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Mavis Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow”: The Origins of Fiction

Denis Sampson
p. 135-145

Résumé

D'inspiration autobiographique, « Voices Lost in Snow » balance entre les mémoires et l'essai. Cette nouvelle fait partie du cycle « Linnet Muir », composé vers le milieu des années soixante-dix. La recherche de Mavis Gallant sur l'affaire Dreyfus semble l'avoir conduite à un retour vers son propre passé. La spécificité de la narration mais, surtout, la recréation de ces «sombres énigmes» vues par la jeune fille de la nouvelle, indiquent que Gallant veut se rappeler de sa propre enfance et la représenter. Ce qui expose aussi la perception de la fiction chez Gallant comme un système de représentation qui, à la fois, cache et révèle la vérité des êtres et des choses..

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Mavis Gallant

Texte intégral

1In 1975-77, Mavis Gallant wrote six autobiographical narratives of her childhood and young adulthood in Montreal, “Voices Lost in Snow” being one of them. The stories came to Gallant as a set and interrupted her work  on a study of Dreyfus and on the “European” stories later collected in From theFifteenth District (1979). Five were published in the New Yorker, “with unusual promptness, each appearing soon after it was received” (Gallant, Home Truths xx). The six stories, in the sequence of publication and presumably of composition, make up “Linnet Muir,” the third part of Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories (1981), and five of the stories are included in the Collected Stories (1996), published in Canada as Selected Stories.  

2While Gallant’s characteristic tonal qualities of hauteur and precision are present in the Linnet Muir stories, what is different is that she writes in an autobiographical mode. In the present tense, a first person narrator recalls  and analyzes certain periods of time Gallant lived in Montreal, in particular, the first decade of her childhood, and, later, the war years, when she returned at the age of eighteen to work in the city. In fact, these are not really short stories like the others; they are closer to that genre that has become common in more recent decades in North America: creative non-fiction, essays in memoir-writing.

3The circumstances in which the stories were written may have prompted the autobiographical impulse and may also have intensified the need to write this kind of first person essay-memoir. More than once, Gallant has linked the writing to a project of historical research she had been engaged in: “It happened that by the mid-seventies I had been reading virtually nothing for two years except documents and books about the Dreyfus case” (Gallant, Home Truths xx). Gallant’s youthful left-wing sympathies appear to have been rekindled during the 1968 student revolution in Paris. The New Yorker published two extracts from a detailed diary she kept of the events, and in 1971, she published an eighty-page essay, “Things Overlooked Before,” in a volume called The Affair of GabrielleRussier. Russier, a teacher in a lycée, had become a cause célèbre in France because of an affair with one of her students, and then, following internment and sentencing, had committed suicide. Gallant’s essay serves as an introduction to an American edition of Russier’s letters and is clear evidence of Gallant’s desire that the intimate, documentary truth about the affair, Russier’s own words, should be put on record.  

4Gallant’s detestation of the forces in French society that had destroyed Russier, in particular the authoritarian structure of the family, seems to be the motive for her decision to re-examine an earlier and more famous case, the courtmartial and sentencing for treason of the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in 1894. Gallant comments that “the campaign to free him split French opinion into bitterly opposing factions; the breach has never quite healed” (Gallant, Home Truths xx). Dreyfus had been pilloried, as was Russier, and Gallant’s conviction that “only personal independence matters” (quoted from Pasternak) lies behind her interest in the ways in which independence was eroded and sacrificed in these cases. “From beyond the grave,” Gallant writes, Dreyfus “had the right to fairness” (Gallant, Home Truths xxi).  

5Nevertheless, it is surprising that Gallant should devote herself exclusively at this time to this celebrated and much documented cause, and in fact, in spite of her years of research, she did not complete the project. Her immersion in it may have served her writing in other ways, however, notably in the writing of the Linnet Muir stories. “In writing about him, I could not say what I thought might be true, or would seem plausible if only life were tidy.  I had to stand in his shoes, to assume, as best I could, an alien ambition (a soldier’s career), and alien intelligence (he trained as an engineer and a mathematician before entering staff college), and to forget that I was a woman out of a twentieth-century North American society where women could vote and had the right to an education, where there was no such thing as peacetime conscription or penal transportation” (Gallant, Home Truths xxi). To know the truth about Dreyfus in his own time seems to parallel the effort to know the truth of her own historical moment, so different in her childhood from the historical contexts she came to know as an independent woman.

6Her sense of the temperamental, gender, and historical gap between herself and Dreyfus did not prevent her from immersing herself in his life and then finding a common point: “We had both resolved upon a way of life at an early age and had pursued our aims with overwhelming singlemindedness. He had been determined to become an officer in the French army, over his family’s advice and objections, just as I had been determined to write” (Gallant, Home Truths xxii). His early independence from family and common social prejudice and the reliance on one’s own strength of character to realize freely-chosen goals clearly appealed to her because they are closely related to her sense of her own identity as a writer.  

7It is at this point of recognition, as Gallant tells it, that “there began to be restored in some underground river of the mind a lost Montreal.” The process of recovering a lost Paris of Dreyfus through studying photographs and paintings seems to have triggered lost images of her own childhood city. A half-remembered image of Sherbrooke Street at night, “more a sensation than a picture,” was the starting point. In writing of Linnet Muir, it is as if the adult Gallant needed to become a researcher into the alien culture in which her own childhood had taken place.

8What was recovered was not only the city of her childhood but a clearer understanding of how and why she had that singlemindedness that has driven her writing career from its origin in her childhood. She recovered the climate of her own exiled, writerly mind, and that is what she depicts in these memoirs of Linnet Muir.

9In the opening paragraph of “Voices Lost in Snow”, there is an abrupt warning: “Dark riddles filled the corners of life because no enlightenment was thought required” (Gallant, Stories 700). Insofar as there is an anecdote, it concerns the visit one Saturday afternoon of a young girl and her father to the house of her godmother. The anecdote is not, however, the central structural element of the story. Rather, the first person narrator--the girl now much older (the writer?)--introduces the reader into the process of reconstructing her childhood. And so, this is a narrative that recreates both the child’s experience of “dark riddles” and the adult narrator’s consideration of why “no enlightenment was thought required.”

10From the beginning, a style of parenting, a social class and an historical epoch are in question: “Halfway between our two great wars, parents whose own early years had been shaped with Edwardian firmness were apt to lend a tone of finality to quite simple remarks: ‘Because I say so’ was the answer to ‘Why?’” (Gallant, Stories 700). Yet in spite of an expository tone, this is not primarily a study of a child trapped in a conventional middle-class family and its processes of enforcing parental authority; it is a story of a precociously enquiring child, her fascination with language and silence, and how the “dark riddles” instilled a life-long passion to penetrate silences and darkness.

11The child felt marginalized and abandoned in an inscrutable adult world by the personalities of her parents as well as by the conventions of the time. Her father’s habit of bringing her with him on afternoon visits in the city was enveloped in mystery. He did not announce “where we were going”: “He was more taciturn than any man I have known since, but that wasn’t all of it; being young, I was the last person to whom anyone owed an explanation” (Gallant, Stories 701). Whether these Saturday outings from the house in the country, where she lived in isolation with her mother and her grandmother, were for dental appointments, to have lunch together or with his male friends, or to visit her godmother, all of them “have turned into one whitish afternoon, a windless snowfall, a steep street” (Gallant, Stories 701). Such fragmentary images are juxtaposed with the expository voice of the present-time narrator.

12Searching for understanding, the frustrated narrator comments, “I will never overtake this pair,” for, more than anything, she wants to hear what they are saying to each other, but “their voices are lost in snow” (Gallant, Stories 701). Earlier, the image of snow has been associated with the automatic authority claimed by Edwardian parents to deny the curious child knowledge: “before long the listener seems blanketed. He must hear the voice of authority muffled, a hum through snow” (Gallant, Stories 700). But the child’s bewilderment at the “riddles” spoken by adults, the prohibitions without explanation, and the opacity of fragmentary conversation leads the narrator to comment, somewhat paradoxically, “the only authentic voices I have belong to the dead” (Gallant, Stories 701).  

13At first, this seems to refer to the declarations of the adults, and their parents, in laying down the law for the child, but then “authentic” is a word that remains enigmatic in the adult narrator’s discourse. Soon, a passing revelation –“after his death, which would not be long in coming” (Gallant, Stories 701)– alerts the reader to the possiblity that it is the father himself whose voice was lost in snow, an “authentic” voice dead before the child could comprehend his taciturnity. She goes on to refer to his silence on these outings: “He was seldom present. I don’t know where my father spent his waking life” (Gallant, Stories 702). The father’s silence, the premonition of his imminent death, perhaps his own knowledge of his fate may all be part of what the child took to be the incomprehensible refusal of authority figures to explain themselves.

14The heightened sensitivity of the child to what she felt was an adult conspiracy to silence her focused her attention even more exactingly on each word and phrase, for all words seemed to be a code. Significance was unavailable to her for she believed that it lay in the power of the adults to reveal or not reveal. An enduring consequence, if we assume that this is an autobiographical narrative, is an anger that eventually empowered the narrator/writer to offer enlightenment “because no enlightenment was thought necessary.” The narrative commentary does introduce caustic remarks on this culture of repression and blind obedience, and these parental demands certainly contributed to the child’s frustration and isolation, yet the poetic images of voices and snow affirm that not only the child but all of the characters are enveloped in silences and mysteries.  

15A complicating part of the mystery for the child is the emotional distance between people. The maternal grandmother, “a sensible, truthful, and pessimistic woman,” dominates the household. The father is taciturn by temperament and perhaps preoccupied with his own medical condition, while the youthful mother has withdrawn into her books. The child herself is said to have been brushed by tuberculosis--the reason for their move to the country--and this information is conveyed by the doctor in another, puzzling, language: “votre fille a frôlé la phtisie” (Gallant, Stories 705).

16It is suggested that the reason for the mother’s withdrawal is boredom and also an adolescent pleasure in escaping into literature. A hint that there may be more to it is given when her quarrel with the child’s godmother is mentioned. This godmother, named Georgie, had been her closest friend and confidante; now they no longer speak, yet the father visits Georgie in her apartment in the city, accompanied, on this occasion at least, by his daughter. The mother and Georgie have become rivals for her father’s attentions, the narrator soon explains, yet the child knows nothing except the “dark riddles” enveloping the silences of her father and mother.

17The actual visit is obliquely recreated by the narrator’s recollection of Georgie’s irritation that she is present and of an earlier visit when she had soiled Georgie’s sofa. The child assumed that this is an irritation at children in general, but it is also suggested that the irritation may be directed at the father for bringing her. Later, acknowledging the child’s discomfort, he tells her “You didn’t enjoy your visit much... You needn’t see Georgie again, unless you want to” (Gallant, Stories 708). The words seem to offer a revelation of another dimension in her father’s character, but when she asks why, the conventional answer returns: “Because I say so.”  

18They are her father’s final words, in her recollection: “The answer seems to speak out of the lights, the stones, the snow; out of the crucial second when inner and outer forces join, and the environment becomes part of the enemy too” (Gallant, Stories 709). Just before, as they walk down the snowy street together, the narrator comments that her ailing father at this time may have been “stifling pain in silence rather than speaking up while there might have been time”: “he gave an impression of sternness that was a shield against suffering” (Gallant, Stories 708). This afternoon visit may have been a crucial and final one for him too; the narrator now realizes that he may have taken “a private decision about himself.” What he concealed from her with “Because I say so” was the hidden crisis of his own life which he cannot share with her in words.

19It is implied that he shared it with her anyway, unarticulated but intuitively felt by the child. Many years later, her father long dead, when she was twenty and estranged from her mother, she meets a male friend of her father. He remarks to her, “Georgie didn’t play her cards well... if she had just made one smart move she could have had him” (Gallant, Stories 709). The narrator, somewhat horrified now by the possibilities of the metaphor, realizes that her father too may have had cards he wanted to play. On that afternoon, her presence was crucial, for she was in fact a card: “He took the card back and dropped his hand, and their long intermittent game came to an end. The card must have been the eight of clubs--‘a female child’” (Gallant, Stories 709).  

20The narrator, at first so determined to penetrate to the truth of her childhood, seems to realize that all she has are speculations, uncertainties, fragmentary memories that may be arranged into a narrative, but that chance and mystery occupy a dark background. Uncertain but alert now to the possibilities of silence and symbolism, she seems to conclude that she may have been an unwitting counter in a tragic drama of loyalty and betrayal between her father and mother.  The silences and the conventional codes were a shield against the suffering and despair of adults, yet the sympathy of the narrator is with the child for she was the victim of the mistaken effort to protect her from the “dark riddles” of adult anguish.

21While compassion for her father enters the narrative, overall the tone of the story is one of anger at the injustices visited on the child. In the opening paragraph, before the specific details of this particular situation are known to the reader, the narrator has summed up her theme. Although so much has changed throughout the century, the role of parents in their children’s lives is still an authoritarian one. “They still claim the ancient right-of-way through a young life” (Gallant, Stories 700). The story is designed as an exemplification of the truth that the child is inevitably trapped in opaque language, “snow,” that the surfaces of daily communication are enigmatic and estranging. Yet it also defines the role of the adult narrator/writer: to situate the reader in a parallel relationship to language so that the drama of reading is experienced as an interplay between what is revealed and what is concealed, between what is knowable and what remains mysterious.

22In Gallant’s “Preface” to The Collected Stories, she dates the origins of her impulse and need to be a writer to her earliest years as an only child: “I have been writing or just thinking about things to write since I was a child. I invented rhymes and stories when I could not get to sleep and in the morning when I was told it was too early to get up” (Gallant, Stories ix). She is still prepared to believe that “it is child’s play, an extension of make-believe,” but it is not the accident of the child’s circumstances that interests her; it is that a child has a special quality of mind: “perhaps a writer is a child in disguise, with a child’s lucid view of grown-ups, accurate as to atmosphere, improvising when it tries to make sense of adult behaviour” (Gallant, Stories x). The child has an intuition of what is not articulated in her hearing, or perhaps not articulated at all because what adults may know of their feelings and desires is concealed, repressed, feared, avoided; and Gallant appears to believe that the truth of the child’s intuition is to be trusted more than adult rationalisations, explanations, and obfuscations.   

23Gallant’s impassioned detachment and relentless search for truth “with a capital T,” as one of the stories is entitled, owes something to her early adult years as a journalist in Montreal. She is always alert to the historical and political contexts of opinions and gestures. Her intense curiosity about individuals is a form of heightened observation of a scene, an historical period, a culture. She was committed to radical socialism during the war years and after; she was a Marxist without being a communist. In giving up journalism in 1950 and moving to Europe to become a writer of fiction, her commitment changed: “The distinction between journalism and fiction is the difference between without and within. Journalism recounts as exactly and economically as possible the weather in the street; fiction takes no notice of that particular weather but brings to life a distillation of all weathers, a climate of the mind. Which is not to say it need not be exact and economical; it is precision of a different order” (Gallant, Stories ix-x). Precision in depicting the climate of the mind; that is her stated goal. She is a researcher, an impassioned interrogator of details, a sifter of nuances and perspectives. The need for the mot juste is all the greater because it will never quite penetrate the “dark riddles.”   

24What is unusual about the Linnet Muir stories is that “the climate of the mind” and the circumstances are her own, and she is just as committed to precision in observing her younger self as she is in excavating the terrain of her fictional characters. A Proustian, Gallant analyzes nostalgia and the process of her own remembering.  

25In one of the Linnet Muir stories, “Varieties of Exile,” she tells of her earliest apprenticeship in writing: “In the third summer of the war I began to meet refugees. There were large numbers of them in Montreal--to me a source of infinite wonder... At the office where I worked I now spent my lunch hour writing stories about people in exile. I tried to see Montreal as an Austrian might see it and to feel whatever he felt. I was entirely at home with foreigners, which is not surprising--the home was all in my head” (Gallant, Stories 743).   

26She later tells that she destroyed all of these stories, and ends: “All this business of putting life through a sieve and then discarding it was another variety of exile; I knew that even then, but it seemed quite right and perfectly natural” (Gallant, Stories 760). She seems to say that even in her home town she is an exile not different from the refugees, for the climate of her mind is one of exile. It is that mind, that writerly mind, that she tries to understand in the Linnet Muir stories, in its earliest apprenticeship phase and, earlier, in childhood.

27“Voices Lost in Snow” renders a “climate of mind” that is central to all of her work and also investigates its origin. The key significance of the child’s heightened intuition is affirmed in poetic atmosphere and implication, in the elusive and dreamlike fragments recovered from memory; but Gallant adds to the hauntings and “riddles” a discursive commentary that is relentless in its penetration of character and period.  

28Whenever Gallant has spoken of style, she has claimed that it is imposssible for her to isolate what is distinctive about her own voice. All she will admit to recognizing is “a prose rhythm easy for me to follow that must be near to the way I think and speak” (Gallant, Paris Notebooks 176-79). This is distilled “from a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection and rejection.” Clearly, for her, a writer’s style--“inseparable from structure”--is elaborated over the years by a kind of instinct. “The inborn vitality and tension of living prose,” she asserts, cannot be consciously learned or borrowed, and if it does not express “a true voice, it is nothing.”  

29Critics of her stories have not found it so difficult to identify what is distinctive. “She develops neither plot nor character. She offers neither a social, ethical or philosophical message, nor a set of ready-made solutions or suggestions... What is essential in the author’s work is not the vision of the world it presents, but the incisive grasp of the human dance, of its choreography. It is the process of demystification that is at work” (Merler 69).

30In the Linnet Muir stories, she attempts to demystify her own formative experience as a child and a young adult in Montreal. In this sense, they are her most autobiographical work, most autobiographical of all because they demystify the process that joins images from an earlier life and the present, the process by which the imagination of the writer uses memories.

31Although critics such as Besner, Clement, Keefer, Smythe, and Schaub have made passing reference to “Voices Lost in Snow,” the other stories in the Linnet Muir sequence have engaged their attention. The general view of Merler is, however, pertinent to this story: “the procedure of filtering, of distilling found in the presentation of a feeling, or of distancing found in the presentation of a state of mind and of a character, is restated once more by the author who furnishes an illustration of how fiction is born” (Merler 19). The voices that are lost and the voices that are recalled are given a presence in the new voice, the distinctive poetic voice in which Mavis Gallant, the writer, frames and lights the “dark riddles” of her own and her characters’ lives.

Bibliographie

Besner, Neil K. The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant’s Fiction. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.

Clement, Lesley D. Learning to Look: A Visual Response to Mavis Gallant’s Fiction. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.

Gallant, Mavis. The Collected Stories. New York: Random House, 1996.

--. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. Toronto: Macmillan, 1981.

--. Paris Notebooks. Toronto: Macmillan, 1986.

Keefer, Janis Kulyk. Reading Mavis Gallant. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Merler, Grazia. Mavis Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978.

Schaub, Danielle. Mavis Gallant. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Smythe, Karen E. Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Denis Sampson, « Mavis Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow”: The Origins of Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English, 42 | 2004, 135-145.

Référence électronique

Denis Sampson, « Mavis Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow”: The Origins of Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 42 | Spring 2004, mis en ligne le 04 août 2008, consulté le 20 septembre 2017. URL : http://jsse.revues.org/388

Auteur

Denis Sampson

Denis Sampson has taught at the Université de Caen, Université de Montréal and presently teaches in the English Department at Vanier College in Montreal. He is the author of “Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern” (1993) and “Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist” (1998).  

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