What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, March 9, 2015

David Macfarlane's "Traces of Mavis"

Mavis Gallant (Photo by Ian Barrett)
I’ve just finished reading David Macfarlane’s wonderful "Traces of Mavis" (The Walrus, March 2015). It’s an account of Macfarlane’s visit to Paris “for a story about Mavis Gallant.” He goes to the Montparnasse cemetery to see her burial place (“a spare room in the Peron family crypt”). He “strolled as Mavis Gallant had often strolled through the Luxembourg Gardens.” He “ate an old-fashioned French lunch in the artist’s bistro Wadja, on the rue de la Grande Chaumière, as she liked to do.” He “drank coffee with her friend Odile Hellier on the terrace of le Dôme—the grand café Gallant most enjoyed.” He “stood in front of 14 rue Jean Ferrandi, her home for some fifty years, and considered the view she had when she looked up from her work.”

Gallant is among the New Yorker greats. As Macfarlane points out, she contributed 116 short stories to the magazine. And yet, for me, her New Yorker masterpiece isn’t a short story; it’s her "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook" (September 14 & 21, 1968), later collected in her Paris Notebooks (1986), a record of her firsthand impressions of the 1968 student revolts in Paris. It’s written in a style I relish – first-person, present-tense, collage-like, written-on-the-wing, using sentence fragments, bits of dialogue, quotation, comment, observation, description, hearsay, anything at hand to convey reality at the moment it’s being experienced. Here’s a quick taste:

The ripped streets around the Luxembourg Station. People who live around here seem dazed. Stand there looking dazed. Paving torn up. The Rue Royer-Collard, where I used to live, looks bombed. Burned cars – ugly, gray-black. These are small cars, the kind you can lift and push around easily. Not the cars of the rich. It’s said that even the car owners haven’t complained, because they had watched the police charge from their windows. Armed men, and unarmed children. I used to think that that the young in France were all little aged men. Oh! We all feel sick. Rumor of two deaths, one a student, one a C.R.S. Rumor that a student had his throat cut “against a window at 24 Rue Gay-Lussac” – so a tract (already!) informs. They say it was the police incendiary grenades, and not the students, that set the cars on fire, but it was probably both. A friend of H.’s who lost his car found tracts still stuffed in it, half charred, used as kindling. Rumor that police beat the wounded with clubs, that people hid them (the students) and looked after them, and that police went into private homes. When the police threw the first tear-gas bombs, everyone in the houses nearby threw out basins of water to keep the gas close to the ground.

In his piece, Macfarlane says he and the photographer Ian Patterson discussed “how the personality of Paris was part – a crucial part – of the personality of Mavis Gallant.” This is an excellent point. In “The Events in May,” Gallant’s identification with the besieged city is total.

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