By Francine Prose
Featured Art: Vegetarian Appetizer by Ellery Pollard
To my mind, Mavis Gallant’s “Mlle Dias de Corta” is the most brilliant example of a story that focuses on a protagonist who might seem initially “unsympathetic” or at least problematic—in this case, an elderly French woman, the story’s narrator—and performs the magic trick of making the reader’s heart just break and break for her. It’s written in the second person, the potentially trashiest point of view, yet manages to persuade us that no other choice of perspective would have been appropriate or even possible. It’s framed as an unsent—and unsendable—letter from the unnamed narrator to the eponymous former boarder in the narrator’s Paris apartment and (incidentally, though of course not incidentally at all) the former lover of the narrator’s son. It’s a family drama, of course, but also a thrilling examination of xenophobia and nationalism; our narrator is always accusing Mlle Dias de Corta of pretending to be French—that is, of claiming to belong to that most favored and elite breed of human, at the very apex of culture and civilization—and not really being French, but rather Portuguese or something equally inferior and suspect. By the end of the story, we understand the insecurity and terror, the loneliness and disappointment, all the painful emotions that translate into suspicion of, and prejudice against, the other, the outsider—indeed, into fear of change of any sort. It moves effortlessly across decades and through time, and addresses large societal and political issues (from abortion to racism) without ever venturing very far from the narrator’s claustrophobia-inducing flat. Its rhetoric is vertiginously passive-aggressive (though it does make you wonder what exactly is the passive part of that equation) and consequently hilarious. There’s a family dinner in front of the TV (French TV at its most pompous and absurd) that makes one’s blood run cold. Finally, it rewards close reading and rereading, since there’s so much subtext that can be missed—the narrator’s anxiety about her son and his sexuality, to take just one example—unless you pay the story the patient, exacting attention that it earns and deserves. It’s one of my very favorite stories to teach; you can watch the light blink on and come up in your students’ eyes.
Francine Prose is the author of twelve novels, including Blue Angel, which was nominated for a 2000 National Book Award, and A Changed Man, which was the first winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The New Republic, and numerous other publications. The winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1989 Fulbright fellowship to the former Yugoslavia, two NEA grants, and a PEN translation prize, Prose is currently a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College.
Originally published in NOR 6