MAVIS GALLANT'S stories receive international attention when published separately in major magazines, so it is always an event when they are gathered to form a new collection. Across the Bridge contains 11 of them, all but one of which have been previously published.
The collection begins strongly with four interconnected stories that follow several decades in the fortunes of the Carette family of Montreal. Like Joyce, Gallant writes of her origins from "away"; this is interesting, first, because her grasp of Montreal, and the Montreal of the past, is undiluted and, second, because it ties in nicely with many of her other stories that deal with the emigre experience. (Gallant lives in Paris.)
The Carette stories reveal a Montreal of cultural and linguistic divisions and Catholic prejudices, where a young woman, Marie, clings to her French Catholic upbringing while waiting to marry: "...her early life was spent in preparation for a wedding." (''1 933") Marie falls in love with a Greek man, but her mother sabotages this and another man is "chosen" ("The Chosen Husband") - Louis Driscoll, despite an English surname, is francophone and reticent about committing himself to Marie. When he stays away for a while and Marie admits she could never have loved him, her mother replies: "No one expected you to love him...." The Korean war
and the spectre of possible conscription bring Louis back to Marie and they marry.
However, Marie's sister, Berthe, provides an interesting subtext. Berthe has a career, has had an affair, and ultimately does not marry. And as Marie steps into married life, Berthe sees it as: "...so much duty, so much love, so much reckless safety...." ("The Chosen Husband"). This reckless safety produces a son, Raymond; and the last two Carette stories are largely concerned with how Raymond's actions affect Marie and Berthe: Raymond's flight from Montreal, his years in the US army in Vietnam, his entrepreneurial adventures in Florida. Irony abounds. Whereas Louis had married in order to avoid a non-existent draft, Raymond joins a foreign army. In Marie's eyes, Raymond has turned his back on his own people. He marries an American girl and has no use for the French language: "His past had evaporated. It annoyed him to have to speak French." ("Florida")
Marie only sees from her circumscribed viewpoint, so appropriately it is Berthe who catches a glimmer of something that goes beyond even language and place and culture - the desire by some to avoid reckless safety:
Berthe thinks of how easy it must have been for Raymond to leave, with the sun freshly risen, slanting along side streets, here and there front steps sluiced and dark, the sky not yet a burning glass. He must have supposed the rest of his life was going to be like that. ("From Cloud to Cloud")
This idea of having to live with the choices one makes informs several of the other stories, from the aimless confusion of the title character in "Dede" to Sylvie in "Across the Bridge," who tries to avoid an arranged marriage. As in "The Chosen Husband," love 'is not an issue. Her mother instructs: "It takes patience, like practicing scales. Don't you want a husband?" Sylvie ultimately marries the man and takes comfort in a small symbolic action of her own. In "Kingdom Come," Dr. Dominic Missierna, an academic, has chosen to devote his life solely to his studies, and now must face a waning career and old age alone, his children strangers, the Europe he once knew also strange: "...he could watch Europe as it declined and sank, with its pettiness an faded cruelty, its crabbed richness and sentimentality."
One gains an understanding of the strangeness of the changing Europe in these stories, particularly as it affects older people living there. "Mlle Dias de Corta" is the story of an emigre to France who "makes good" as a television actress. The woman who had first taken Mlle de Corta in as a lodger cannot now help but reveal her prejudices regarding the flood of immigrants: "But, then, the language was already in decline, owing to lax teaching standards and uncontrolled immigration." Several other similar comments underline the extent of the woman's frustration.
Two other stories of note are "A State of Affairs" and "The Fenton Child." In "A State of Affairs," a French emigrant, M. Wroblewski, watches as his wife suffers from Alzheimer's disease. He is lonely, and Europe has changed, and while he may have made choices and lived with them all these years, now he is old and the rules have changed. M. Wroblewski's grace in caring for his wife is nothing short of eloquent. His very loneliness is eloquent.
The final story, "The Fenton Child," returns the reader to post-war Montreal. The story's opening line - "In a long room filled with cots and undesired infants..." - sets the tone for this powerful tale of cultural mistrust, double standards, and shame. It involves an infant, but concerns everyone who comes in contact with the boy. The conclusion, with its disconnected conversation to cross purposes, is truly frightening.
It is a curious story with which to end the collection. After moving from Montreal out into the world of fin de siecle Europe, it takes the reader back to the original landscape, complete with longheld prejudices and long-standing fears. It is Gallant territory. We know where we are and, thanks to wonderful stories like these, we know where we've been.