By Andrea Barrett
Featured Art: The Funeral by Edouard Manet
One of my favorite stories is Mavis’ Gallant’s “The Remission,” which is set in the early 1950s but was written in the late 1970s. Superficially straightforward, it reveals its virtuosity slowly and deviously, stating its premise outright in the first line:
When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.
A few lines later, Gallant also telegraphs the outcome of the plot, which follows the lives of Alec and his family during their unexpectedly long sojourn:
Alec—as obituaries would have it later—was husband to Barbara, father to Will, Molly, and James. It did not occur to him or to anyone else that the removal from England was an act of unusual force that could rend and lacerate his children’s lives as well as his own.
After which it proceeds as promised to Alec’s funeral, a straight path with no obvious pyrotechnics—although one might, it’s true, stare with some wonder at the fierce final lines:
It then happened that every person in the room, at the same moment, spoke and thought of something other than Alec. This lapse, this inattention, lasting no longer than was needed to say “No, thank you,” or “Oh, really?” or “Yes, I see,” was enough to create the dark gap marking the end of Alec’s span. He ceased to be, and it made absolutely no difference after that whether or not he was forgotten.
The forty pages in between, carrying us from the announcement that Alec is dying to his un-mourned death, are some of the richest I know. More is seen, felt, observed, understood in this relatively short space than in many novels. In the preface to her Collected Stories, Gallant observed that “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.” That’s exactly what this story does, distilling through the marvel of its narrative voice three years of a family’s life into the intensely felt climate of their minds.
Witty, wry, and deeply intelligent, the voice is also fully omniscient, conveying attitude and on occasion relaying information from the outside. It dips into the heads of not only dying Alec, his wife, Barbara, and their three children, but also two crucial observers, Mr. Cranefield and Mrs. Massie, as well as Alec’s sister, Barbara’s three brothers, the doctor who is present as Alex dies, and, by the final paragraph, everyone at the funeral. Although the voice isn’t personified, it has a very distinct personality, visible for example in this seemingly offhand glimpse of Barbara:
Her visitors were mistaken; Barbara never spent more than she had, but only the total of all she could see. What she saw now was a lump of money like a great block of marble, from which she could chip as much as she liked.
The prose is precise, delectable to the ear, beautiful without being overwritten. A strong, if buried, plot element—the transfer of the house to Alec and Barbara, initially presented as a small business manner for the sake of convenience, later enabling Barbara and her new lover to steal it from her brothers—propels us forward, while the structure, so apparently artless, turns out to be as precise and cunning as an origami crane. The amazing, six-page-long extended scene that closes the story couldn’t exist without the deft compression of so much essential material beforehand.
“The Remission” first appeared in book form in From the Fifteenth District (1979). Since then it’s been reprinted in her Collected Stories (1996) and again in Paris Stories (2002), the excellent selection edited by Michael Ondaatje. It’s not hard to find; find it!
Andrea Barrett is the author of six novels, including The Air We Breathe, and two collections of short fiction, Ship Fever, which received the National Book Award, and Servants of the Map, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in western Massachusetts and teaches at Williams College.
Originally published in NOR 6