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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

When Is Now? - Voices Lost In Snow

We’ve noted the intriguing structure in Mavis Gallant’s Voices Lost In Snow, how the story contains an apparently autobiographical narrator looking back to and showing childhood. Memory it would seem.

‘Kay. That is the illusion created by this marvelous tale. I stand by my comment from last week that it's more fiction than anything. George Woodcock, Canadian writer and savant, said in a rather fussy way, “Linnet Muir is about as near to Mavis Gallant as the namesake bird (a modest British singing bird) is to the Mavis, which is the Scottish name for the magnificent European song thrush.”

What’s with all the bird references? By a guy whose name is Woodcock, no less.

Well, he apparently knew Ms. Gallant and is affirming that the Linnet Muir stories are fiction.

So, within the fictional world of the story, an older woman is looking back on her childhood, trying to solve a mystery—who were her parents? Not as parents, but as people. Now, it’s quite possible that the real person, Mavis Gallant, hoped to solve this mystery about her own parents—after all, it’s a common human experience to wonder who one’s parents really were. But Ms. Gallant was writing a story, perhaps one that expressed a personal issue, but still a story. She created a protagonist—ten-year-old Linnet Muir, growing up in Montreal, circa 1930—and she created a narrator—an unnamed older woman who tells the story about her younger self. There are two distinct times in the story, one is the narrator’s present, largely conveyed in simple present tense, and the past inhabited by Linnet, expressed in simple past. And its variations.

Examples please.

As noted, the story begins with a passage describing an older model of parenting in which children were discouraged from understanding their parents’ behavior. The verb tense used is primarily the simple past. “Dark riddles filled the corners of life…” “Asking questions was ‘being tiresome…’”

Halfway through the first paragraph, there’s a shift to the present: “How much has changed? Observe the drift of words descending from adult to child…” A question and invitation to the reader to reflect on how much has changed and to observe. It could also be the author asking herself the question.

There’s nothing like different verb tenses to indicate a shift in time.

When is the “now” of the story? The use of the simple past tense in the passages about the child Linnet would seem to indicate they had already occurred, that the narrator is describing them after the fact.

But here’s a different passage: “Two persons descend the street, stepping carefully. The child, reminded every day to keep her hands still, gesticulates wildly—there is the flash of a red mitten. I will never overtake this pair. Their voices are lost in snow.”

Now the author could have written, “Two persons descended the street, stepping carefully. The child…gesticulated wildly—there was a flash of red mittens. I would never overtake this pair. Their voices were lost in snow.”

Written this way, it would indicate that we the readers are being shown action in the past. As written, the narrator, writing in present tense, shows something else—a vision she has of the past. A little girl and her father “descending” a wintry street. But it is not the past; it is present as a vision.

What about that lovely, “I will never overtake that pair. Their voices are lost in snow?” Well, it indicates the narrator in her future time commenting on the vision. She does not have the experience of moving past the father daughter pair. They are frozen in time, and there is no continuity—that is, this is not someone writing, “I remember the time my father and I walked down a street in Montreal. It must have been 1932." No, to the narrator, the past is not continuous with the present. They are speaking in the present, but their voices are lost in snow.

Heavy stuff.

Till next time.


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