Paying Your Way
By Anna Aslanyan.
The Cost of Living, Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury 2010
“There’s never a moment money isn’t money”, says the kleptomaniac heroine of Sunday Afternoon, one of the stories in The Cost of Living – a statement most of us could subscribe to regardless of our income. The common mistake is to think of money as something that has an existence of its own; either a natural phenomenon that cannot be fully harnessed or, conversely, a trifle that should, ideally, be ignored. The truth is that money has as much meaning as we are willing to ascribe to it. This principle can, in fact, be extended to include most things that surround us and happen inside us – the point Mavis Gallant must feel strongly about, judging by her writing and her whole life.
Gallant talks about money with full knowledge of what it is like to have or have not. When she left her native Canada some 60 years ago for the post-war Europe, she was prepared for hardship – and it duly came. In her late twenties, Gallant quit her job as a reporter on Montreal Standard and decided to make a living by writing fiction; that, and the desire to find out what happened in Europe before and during the war, were strong enough for her to abandon the comfort of North America and travel widely around the continent still recovering from the shock. In Paris, where she resides to this day, she wouldn’t settle in a hotel preferred by expats because she wanted to experience the same life as the French; she lived in Spain when Franco was in power, stayed in Germany, Italy, always driven by the same idea: see things with her own eyes, talk to people, soak up the atmosphere by becoming part of it. For a single young woman with no income it was a brave step, not just by the old standards. Even nowadays travel guides have a Women Travellers section in them; somehow it is impossible to imagine Gallant consulting it before setting off on a journey.
Supporting herself by writing was the project with an uncertain outcome. When Gallant’s story appeared in the New Yorker for the first time, she learned about it from a friend who’d seen it – her agent chose not to contact her, she never received a cheque, and money was tight. She has since published over a hundred stories in the magazine (most of those collected in this book have been printed there between 1951 and 1971); but at the beginning it was a struggle. A free spirit, Gallant has always valued her independence above all else, knowing well that it comes at a price. This is a recurring motif in her prose, and one that relates to your entire life, not just its practical aspects. She makes her characters pay, too: Flor, the protagonist of Green Water, Green Sky (part of this novel appears in the collection under the title Travelers Must Be Content) breaks free from her dominating mother and then from her caring husband, and this costs her dear. Wishart, another character in the story, tries to obliterate his past out of vanity, and patently succeeds, but it comes to haunt him in his sleep, so he has to take “good care not to dream”.
Independence manifests itself in many forms in Gallant’s stories. One of the subjects she keeps returning to is relationships between children and their parents. In particular, the conflict between a mother and a daughter is shown in a way that allows us to see its many sides. There are all the usual elements: rivalry, mothers passing daughters off as their younger sisters, treating them as toys, adoring them and at the same time using them as an outlet for their own disappointment; but these are only part of the problem.
Mothers, in Gallant’s view, are frequently getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to trust and affinity with their offspring. She has never understood why women are so obsessed with their young daughters’ virginity when there are things infinitely more important: books they read, opinions they hold. Many of her characters are constantly projecting their own experience onto their girls’ future without realising how selfish their attitude is and how little sense it makes. “Before I had you, my figure was wonderful. Never have a baby, Emma. Promise me”, says Mrs Ellenger in Going Ashore. “Promise me you’ll never get married. We should always stick together, you and I. Promise me we’ll always stay together”. Again, nothing new here, but it is the daughter’s reaction that takes the situation to a different level. Twelve-year-old Emma does not want to be spoiled or patronised – in fact, she is more mature than her mother and takes responsibility when it becomes clear that Mrs Ellenger cannot be relied upon.
This is usually the case with children in Gallant’s stories: they are more reasonable than adults, who fail to understand that age alone does not necessarily imply a better understanding of the world. Indeed, why do we deny children the ability to think at least as clearly as ourselves? Adults, Gallant says, are often too confused with their own lives to be a guiding example to anyone; they use children as weapons in their battles with each other, look at them as their property and are surprised when faced with cold resistance. The girl in The Rejection is only six and a half, but her father feels “weak and dispersed beside her – as if age and authority and second thoughts had, instead of welding his personality, pulled it to shreds”. “I wonder […] if she can be mine”, he keeps asking himself, not because he doubts his paternity – he is simply unable to come to terms with the truth that you can never own anyone, your child being no exception.
But the sense of ownership is strong in parents. Bernadette, the underprivileged heroine of the eponymous story, expects her illegitimate child almost with a relief – she is sure it will die, like most of her siblings did, and this gives her all the more reason for clinging to it as protection. “This baby was Bernadette’s own; when it died, it would pray for her, and her alone, for all eternity”. The prospect of having a “personal angel, white and swaddled, baptized, innocent, ready for death” is more attractive than anything life can offer.
That people attribute so much importance to the fact that their children are really theirs seems unnatural to Gallant; the same goes for the sacred nature of family ties in general. Why should it matter if you are related to someone by birth? Rather than picking your family, you are given it at random, like your looks; it is your choices in life that define you as a person. Severing links with your relations is not the only way to establish yourself, of course, but this is your right – so long as you make such a decision consciously and realise what its implications are; here, as elsewhere, you are not entitled to a free ride.
Some of Gallant’s characters, however, find it strange that there may be closer, more intimate rapports than blood bonds. In the title story, the heroine is hurt when her older, richer sister gives an expensive necklace to someone she takes to. “What if I asked you for money?” she lashes out, convinced that she has more claim on her sister’s support and attention than mere acquaintances. The sister, meanwhile, keeps her account books in perfect order, listing all her expenses under “Necessary” and “Unnecessary” and guarding the ledgers “as jealously as a diary” – for “what can be more intimate than a record of money and the way one spends it?” This may seen as a sign of stinginess, but in Gallant’s view things are never black-and-white: she observes people’s behaviour in microscopic detail, dissects it, lays it out before the reader and leaves him to draw his own conclusions. The main – perhaps, only – message you get from her books is this: no matter how rich a picture you can see, look closer; there is always more to it than you think.
So powerful is Gallant’s ability to anatomise, to magnify, to examine and discover that you cannot help falling under her spell. If she can be this observant, why can’t you? Once you acknowledge that life is more multi-faceted than you have ever imagined, it becomes a challenge to uncover new meanings, look deeper inside to find out what lies beneath. The objects of your attention become more, and it is not only the world around you that ignites your interest; you are tempted to hold up the mirror to yourself in the hope of spotting something you never noticed before. Gallant deals with the ordinary in such a profound way you are left with the impression that her shrewd eye would certainly identify unexpected traits in your own personality. If this is the effect Gallant’s writing has on you, there is no reason why you should resist the urge to analyse yourself – this will, no doubt, be even more enriching than simply reading her books. Just remember, there will be a price to pay for this, too, and the currency will have to be set by yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 1st, 2010.