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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Startling Developments

From the outset, the Narrator entity of The Moslem Wife expresses cutting judgements of the characters, skewering their vanities and exposing their vulnerabilities. The first sentence is a prime example: “In the south of France, in the business room of a hotel quite near to the house where Katherine Mansfield (whom no one in this hotel had ever heard of) was writing “The Daughters of the Late Colonel, Netta Asher’s father announced that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again.” Here, the writer Katherine Mansfield is mentioned, a real person whose presence in time and space gives verisimilitude to a work of fiction. Yet the Narrator-person doesn’t just mention Ms. Mansfield, it comments parenthetically that no one at “this hotel” had ever heard of her, a not so subtle dig at their ignorance. Parentheses are interesting beasties. “…a set of marks to regulate texts and clarify their meanings, principally by separating or linking words, phrases, and clauses, and by indicating parentheses and asides.” This certainly is a rather caustic aside.

Then, in the second paragraph, we find: “Who would have contradicted Mr. Asher? Certainly not Netta.” Who is speaking here? Netta? The Narrator? Both, possibly, in a sort of free indirect style. It’s certainly the Narrator poking some fun at Mr. Asher’s blowhard comments. He’s speaking in 1920 about WWI, and of course WWII proves him terribly wrong, although he’s been long deceased before it occurs. There’s actually a quality of sadness here, in that the child Netta is part of this scene; she witnesses her father’s comments, accepts them as truth, is perhaps comforted by what he says. The tragedy is that, twenty years later, she will experience first-hand the deprivations and destruction of WWII. Tragic irony, if you will.

The Narrator has an assured and deeply intimate view of Netta, but it is described not in Netta’s language, but in the Narrator’s—a phenomenon we saw in “In the Skin of a Lion.” Netta, we are told, finds other men besides her husband, dull. “She never mentioned this. For one thing, both of them had the idea that, being English, one must not say too much. Born abroad, they worked hard at an Englishness that was innocently inaccurate, rooted mostly in attitudes.” These are not conscious self-appraisals by Netta and Jack; these represent the Narrator “telling” us about what sort of people they are (or were), using the Narrator’s language and thoughts. Jack is described by the Narrator: “He was like someone reading several novels at once, or like someone playing simultaneous chess.” Does anyone think such things about themselves? I actually am reading several novels at the same time, but this is not a metaphor, but fact, best beloved. I don’t live a metaphor. (No?)

But wait!

Here’s another possibility, generated during middle of the night brooding. The Narrator could be Netta looking back at herself. A future Netta using the language she possesses in the future, showing and reporting on the past, both the actual events and the way she felt about them. This theory throws new light on the quote cited above. “Who would have contradicted Mr. Asher? Certainly not Netta.” This could be Netta remembering her childhood relationship with her father. It would indicate that an older Netta has become much more cynical and critical of the others in the story. She wants to show a past wherein she was condescended to, and taken advantage of by the others. She’s looking back with a vengeance.

I like this theory. It fits well with Mavis Gallant’s tendency to write almost memoir-like stories (witness the Montreal tales). Do I think Netta in The Moslem Wife is a veiled (no pun intended here) Ms. Gallant? No, not literally. Ms. Gallant did not run a hotel on the Riviera in the 1930’s. However, perhaps some of the character’s thoughts and feelings, the kinds of people she encountered and their behavior toward her are drawn from life.

So for clarity’s sake, the storytelling triumvirate would now be, Mavis Gallant, the actual author, Netta as the Narrator—a character in the story telling the story (but not as an “I”), and the style, of which we will have more to say. The present time of the story is the story’s future, if you will. And this new theory about the Narrator also has implications about the ending.

Whoa! This blog is really dashing through the snow.

To all those who celebrate—Merry Christmas!


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