- 1 Frederic Jameson in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act argues that th (...)
- 2 See Timothy Dow Adams, "The Geography of Genre in John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse"; Robert (...)
1As Claire Obaldia points out, the intensive concern with generic studies in recent times has clearly shown that despite --or perhaps because of-- the striking progress in this field, the question of "genre" remains one of the most difficult in literary theory (1). Aristotle made taxonomy the very praxis of poetics, aiming to find the "essential quality" of each genre. Recent critical directions, however, argue that literary texts are composed of heterogeneous and often contradictory generic strands and discourses.1 This breaking of the boundaries of genre is a pervasive tendency in Canadian literature in English, which, as Belén Martín has observed, has been associated with Canada's liberation from British and American imperialism and with its search for a literary identity (63). Experimentation with genre is present in works such as Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, which stands at the borderline between the collection of short stories and the novel, and John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, combining aspects of journal, diary, sketchbook and travel narrative. Critical attention has been paid to the blurring of genres in these and other Canadian writers. For example, the critical volume edited by K.P. Stich Reflections. Autobiography and Canadian Literature, contains one essay which analyses Glassco's book and two dedicated to Munro's fiction.2
- 3 About Gallant's use of irony, see Barbara Godard, "Modalities of the Edge: Towards a Semiotics of (...)
2In Mavis Gallant, however, the issue of genre has been relatively neglected, especially if compared with other aspects of her fiction, such as style, themes, narrative techniques, irony and the importance of historical and social issues, which have received more critical attention.3 Her story "When We Were Nearly Young", about four young people living in the postwar Madrid of the early fifties, is an example of the layering and mixing of genres I have just referred to. It stands in a borderline territory between narrative, essay, journalistic piece, memoir and autobiography. Although Gallant does not admit being conscious of generic constraints in her works, she has practised all the genres I have listed before. She is primarily a writer of short fiction, as illustrated by her eleven collections of short stories, but she is also a fine writer of essays, as she has demonstrated in The Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews. In this article I will analyse "When We Were Nearly Young" with a view to showing how it transgresses the genres of the short story, autobiography and essay. This genre transgression is an essential component in the representation of the narrative "I". Generic analysis also provides insight into the tone of the story, which is very intimate and very detached at the same time, and not always as "dispassionate and critically calculating" as Kulyk Keefer describes it (Reading, 166). In fact, "When We Were Nearly Young" contains glimpses of an intensely personal voice absent in "Señor Pinedo", Gallant's other story about Spain. Because the story contains much documentary information about the Madrid of the early fifties, it is easy to think of it as a mere reportage, but, as I will try to demonstrate, it is really concerned with a failed attempt on the narrator's part to capture her Self through the Spanish background.
- 4 "An Interview with Mavis Gallant" by Pilar Somacarrera, in Atlantis, Journal of the Spanish Associ (...)
3As a short story, "When We Were Nearly Young" presents some peculiarities that deviate from the traditional form of this genre. As Tamas Dobozy observes, Gallant blasts away assumptions delimiting the organization of experience offered by the traditional short story (86). It lacks a sense of trajectory and the abrupt ending breaks the reader's expectations of closure and finality. There is a not a chronological structure but, rather, a succession of habitual actions. This is typical of Gallant's stories, which never follow a linear pattern but, rather, in the author's words, "build around their centre, rather like a snail" ("What Is Style?" 45). Plot is reduced to a minimum, and some crucial information like the narrator's professional activity in Madrid is missing. The traditional conventions governing short stories like "totality" and "unity of effect" are also absent, since the story is a collage of different tableaux which sometimes are not even connected. In addition, as in much of Gallant's fiction, character is not posited at prime but, rather, the characters are symbolic of Gallant's impressions about the passivity of the Spaniards. When asked about Spanish people in the fifties in a recent interview,4 she answered "they were slow, slow. They walked slowly, they weren't quick". This is reproduced quite literally in the story:
- 5 All references to "When We Were Nearly Young" are from Mavis Gallant, Selected Stories. London, Bl (...)
The difference between them and any three broke people anywhere was a certain passiveness, as though everything had been dealt with in advance....When we walked together, their steps slowed in rhythm, as if they had all three been struck with the same reluctance to go on. (188)5
4Given the fact that the story is largely based on autobiographical material, as the author herself has acknowledged in the recent interview I have just referred to, the most problematic aspect of the story is the relationship between the narrator and the writer. As Janice Kulyk Keefer points out, unlike other Canadian writers like Mordecai Richler or Norman Levine, Gallant has rejected any form of autobiographical fiction (Reading 8), and she has insisted that the "I" in the story is not her:
The stories I wrote about Spain are fiction but they are based on fact. But it is not factual fact, as I'm telling you now. Because if I wrote a story about Málaga as it was, it would be based on that, but I would not be in it. I might say "I", but it wouldn't be I, me. (Somacarrera interview)
5Gallant's zeal to make a clear distinction between herself as an author and the narrator of her story becomes irrelevant in view of postructuralist literary theories which consider that all writing is autobiographical, and that all autobiographies are fictive. Shirley Neuman says the following in her chapter about "Life Writing" in the Literary History of Canada:
Perhaps the blurring of generic distinctions is simply the logical consequence of Cocteau's observation, made many years ago, that every word we write is part of our self-portrait, an observation reformulated and quoted by Eli Mandel as epigraph to Life Sentence (1981): "When autobiography ceases to be, I shall write from the point of view of a Brazilian general". Certainly that position that all writing is autobiographical has found justification in and has also partly been impelled by post-structuralist theories which call into question the unity of the speaking/writing subject as well as the referentiality of language. (335)
- 6 As Liz Stanley points out, the term auto/biography refuses any easy distinction between biography (...)
6David Williams uses the term "fictional autobiography" to refer to these first person narratives about a life (176), but the term that best defines Gallant's story is auto/biography,6 which is frequently used in postmodern literary criticism to refer to narratives about women's lives based on memories from youth and childhood whose narrators are fictional, but share many characteristics of the writer and her experiences. Although Danielle Schaub claims that readers gain no insight from the knowledge that Gallant experienced personally what she describes in "When We Were Nearly Young" (1), this information is essential in order to assign the story to the genre of auto/biography, since, as Liz Stanley observes, auto/biography is more properly to be seen as an artful construction within a narrative that more often than not employs a variety of methods which imply referentiality (128). Auto/biography also collects into it social science and other apparently objective ways of producing and using life stories of different kinds. The narrative "I" in "When We Were Nearly Young" remains a fictional character, but goes through the same personal experiences in Madrid as Gallant did. However, as Donna Stanton has it, the main issue in auto/biographical writing is not the referentiality , but the "graphing" of the "auto", that is, the creation of a textual self: "the excision of bio from autobiography is designed to bracket the traditional emphasis on the narration of "a life" and that notion's facile presumption of referentiality (vii). Sherrill Grace adds that any writer's autobiographical 'I' is a fiction, a creation and a discourse (189). Grace's words about Margaret Atwood's autobiographical writing can be transcribed to Gallant's story: Gallant's autobiographical "I" has little directly to do with "Mavis Gallant", but a great deal to do with the practices of autobiography. It is significant, for example, that the four characters in the story are writing their diaries, that is, they are engaged in life-writing practices ("We began keeping diaries at about the same time" 188).
7Although "When We Were Nearly Young" is a fictional biography of an "I", it features several characteristics of autobiography, as defined in classical theories about this genre. One of the main characteristics of autobiography is, following Roy Pascal, a search for one's inner standing (selbstbesinnung) (182). It is an effort to capture the Self, or in Hegel's claim, to know the self through consciousness. Georges Gusdorf observes that autobiography is typical of a society that fosters the "the curiosity of the individual about himself, the wonder he feels about the mystery of his own destiny" (31). The narrator announces at the beginning of the story that she is engaged in a quest for self-knowledge and for her destiny: "I thought these signs... would tell me what direction my life was going to take" (184). Later in the story, she confesses that she went to Madrid to make sense of her life:
My own character seemed to me ill defined; I believed that this was unfortunate and unique. I thought that if I set myself against a background into which I could not possibly merge that some outline would present itself. (189)
8Two other features of autobiography are also present in the story: the sense of distance and what Philip Lejeune calls the retrospective view (25). Georges Gusdorf has written: "Autobiography... requires a man to take distance in order to reconstitute himself in the focus of his special unity and identity across time" (35). This is precisely what the narrator of "When We Were Nearly Young" was aiming at when she went to Madrid, as she herself admits in the previous quotation from the story. As for the retrospective view, it is clear from the outset of the narrative: "In Madrid, nine years ago, we lived on the thought of money" (184). The nine years that went by between the actual events of the story and the time of the narration determine the presentation of things, since the story is pervaded by the sense, which is typical of autobiography, that the person who remembers the past is no longer the same she was in the past.
9In autobiography the past is subsumed under a vision from the present, and the inevitable passing of time performs ironic twists in linguistic categories, as with the adjective "New" when applied to Pablo, one of the narrator's Spanish friends:
He was one of the New Spaniards -part of the first generation grown to maturity under Franco. He was the generation they were so proud of in the newspapers. But he must be -he is- well over thirty now, and no longer new. (185)
10In fact, the narrator of "When We Were Nearly Young" is poignantly aware of the working of memory and language on the events of the past: "Eventually, they were caught, for me, not by time but by the freezing of memory. And when I looked in the diary I had kept during that period, all I could find was descriptions of the weather" (191). The closing paragraph thus broaches Gallant's typical concern with memory's apprehension of time past. In Liz Stanley's words this is an explicit textual recognition that the "past" is indeed past and thus essentially unrecoverable (61). The story closes on the irresolvable displacement of memory by the equalizing force of language. Memories in "When We Were Nearly Young" never have an enlightening role:
I have never been back to Madrid. My memories are of squares and monuments, of things that are free or cheap. I see us huddled in coats, gloved and scarved, fighting the icy wind, pushing along to the ten-peseta place. In another memory it is so hot we can scarcely force ourselves to the park, where we will sit under elm trees and look at newspapers. (188)
11The narrator of "When We Were Nearly Young" makes an effort to retrieve the memories of her time in Madrid, but what she remembers is a faded reflection of what she experienced there, as her memories about her life in Madrid are rather trivial.
12According to Gusdorf, autobiography also responds to the more or less anguished restlessness of the person who is growing older and wonders whether his or her life has been lived in vain and wasted (36). As its title indicates, "When We Were Nearly Young" is a story about the transitory nature of youth, reflected in the characters' obsession about getting to be thirty. Gallant herself has referred to this critical age:
In your thirties, you were supposed to have cruised your whole life, people got married young...Thirty is like a landmark and, of course, thirty is not eighteen. So there was a slice of life, to me, that went between seventeen and twenty-two, about, and that was one slice, then you went from twenty-two to thirty. And thirty was like a wall. If you were going to do something important, you had better do it before that age. (Somacarrera interview)
13These words are echoed by the narrator when she refers to this stage of her life:
He made us so afraid of being thirty that even poor Pilar was alarmed, although she had eight years of grace. I was frightened of it, too. I was not by any means in first youth, and I could not say that the shape of my life was a mystery. (189)
14As the title of the story indicates, the narrator and her friends are still young but already too old to continue living aimlessly.
15"When We Were Nearly Young" is about an episode in a woman's life. Sherrill Grace has also observed that when the Subject writing autobiographically is female, as in "When We Were Nearly Young", the assumptions and codes of the genre shift dramatically (191). The female model for autobiography, instead of positing a separate, discrete Self, stresses interdependence, community and identification with rather than against. This is illustrated in the story by the frequent use of the first person plural narrator "We" instead of "I", a practice which is reflected in the title of the story. This use transcribes the narrator's identification with her Spanish friends in "When We Were Nearly Young", which is set up from the beginning of the story, when the protagonist recounts that, like them, she was always waiting for money:
In Madrid, nine years ago, we lived on the thought of money. Our friendships were nourished with talk of money we expected to have, and what we intended to do when it came.... The thing we had in common was that we were all waiting for money. (84)
16In fact, Neil Besner considers the companionship between the four "nearly young" people the main focus of the story (Light 21). The narrator and her friends shared hunger ("We were always vaguely hungry" (186), financial difficulties ("We came to a financial crisis about the same moment" 190), and seemed to lead parallel lives, as is suggested by the following parallelistic structures: "I dreamed of food. Pilar dreamed of things chasing her, and Pablo dreamed of me and Carlos dreamed he was on the top of the mountain preaching to multitudes" (190).
17The story lacks a teleological Self, centred and developing towards a goal, which is also typical of female autobiography. The "I" of "When We Were Nearly Young" is, in fact, quite the opposite from this, as she seems rather disoriented and waiting for a goal in life: "In those days I was always looking for signs... I thought these signs would tell me what direction my life was going to take and what might happen from now on" (185). The perception of time in the story is also very personal, an aspect which also relates it to autobiographical narratives written by women:
Time was like water dropping -Madrid time. [...] and I was afraid of the movement of time, at once too quick and too slow [...] I had chosen the very city where time dropped, a drop from the roof of a cave, one drop at a time. (189-90)
18The slow passing of time which the narrator associates with Madrid is, in fact, related to the narrator's own waiting for money, "her waiting for time to drop into the pool" (191). As Anna Belford Ulanov points out, feminine time is always personal, and that influences her global perception of the world and time, which usually comes as a sudden enlightment, as opposed to masculine exposition, which is irrational, progressive and logic (177,169). In fact, in Gallant's narratives, according to Janice Kulyk Keefer, time becomes the principal hero or villain ("Strange" 724).
- 7 William H. New, Modern Canadian Essays. Toronto: Macmillan, 1976.
19Insomuch as the story is close to autobiography, it is also close to the essay. The essay as conceived by Montaigne, is often full of autobiographical content, and, according to Graham Good, it is based, more than any other form except the diary, on the individual's self-experience (8). Because of its liminal status between the narrative and the essay, "When We Were Nearly Young" has been included in an anthology of Canadian essays,7 a fact which has led Neil Besner to raise questions about the genre of this text:
Is this work a report, an essay masquerading as a story? Or is it a story masquerading as a reflection, a memoir? Could it be both? How to distinguish, on what grounds? The presence or absence of documentary reference? The status of the narrator as reporter or story-teller? Which aspects of focus or style? ("A Broken Dialogue", 89-90)
20Douglas Malcom annotated the story as "a humorous essay about waiting for money in Madrid", but also cited it as a short story contributed to The New Yorker (119,121). The documentary reference is definitely a component of the story, since much of the socio-economical information is based on facts, such as the atmosphere of material deprivation in the Spain of the fifties.
21In order to determine to what extent "When We Were Nearly Young" is, using Besner's words, "an essay masquerading as a story", I will draw on recent criticism about this genre, by Graham Good and Claire Obaldia. These two critics emphasize formlessness as one of the essay's main characteristics. The essay, adds Good, does not aim at system at all and is specifically unorganized (1). Obaldia says the following about the asystematic nature of this genre:
Rather than progressing in a linear and planned fashion, the essay develops around a number of topics which offer themselves along the way. And this sauntering from one topic to the next together with the way in which each topic is informally "tried out" suggests a tentativeness, a looseness, in short a randomness which seems to elude the unifying conception. (2)
22At the textual level, this lack of organization is reflected in the lack of coherence between paragraphs, or even inside a paragraph. In fact, in "When We Were Nearly Young", it is easy to disagree with the author's paragraphing: for example, the second paragraph of the story contains three different topics which could have made three different paragraphs. Obaldia's analysis of the essay's developing "around a number of topics which offer themselves along the way," describes a technique which is often used in Gallant's story:
We began keeping diaries at about the same time. I don't remember who started it. Carlos's was secret. Pilar asked how to spell words. Pablo told everything before he wrote it down. It was a strange occupation, considering the ages we were, but we hadn't enough to think about. Poverty is not a goad but a paralysis. I have never been back to Madrid. My memories are of squares and monuments... (188)
23Thought in the essay stays close to its objects and shares their space and atmosphere. The connections between thoughts in this genre are often made through things, rather than being linked directly in a continuous argument. In the passage I have just quoted, the narrator rambles from her reference to her and her friends' diaries to their situation of paralysis, and finally makes an incursion into the present.
24According to Good's description, the essay presupposes an independent observer, a specific object and a sympathetic reader (4). This is exactly what Gallant did when she was in Spain. In the interview I held with her, she emphasises how she "was on her own" in the country and how much "she wanted to see the Spanish reality" by herself. An essay also presupposes a language capable of rendering and communicating observation, whether physical or mental (Good 4). The physical sensations recounted in "When We Were Nearly Young" are many, like the narrator's hunger and the smells and tastes of the Spanish restaurants. Mental observations also abound. To quote but an example, these are the narrator's thoughts when her friend Pilar pretended that she lived at the Museo Romántico:
I say "boys" because I never thought of them as men. I am by the window, with my back turned. I disapprove, and it shows. I feel like a prig. I tip the painted blind, just to see the street and be reassured by a tram going by. It is the twentieth century. (187)
25The uncertainty and disorientation at the outset of the story are also typical of an essay. The narrator is waiting for money, but she doesn't know exactly how much money she will receive: "Every day I went to the Central Post Office, and I made the rounds of the banks and the travel agencies, where letters and money could come. I was not certain how much it might be" (184).
26Finally, the sense of transitoriness and provisionality which informs the story is also characteristic of the essay as defined by Good:
Self and object define each other, but momentarily...The essay makes claim to truth, but not permanent truth. Its truths are particular, of the here and now....The essay offers knowledge of the moment, not more... The essayist's truths are "for me" and "for now", personal and provisional. (4)
27I have already mentioned how the narrator's impressions of Madrid are entirely provisional and they, in fact, vanish with time, as the ending of the story endorses. The beginning also emphasizes this sense of the moment, of concrete time and place: "In Madrid, nine years ago, we lived on the thought of money. Our friendships were nourished with talk of money we expected to have, and what we intended to do when it came" (184). As Danielle Schaub argues, the openings of Gallant's stories direct the reader to their very core (140). If she had gone back to Madrid five years later, her experience would have been completely different. The cynical first sentence refuses pretense of heartfelt feelings, announces the shallow basis for the friendship which dissolves once the protagonist-narrator does receive some money. Another characteristic of the essay, as noted by Claire Obaldia, is to examine an idea from different angles (3), in a kind of dialogical approach, choosing arguments for and against. Gallant uses this procedure when discussing stereotypes about Spanish people: "Were they typical Spaniards? I don't know what a typical Spaniard is. They didn't dance or play the guitar. Truth and death and pyromania did not lurk in their dark eyes; at least I never saw it" (188).
- 8 Señor Pinedo", her other story about Spain, however, does include some oblique and understated cri (...)
28However, "When We Were Nearly Young" does not meet one of the main demands of the essay. According to Claire Obaldia, the essay's essential quality is persuasion (5). A typical essay, therefore, would have allowed for a straightforward criticism of Franco's Spain, in order to persuade the reader of the Spanish dictatorship's faults, but Gallant does not want to persuade us of anything, she just presents things as they are. When I interviewed her, she admitted that "she didn't go to Spain to preach or to talk about politics but, rather, to see" (Somacarrera interview).8 The words Franco and dictatorship are mentioned in the story, but only in an elusive commentary: "There was the Spanish situation, of course, and I had certainly given a lot of thought to it before coming to Spain, but now that I was here and down and out I scarcely noticed it" (190).
29As Marcus Billson declares, "genres are essentially contracts between a writer and his audience" (260). However in the case of "When We Were Nearly Young", Gallant's indications about how to read the story seem to be at odds with the generic features that emerge from a close reading of the text. Mavis Gallant insists that we should read "When We Were Nearly Young" as mere fiction. She also testifies to the "shifting" or instinctive nature of her aesthetic: "I've never read [my work] as something with a pattern. I can't help you there." (Hancock 24). When asked whether she was conscious about the essay-like quality of "When We Were Nearly Young", she responded that "she couldn't really judge it herself" (Somacarrera interview). However, it becomes evident from my analysis that in "When We Were Nearly Young", Gallant plays with the readers' and the critics' expectations and subverts generic constraints, following Barthes' definition of Text:
The Text doesn't come to a stop with literature; it cannot be apprehended as part of a hierarchy or even a simple division of genres. What constitutes the Text is [...] its subversive force with regard to old classifications. (75)
30Gallant's story is not only characterized by its subversive resistance to classifications, but also by its liminality, as defined by the layering and mixing of different genres presented in my analysis. As a short story, it fits Current-García and Patrick's definition, when they say that the logic of this genre is the complex logic of mental and emotional experience, such as associative linkings, personal memories and fear and faith, rationalized reasons for behaviour and subsurface thinking that goes on (99-100).
31At its outset, "When We Were Nearly Young" follows the principles of classical autobiography, as established by Gusdorf and Lejeune, in that it is a story about the search for one's Self with a sense of distance and retrospective view dealing with the restlessness of growing older. Gallant's preoccupation with the unreliability of memory, present not only in this story but throughout her work, is also one of the main concerns of autobiography. However, the story does not completely follow the principles of this genre, as defined by Gusdorf. The search for the Self which is typical of autobiography gives way to disorientation, a disorientation which the narrator shares with her Spanish friends. Gusdorf also observes that an autobiography aims at finding a coherent and complete expression of a destiny (35). However, "When We Were Nearly Young" is not coherent, as it lacks a plot and consists in a series of comments about the narrator's state of mind and her motivations for going to Spain, together with her disorganized impressions about the country and her friends. It cannot be considered a complete account of a life, but, rather, a fragment. If autobiography is the diagramme of a destiny, this story would be just a sketch of a destiny, a sketch that leaves all the questions about the protagonist's future unsolved. The "I" wonders what direction her life is going to take, but she finds no answer.
32Insomuch as the story has a first person fictional narrator who tells a story which is based on personal experience, the text is auto/biographical, following the tradition of many narratives by Canadian women writers, such as Alice Munro or Margaret Laurence. The story's auto/biographical elements and its reflective tone also link it to the essay, a genre which Claire Obaldia defines as marginal and a-generic (3). Auto/biography and essay share their reliance on provisional impressions, their dialogic nature and the lack of a teleological self. The asystematic nature of the essay fits what Tamas Dobozy calls the "anarchic aesthetic" of Gallant's early and later stories (65), and so does the essay's sense of transitoriness and provisionality. The story lacks, however, the persuasive dimension of the essay, since Gallant's aim is not to criticize Franco's Spain, but, rather, to record a turning point in the narrator's life.
33I hope to have demonstrated that Gallant does draw on the genres of auto/biography and essay, a-generic and problematic as they intrinsically are, and undermines them at the same time. Her generic choices, conscious or unconscious as they may be, are related to the very transgression of these genres and play a crucial role in the codification of the meaning of the story. One of the main stylistic features of Gallant's work is, in Tamas Dobozy's words, disjuncture (65). In the case of "When We Were Nearly Young", since the text does not contain the full fictional account of a narrator's life, but just of an episode in her life, the short story is the adequate genre to present this fragmented and partial vision of the mystery of an "I"'s destiny. Indeed, it is well known that the short story has been Gallant's most frequent and obvious generic choice throughout her career because it provides her with an adequate form for the disjunction of her stories. That critics have found reminiscences of an essay in the story is also understandable, since the word essay comes from the French essai and essayer, to attempt, to experiment, to try out, and the text clearly has a tentative and loose structure. However, it is not an essay "about waiting for money in Madrid", as Douglas Malcom claims (119), but, rather, an essay about a life in a turning point. The documentary references about Madrid become a mere background which does not make any sense if they are not read in connection to the "I". The squalor of the Madrid of the fifties is the squalor of her own disoriented Self. The truth about facts is ultimately subordinated to the truth about the "I". Therefore, if I had to answer Besner's question about whether the narrator is a reporter or storyteller, I would reply that she is an auto/biographer, since generic analysis reveals that the story is not really about the Spain of the fifties, but about a failed attempt of an "I" to capture her Self.