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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Forain - Mavis Gallant

This week, let’s continue our exploration of the stories of Mavis Gallant, focusing on Forain, her June 1991 piece published in the New Yorker and available in her collection, Paris Stories.

Is it about people living in Paris?


Forain begins with both a funeral and a mishap. “About an hour before the funeral service for Adam Tremski, snow mixed with rain began to fall and by the time the first of the mourners arrived the stone steps of the church were dangerously wet.” Blaise Forain is the publisher of and literary executor for the deceased, Adam Tremski. When another mourner slips and hurts herself, he feels obliged to call an ambulance and must accompany the mourner to the hospital where he has to “fork over” a deposit, as the woman has no health insurance. Thus, a story about loss and accident begins with both, as well as a scene showing how the protagonist, Forain, feels responsible.

A theme of exile runs through most of Mavis Gallant’s work, and Forain is no exception. Although Blaise Forain is a Frenchman living in Paris, most of the other characters are Poles who keep a separate life.

“Tremski’s friends sat with their shoes in puddles. They kept their gloves on and pulled their knitted scarves tight. Some had spent all these years in France without social security or health insurance, either for want of means or because they had never found their feet in the right sort of employment. Possibly they believed that a long life was in itself full payment for a safe old age. Should the end turn out to be costly and prolonged then please, allow us to dream and float in the thickest, deepest darkness, unaware of the inconvenience and clerical work we may cause. So, Forain guessed, ran their prayers.”

This passage also illustrates the author’s humorous and ironic style.

Another theme that carries much comedy has to do with the writing and publishing world. Forain runs Blaise Editions, a small and barely afloat publishing house. “Season after season, his stomach eaten up with anxiety, his heart pounding out hope, hope, hope, he produced a satirical novella set in Odessa; a dense, sober, private journal, translated from the Rumanian, best understood by the author and his friends; or another wry glance at the harebrained makers of history…At least once a year he committed the near suicide of short stories and poetry. There were rewards, none financial.” Layers of irony lie here: a short story contains references to how commercially unsuccessful short stories can be. Self-reflexive, indeed.

“If the firm went into deeper decline, if it took the slide from shaky to foundering, he would turn to writing. Why not? At least he knew what he wanted to publish. It would get rid of any further need of dealing with living authors: their rent, their divorces, their abscessed teeth, not to speak of that new craze in the East—their psychiatrists. His first novel—what should he call it? He allowed a title to arise from his dormant unconscious imagination…He could not all of a sudden start to publish poems about North Sea pollution and the threat to the herring catch.”

All of this is quite funny—particularly to a writer.

The story—till the final scene a year later—occurs during the funeral service for Adam Tremski and keeps returning to its action amidst lengthy digressions that show Forain’s thoughts and memories of who Tremski was, and that reveal who Forain is. There is a minimum of dialogue; the story is told by an unnamed narrator who is able to show Forain’s perspective, using Mavis Gallant’s distinctive style. It is a somewhat impersonal style—as we’ve said—breezy and sarcastic.

“Four months before, Forain had been present for the last blessing of Barabra, Tremski’s wife, at the Polish church on the Rue St. Honore. The church, a chapel really, was round in shape, with no fixed pews—just rows of chairs pushed together. The dome was a mistake—too imposing for the squat structure—but it had stood for centuries, and only the very nervous could consider it a threat. Here, Forain had noticed, tears came easily, not only for the lost friend but for all the broken ties and old, unwilling journeys.” The passage continues with Forain reflecting on Tremski and on Barbara and the funeral. Thus, it must be noted that although Forain is in the present at Tremski’s funeral, he is lost in reverie about the past—of course, this is not an unusual state at a funeral.

Another thing worth noting is the distance between Forain and the narrator. The narrator shows Forain with all (or many) of his foibles, negative characteristics he would probably not wish to reveal.

Let’s stop here and pick up next weeks, dear friends.

Till then.


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