teatime. Just as Carmela was rinsing the cup she heard, "Who is that, Carmela?" It was Mr., thank God, not Mrs.
"A beggar," said Carmela.
The babies' father was nearsighted. He wore thick glasses, never shouted, seldom smiled. He looked down at the boy in the doorway and said to him, "Why do you beg? Who sends you to do this?" The child's hand was clenched on something, perhaps a stolen something. Mr. Unwin was not unkind; he was firm. The small fist turned this and that way in his grasp, but he managed to straighten the fingers; all that he revealed was a squashed crust and a filthy palm. "Why do you beg?" he repeated. "No one needs to beg in modern Italy. Who sends you? Your father? Your mother? Do they sit idly at home and tell you to ask for money?" It was clear that he would never have put up with an injustice of that kind. The child remained silent, and soon Mr. Unwin found himself holding a hand he did not know what to do with. He read its lines, caked with dirt and marked clearly in an M-shape of blackness. "Where do you live?" he said, letting go. "You can't wander around up here. Someone will tell the police." He did not mean that he would.
"He is going back where he came from," said Carmela. The child looked at her with such adult sadness, and she turned away so gravely as she dried the cup and put it on a shelf, that Mr. Unwin would tell his wife later, in Carmela's hearing, "They were like lovers."
Excerpted from From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant. Copyright © 1979 Mavis Gallant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- The Four Seasons
- The Moslem Wife
- The Remission
- The Latehomecomer
- Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( )
- From the Fifteenth District
- His Mother
- About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mavis Gallant is an incredible writer. Her use of language is exquisite. As is her understanding of human emotions and her ability to paint a complex picture of lives and times that drew me in as much as any novel has ever done. I also love her imagination: she writes a story about ghosts who are haunted by those they left behind.This particular collection of stories are set in Europe shortly after WW2.
[ I received this book free from the Blog Words and Peace, and I thank her and OpenRoad Media for their generousity. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising] Mavis Gallant, a Canadian expat who spent the last part of her life prior to her death in 2014 living and writing in Paris. Her work was extrodinary, earning her many accolades during her life. Although this series of stories is rather short, the topics are extant on living and working, surviving or not, in post war Europe. Often told as one would tell a friends, the stories are haunting, the topics difficult, the reading at times forced me to find something else more cheerful to distract myself. I can't say I loved outright any of the stories: of a woman who stayed behind during the war to keep the rental agreement "alive" so the pensionarre could remain open. Of a professor who was "infatuated" with a woman who didn't understand what commitment meant as they were of pre and post war generations. Of a grandmother who would rather be with an old friend over her own family. Of a family whose consumptive husband forces a move to the Riviera where the wife's choices further bankrupt the lives and emotions of the rest if them. Of an actor growing older and being lost in his past glory. And others. A book to return to; a book of melancholy; a book of emotions, Gallant is a new writer to me and I will enjoy running into her work in the future. She can turn a splendid phrase and describe things so adroitly they will take your breath away.
An unforgettable collection of literary short stories. Gallant’s prose is striking in its simplicity and precise style. Complexities of displacement, and alienation with questionable conclusions unveiled. Character interconnections streamlined with absolute perfection. Nine stories taking place in Europe post Second World War exploring the frailty and plight of relationships. In one story an English family exits to the south of France to escape England’s rationing and debt under the guise of their father’s poor health. An actor, once a French soldier in Algeria, is gainfully employed in Paris. A self absorbed English family living on the Italian Riviera unconvinced Mussolini and the Germans may impact their lives greatly. A provoking collection of short stories examining human relationships with keen observation and depth, fatalistic and compassionate.
A collection of short stories set in Europe after the end of World War II, these nine stories all deserve to be savored and read with time after to ponder and absorb the nuances. Mavis Gallant has a deft hand with construction of a short story, a skill that is apparent and highlighted with her clever use of description and emotive prose that brings forth the characters in ways that highlight the deprivations, relief and struggle each endured after the war. Every word in a short story must count for something, often doing double duty to enlighten and instill a sense of the place or the person for the reader. What emerges is the humanity and the several ways in which we are all not so different, despite circumstances or actions. These are not the famous or lauded of the war years: each story is a ‘normal’ person, insignificant in the grand scheme but star of their own particular stories. These are stories of survival and perseverance against odds, some circumstantial, others self-imposed, and each brings plenty of fuel for imagination and empathy. These are some masterfully crafted stories, bound to please fans of the genre, and a wonderful example for those new to short stories of how they should be written. Gallant has a tone that is varies between flippant or nonchalant, as if the characters are reacting to their situations, or the narration is simply an uninvolved being retelling what they see without great attachment. Yes, many are somber, and all seem to have a common them of not letting go, but the overall impression leaves you wanting more writing in this manner, even as each story stands alone perfectly well. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
This is a series of short stories, some in France or Italy or Germany, all those western European countries that we Americans love to visit, soaking up the culture. But Gallant goes far beyond the surface of these countries and people who we so admire. The short stories are set around World War II, some of them occurring before, some after or during. The stories aren't about the war though, but often the characters are affect by the war. Each story is like peeking into someone's window and seeing the real them, the one they might hide from the rest of the world. The black and white cover is foreshadowing of the stories to come as they definitely have a melancholy feel throughout. The richness of Gallant's words only deepen the effect. Here's an excerpt from "The Four Seasons" where a young Italian girl travels to a seaside village to serve as a nanny to an English family of outsiders: "'Mussolini is trying to get away from those oversized families,' said Mrs. Unwin with confidence.. She sat on a high stool, arranging flowers in a copper bowl. She quashed her cigarette suddenly and drank out of a teacup. She seemed to Carmela unnaturally tall. Her hands were stained, freckled, old, but she was the mother of Tessa and Clare, who were under three and still called "the babies." The white roses she was stabbing onto something cruel and spiked had been brought to the kitchen door by the chauffeur from Castel Vittorio. This time he had given Carmela a diffident nod." Gallant delves into each character, revealing things that we might prefer not to know, wanting to engage only with the surface beauty but realizing the complexity of each person, no matter their nationality or position during the war. We meet a German prison of war home long after the war had ended because no one thought to send him home from France He finds his mother remarried and very changed. We meet a Jewish man who blessedly escaped Europe before the war and returns in search of an heir for the business he has built in Argentina, but it has to be the right kind of heir. The boy, now a man, is repelled by the uncle who escaped the atrocities. This is a book filled with stories of deep emotion that dig beneath the surface Europe we love.
I have to say this is the first time I heard of or read Mavis Gallant which is a little disappointing because she really is an amazing writer. There are several reasons that I don't naturally gravitate towards short stories. One it’s hard to become invested in a short story because all the elements have to be in play. An author has to successfully develop the plot and the characters and balance the perfect amount of action and details. Gallant really did all this. Her stories grabbed me from the beginning and I felt instantly connected to the characters and interested in how the stories would evolve. Other aspects that interested me about Gallant are that her stories tend to revolve around World War II in one way or another but each story was an individual experience. None of the stories felt duplicated, all were authentic. This collection of short stories was a piece of literature. I highly recommend these stories for anyone that wants gratifying reads with a very literary feel!
Mavis Gallant is a writer whom I have overlooked and it is to my shame because I discovered her with this newest publication of her short stories and novellas.These stories are truly wonderul. now that I have discovered her I will check out her earlier. I happen to be interested in settings for stories and many of these are set in an appealing Europe even if it was during the war. I recommend this book to those who like short stories and fine writing. Your won't be disappointed.