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Day 1

Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant

Chapter 1

August 20, 2020 by Elliott Holt

The novel’s epigraph is from As You Like It, and the quote foregrounds the tension between the idea of "home" and traveling. Where is "home"? Gallant's expatriate characters aren't sure. As an American who spent years living abroad, I can relate.

“Ay, now am I in Arden; the more
fool I; when I was at home, I
was in a better place: but
travelers must be content.”

In the first sentence, Gallant flashes forward, with a glimpse at how George will perceive this moment when he looks back on it years later. Then she’s back in seven-year-old George’s POV, his aunt fractured into a “series of disks” like a cubist painting.

“Aunt Bonnie lowered the book she was reading and regarded George with puckered, anxious face—in his memories, an old face, a frightened face. She sat under a series of disks, in dwindling perspective: first an enormous beach umbrella, all in stripes, then her own faded parasol, then a neutral-colored straw hat.”

How much can you take away & still retain the essence of something? Gallant’s compression makes me think of Picasso’s bull studies. These 1945 lithographs depict a bull, w/ increasing abstraction. I took this at the Musée Picasso in Paris in March 2019.

I read the broken necklace as a metaphor for the shape of this novel. Rather than writing in a linear fashion, Gallant unstrings time and plays with beads of memory.

“The string of the necklace broke an instant later, the first time Flor pulled it on over her head. The glass beads rolled and bounded all over the paving; pigeons fluttered after them, thinking they were grains of corn.”

There are so many descriptions of pigeons in this chapter; anyone who has been to Venice knows that pigeons are omnipresent there. One of my favorite sentences is “He was alone and ridiculous with pigeons.” I love Gallant’s wry humor.

A water motif runs through this chapter—not only with the evocations of the title, but with phrases such as “an eddy of pigeons” and “a high tide of noise.”

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