Elliott Holt | Mavis Gallant

#APStogether August 19, 2020

Read Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant with Elliott Holt in the fourth installment of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs. Details about how #APStogether works can be found here.

Mavis Gallant is one of my favorite writers, and although she is primarily known for her short stories—she published 116 of them in the New Yorker—I love her two novels as well. Green Water, Green Sky, Gallant's debut, is a book about memory, family, and the meaning of home. Set in Venice, Paris, and Cannes, it follows a family of American expatriates, one of whom has a breakdown. Green Water, Green Sky is an episodic novel in four sections (interconnected stories, if you will) which display Gallant's masterful shifts in narrative perspective and her visceral exploration of displacement and exile.

Reading Schedule
Day 1| August 20: Chapter 1

Day 2 | August 21: Chapter 2 through the break on p. 306 ("She wondered if Flor was pregnant...")

Day 3 | August 22: Continue Chapter 2, from p. 306 (“That night, Bonnie got the invitation to Deauville...") to the break on p. 315, (through "All the same, thought Bonnie, it was a pity...")

Day 4 | August 23: Continue Chapter 2, from p. 315 ("Bob Harris had no division of purpose") to the break on p. 321 (through "It would have been too strong for anyone...")

Day 5 | August 24: Finish Chapter 2, from p. 321 (“Two days after this...") through "She emerged in triumph from the little wood..."

Day 6 | August 25: Chapter 3, from "Dreams of chaos were Wishart's meat..." to the break on p. 349 (through "It was the most dangerous of ideas, this ‘only you can save me,’...)

Day 7 | August 26: Finish Chapter 3, from p. 349, ("The rainstorm that afternoon was not enough") to the end.

Day 8 | August 27: Chapter 4 to The End.

Day 1 | August 20
Reading: Chapter 1

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.”

Day 2 | August 21
Reading: Chapter 2 through the break

Gallant begins this chapter in Bonnie’s point of view. “She had left her country between the end of the war and the onslaught of the New Look…” (Christian Dior’s New Look debuted in February 1947.)

The fact that Bonnie sees history through the lens of fashion tells us so much about her character.

A few pages into the chapter, Gallant shifts to Flor’s point of view and we experience her vertigo: “…the sidewalk came up to meet her.” Rather than explaining Flor’s symptoms, Gallant drops us right into her disorientation.

It’s July—tourist season—and Flor encounters a crowd of Americans at the Café de la Paix. That café still exists, in the 9th arrondissement, where I used to live. You can feel how well Gallant knows Paris; her writing has such a strong sense of place.

Flor’s family is full of “indefatigable nicknamers” (my family is, too) and I love that they dub Bob Harris “the Seal.” Gallant gives us such a specific description of Bob, with his “circus seal’s air of jauntily seeking applause.”

“She had looked up and before becoming aware that a man was watching her let him see on her drowned face everything he was prepared to pursue—passion, discipline, darkness.” Bob reads all of that on Flor’s face. One wonders what book Flor is reading!

“They all turned to the painting.” In a single paragraph, Gallant gives us the four different perspectives of Bonnie, Doris, Flor, and Bob. Four different views of the same image, four sharp insights into the characters.

Day 3 | August 22
Reading: Chapter 2 through the break on p. 306 to the break on p. 315

“Bonnie was not offended. Possibly she had always wanted this.” There’s comedy and pathos in that “possibly,” which suggests that Bonnie is never quite sure what she wants. She’s afraid of going too deep into her own psyche.

Bonnie brought Flor to Europe when she was 37 and Flor was 12. Now Bonnie is 52 and Flor is 26, so they have been expatriates for 14 years. We know they left New York shortly after WWII, so presumably it’s now 1959, the year the novel was published.

I have a first edition whose cover describes Green Water, Green Sky as a “novel in which time is the principal actor.” In some sense, time is the principal actor in all fiction, but I think that the perception of time is the main actor here.

“Interviewer: Do you think of yourself as a Parisian? An expatriate?

Gallant: I am a writer and, of course, a Canadian."

The Paris Review interview with Mavis Gallant.

Day 4 | August 23
Reading: Continue Chapter 2, from p. 315 to the break on p. 321

Mavis Gallant was born & raised in Montreal but moved to Paris in 1950 and stayed. In this interview with Jhumpa Lahiri in Granta, Gallant admits that when she first arrived in Paris, she “didn’t like it at all.”

“He’s afraid. He’s afraid of being what he really is.” Bob Harris’s criticism of the “phony” expatriate painter could apply to Bonnie, too.

That sentence comes in waves, with the repetition of the phrase “nothing was said.” It’s a tidal rhythm.

“Nothing was said, nothing was said about anything, and the silence beat about them like waves.”

Note the repetition of brittle T sounds: clatter, shutters, delicate, shattered, & spot.

“The present rushed in with a clatter, for Bonnie threw the shutters apart with an exclamation of annoyance, and past love, that delicate goblet, was shattered on the spot.”

Day 5 | August 24
Reading: Finish Chapter 2

August in Paris is empty and quiet. Alone in the apartment, after everyone has gone away on vacation, Flor closes all the shutters. (The same shutters that Bonnie opened, letting in the present.)

Doris is like Alice, visiting wonderland, but Flor has to live with the madness.

“She opened cans of soup in the kitchen and she never washed the saucepan or the cups. She took clean dishes from the cupboard each time, and it was like the Mad Tea Party.”

Two years earlier (in Chapter 1), Flor told her cousin George that “I’m not a person who breaks things” but this scene makes George’s memory seem reliable.

“For two days she sewed this dress and in one took it apart. She unpicked it stitch by stitch and left it in pieces on the floor.”

“…so now I am going home. I am not going away but home.” Doris, unlike Flor, has a place to go back to in the States. She has an enviably straightforward notion of “home.”

Doris’s letter to Flor says, “All children eventually make their parents pay, and pay, and pay.” It makes me think of Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.”

The imaginary animal that Flor has long blamed for her inner torment swims out to sea, while Flor “left the sea behind.” This splitting of self is surreal and disturbing. Is this the suicide that Doris feared?

“At the edge of the sea, the Fox departed.”

Day 6 | August 25
Reading: Chapter 3 to break on p. 349

Chapter 3 starts in the point of view of a new character: Wishart. Gallant makes her reader work. It takes a few pages to understand that this chapter rewinds two years, to the summer when Flor meets Bob Harris in Cannes.

Gallant is so good at writing about class. Wishart, who “had lived one of society’s most grueling roles, the escape from an English slum” is friends with Bonnie, who comes from an upper class American family, only because he has learned to perform.

Bob Harris doesn’t come from old money and has “no attachments to the past.” At first, Flor finds this liberating. She opens the shutters and relishes “a watery world of perceptions.” So different from the Flor who closes the shutters in Paris.

The phrase “it might be possible” is heartbreaking. Flor wants a home so badly that she is trying to persuade herself that Bob is where she belongs.

“Lacking an emotional country, it might be possible to consider another person one’s home.”

Day 7 | August 26
Reading: Finish Chapter 3

Gallant is mordantly funny as she describes the striving Wishart and snobby Bonnie, + their mutual disappointment when their masks fall away.

“It established him in reality—a master afraid for his grubby post—and reality was not what Bonnie demanded.”

Do you think that Wishart actually makes this comment about Flor out loud? I’m not sure.

“He heard the words, ‘she has a crack across the brain,’ but was never certain if he had said them aloud.”

“When he had gone, she would hear the question, the ghost voice that speaks to every traveler. Why did you come to this place?” This makes me think of the last line of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Questions of Travel.”

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there... No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

Day 8 | August 27
Reading: Chapter 4 to the end

George is now 19 and visiting Paris, just a few weeks after the events of chapter 2. When he observes a ring on Bob’s finger and thinks, “Perhaps it had belonged to Harris’s wife,” it seems that Flor is, as we suspected in Chapter 2, dead.

Gallant loves situational irony: Bonnie is wearing black and talking about Flor in the past tense (“Flor was all Fairlie”) but Flor is actually alive, and in a mental hospital, or as Bob Harris describes it, “a sort of rest place.”

In the interview with Jhumpa Lahiri in Granta, Gallant explains that Flor has schizophrenia.

I’m haunted by this description of George and the phantom bead from Flor’s necklace.

“He had put his hand in his pocket and the bead was gone. What remained was his habit of clutching air.”

“Harris seemed unaware of the magnitude of the stroke.” George is “a real Fairlie,” according to Bonnie, and he clings to that identity. Renouncing Flor as “outside the family” is momentous to him, but Gallant exposes the absurdity of George’s self-congratulation when she tells us that Harris doesn’t notice.

Reading about George, Bonnie, and Bob on the Pont de l’Alma “obeying Bonnie’s order to stop and see how beautiful the lighted bridges were” makes me yearn to return to Paris. In the meantime, I have Gallant’s stories to take me there.

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