Last week, I began a look at Mavis Gallant’s Voices Lost in Snow, remarking on how the theme of the story is that parents may be confusing to children and/or that children misinterpret their parents’ behavior. This week, let’s look at the prime example of this—Linette’s visit to her godmother, Georgie, accompanied by her father, Angus.
“You didn’t say you were bringing Linette!” This is how the adult Linette recalls the visit beginning. Her father says, “Well, she is your godchild, and she has been ill.”
There follows a description of how the adult Linette remembers her medical history, how her first doctor, Ward Mackey (great Canadian name) had told her parents she was “subject to bilious attacks”—this being, after all, in the late nineteen twenties. A new doctor, “Uncle Raoul” proclaimed that the young Linette “had a brush with consumption.” Ms. Gallant uses the French, “Votre fille a frôle la phtisie,” the French verb frôler meaning to brush or graze. So Uncle Raoul was not saying Linnet was tubercular, but that she perhaps had some weakness in the lungs. However, Linette’s parents, out of concern, moved to the country where the air was fresher, I suppose. Ms. Gallant writes: “’Frôler’ was the charmed word in that winter’s story; it was a hand brushing the edge of folded silk, a leaf escaping a spiderweb…I had been standing on one foot for months now, midway between ‘frôler’ and ‘falling into,’ propped up by a psychosomatic guardian angel.”
‘Kay. What does this mean? The child Linette had escaped tuberculosis but there is also a suggestion that she got attention—otherwise lacking—for being ill.
Georgie observes that Linette is “smaller than she looks.” The narrator Linette observes, “This authentic godmother observation drives me to my only refuge, the insistence that she must have had something—he could not have been completely deaf and blind.” An interesting comment. The adult Linette is saying—because of this memory of Georgie’s comment that she was small for her age—that she must have had some illness, and that her father must have noticed—despite his seeming obliviousness.
Georgie offers Linette some mints. “My father and Georgie talked for a while—she using people’s initials instead of their names, which my mother would not have done—and they drank what must have been sherry, if I think of the shape of the decanter.” Then Linette and her father leave.
Angus doesn’t live much longer. “He was barely thirty-one and had a full winter to live after this one—little more.”
Years later, when Linette is “about twenty,” she again encounters Dr. Ward Mackey, who tells her, “Georgie didn’t play her cards well where he (Angus) was concerned. There was a point where if she had made just one smart move, she could have had him. Not for long, of course, but none of us knew that.”
The narrator realizes she was brought along that day to visit Georgie not because her father didn’t know what else to do with her but because her presence was significant to whatever relationship he had with Georgie. Linette was a reminder to Georgie that Angus was married, perhaps that he intended to stay married. The narrator writes, developing a beautiful card metaphor, “I saw only one move that Saturday: My father placed a card face-up on the table and watched to see what Georgie made of it. She shrugged, let it rest…What if she had picked it up, remarking in her smoky voice, ‘Yes, I can use that?…He took the card back and dropped his hand, and their long intermittent game came to an end. The card must have been the eight of clubs—a female child.”
So the story ends. It’s interesting that the eight of clubs is believed to represent a casual relationship. A good omen for love as adventure, a bad one for marriage. More generally, it can mean compromises in love. Another source claims that it is known as the playboy card and connects with the needy child inside us and affirms our lovability.
Huh, these meanings seem to connect with the story. The adult Linette realizes there was some attraction between her father and Georgie, an attraction the child Linette was unaware of, and that her father was not quite as remote and disengaged as she believed. Perhaps, she is suggesting that her father had made it clear to Georgie he would only pursue a casual relationship with her as he was married. Her mother too is recast—she is not so much the eccentric nut who turns on her friend Georgie but more the woman and wife who was defending her marriage.
Let’s keep in mind that this story is more fiction than anything. It’s easy to read it as autobiography but there’s no evidence it really happened, no evidence that Georgie, Angus, Linette’s mother, Dr. Ward Mackey, Uncle Raoul, and Linette really existed. It’s a story, best beloved, a story that expresses truth about people.
Till next time.