Voices Lost In Snow
This week, a new story, a short story, Mavis Gallant’s Voices Lost In Snow, first published in the New Yorker in March of 1976. It is available in the collection Varieties of Exile.
Is length the only difference between a short story and novel? Is a short story essentially a short novel?
No, best beloved.
Our friends at the Encyclopedia Britannica say this: “The short story is usually concerned with a single effect conveyed in only one or a few significant episodes or scenes. The form encourages economy of setting, concise narrative, and the omission of a complex plot; character is disclosed in action and dramatic encounter but is seldom fully developed. Despite its relatively limited scope, though, a short story is often judged by its ability to provide a “complete” or satisfying treatment of its characters and subject.”
So, a novel may have several subplots and deeply developed characters; a short story is not only shorter but must have focus.
Mavis Gallant says, "Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."
By the way, Voices Lost In Snow comes in at roughly 3900 words, on the shorter side for a short story.
It has been said that this story is more akin to literary non-fiction or even memoir then short fiction. It concerns a mature woman looking back on some events in her childhood in Montreal, the child and adult’s name being Linette Muir. Yes, Mavis Gallant grew up near Montreal, and, yes, as depicted in the story, her father died when she was ten. However, everyone’s names are different. I would say—and will say—that this story certainly has some auto-biographical/memoir-like elements but is a short story as defined above.
At the time Voices Lost In Snow was written (it was part of a series of six, actually) Mavis Gallant was deeply involved in research and writing concerning the Dreyfus affair, that 1890s case of a French officer unfairly convicted of treason due to anti-Semitism. As she studied photographs and paintings of the period, “there began to be restored in some underground river of the mind a lost Montreal.” Forgotten images of her childhood were triggered. A half-remembered image of Sherbrooke Street at night, “more a sensation than a picture,” was the starting point. In writing of Linnet Muir, it is as if the adult Gallant needed to become a researcher into the alien culture in which her own childhood had taken place. She certainly could have chosen to write a memoir about the events she depicts, using her own name, and her father’s and mother’s identity. But she chose to fictionalize it. In fact, we don’t know if the events she describes—particularly the visit to her godmother, Georgie, accompanied by her father, Angus—really occurred. Perhaps the visit occurred, but Ms. Gallant fictionalized the details.
We do not know.
One of the significant features of Voices Lost In Snow is the narrational structure. We have a narrator telling the story of apparently ten-year old Linette from the vantage point of someone much older, an adult who identifies herself as “I.”
“…the only authentic voices I have belong to the dead…”
The story begins with the narrator’s voice in an expository mode: “Halfway between our two great wars, parents whose own early years had been shaped with Edwardian firmness were apt to lend a tone of finality to quite simple remarks: “Because I say so,” was the answer to “Why?” and a child’s response to “What did I just tell you?” could seldom be anything but “Not to,” —not to say, do, touch, remove, go out, argue, reject, eat, pick-up, open, shout, appear to sulk, appear to be cross…Observe the drift of words descending from adult to child—the fall of personal questions, personal observations, unnecessary instructions. Before long the listener seems blanketed. He must hear the voice as authority muffled, a hum through snow.”
Here we have an immediate reference to the title, the image of voices lost in snow, a child unable to “hear” a parent, or to be able to question her/him. The way the past comes back to us through many filters, leaving us with fragments that lack meaning.
There is as well, a clear distancing between the adult narrator looking back on the past and the parenting customs of an earlier generation. This creates sympathy for the young Linette as her mother and father hurt her emotionally but deny responsibility. The story eventually shows how her father uses her as a kind of shield against Georgie.
The general theme is how adults can be confusing to children, and conversely, how children can mis-construe the adult world. Before the main event in the story—Linnet being taken by her father to visit Georgie—we are shown several short summary scenes that express this idea. Linnet’s mother tells her not to address other adults in the way her father does. (in a humorous scene, Linette addresses an older neighbor as “old cock” and is told to apologize because it is inappropriate). Linette accompanies her father to Montreal on Saturdays and has lunch with him. “It was my father’s custom if he took me with him to visit a friend on Saturday not to say where we were going. He was more taciturn than any man I have known since…being young, I was the last person anyone owed an explanation…I don’t know where my father spent his waking life: just elsewhere.”
Perhaps the question this story poses and answers is why are Linette’s parents so taciturn and opaque? Why does she remember their voices as a hum through snow? The story begins with a provisional answer, that the reason is merely because of their “Edwardian” upbringing. Is this conclusive?
“Without saying where we were going, my father took me along to visit Georgie one Saturday afternoon.”
Georgie is Linette’s godmother, a relation I’m not sure is very common any longer. I had one, although her efforts to mentor my religious education were blocked by my mother, who resented her. In a similar manner, Godmother Georgie and Linette’s mother Charlotte are described as having had a “falling out,” possibly due to Linette not being named after Georgie. However, despite this estrangement between the two women, Linette’s father, Angus, maintains a relationship with her.
We will see next time how this Saturday afternoon visit goes, and how years later, Linette learns about what those mysterious adults were up to.