By Airelle Perrouin
Mavis Gallant was a Canadian writer, born in 1922. She is known as a short story writer, although other works include the novels: Green Water, Green Sky (1959), A Fairly Good Time (1970), and an essay collection, Paris Notebooks (1986). Working as a journalist for The Montreal Standard, she was one of the first to witness and report on the photos of the liberation of the Nazi camps. In 1972, Gallant wrote that ‘the first pictures of death camps […] stopped a whole generation in its tracks’. Having settled in Paris in 1975, where she would spend the rest of her life, Gallant consistently challenged the prevalence of anti-semitism in France. Joseph Ballan argued that Gallant wrestled with Michael Levine’s theory of the ‘belated witness’ – a narrative figure who, although not a Holocaust survivor themselves, inherits its traumatic legacies – by illustrating the absence of such figures in postwar culture. And while this interpretation is more manifest in such stories as The Old Place and Old Friends, in which Gallant explores the explicit experience of Holocaust survivors, The Ice Wagon offers a different, but tangential example of postwar trauma. The story, published in 1963, offers a tender, if painful, exploration of intergenerational conflict, essentially showing that while children can learn from their parents’ mistakes, parents seldom learn from theirs.
In The Ice Wagon, the Frazier family – Peter, Sheilah, and their two daughters – leave for Europe on ‘the last scrap of money [Peter] was ever likely to see’. However, the parents are incautious with this money: ‘What sort of climate will Sheilah consider? What job will Peter consent to accept?’ And nine years later, they come home empty handed. The story opens with the family staying with Peter’s sister. They have been living there ever since they returned to Toronto from the Far East, seventeen weeks before. It is a Sunday morning (one of many religious references) and the girls are at church with their aunt – ‘the only condition [Lucille] imposes on her relations.’ Meanwhile, the parents sit in the kitchen dwelling on their foray into ‘world affairs’.
As a private married joke, Peter and Sheilah wear the silk dressing gowns they bought in Hong Kong. Each thinks the other a peacock, rather splendid, but they pretend the dressing gowns are silly and worn in fun.”
Sheilah tells Peter, ‘everybody else did well in the international thing’. He responds, ‘you have to be crooked’. Sheilah adds, ‘or smart. Pity we weren’t’. But for all their remorse, denial endures: ‘it is wrong to say they have nothing to show for time. Sheilah has the Balenciaga’. The Balenciaga recurs throughout the story as a symbol of misplaced values.
The Balenciaga is their talisman, their treasure; and after they remember it they touch hands and think that the years are not behind them but hazy and marvellous and still to be lived.”
At Lucille’s, Gallant’s narrator observes that ‘they have no privileges here’. Through a sequence of flashbacks, namely to postwar Switzerland, the pitfalls of privilege, or assumptive thinking generally, are examined. Peter is trying to capitalise on his patrilineal ties while also pretending to start his life anew: his life is a contradiction in terms. He remembers his father saying, ‘nothing can touch us’.
Peter meets Agnes, a colleague and fellow Canadian, at an international agency in Geneva. Peter is quick to recognise her ‘ambition’, ‘terror’ and ‘dry pride’ as part of their common, Scottish Presbyterian heritage. He loathes his job and feels entitled to more. However, when Agnes arrives, he struggles to sustain his delusions of grandeur – in part because she recalls a past he would rather forget (Peter suspects ‘she might have been dispatched by ghosts’). Fenced off by ‘her Bible, her flowers, and her Kleenex’, a recurring triad of props, there is something self-righteous, but also ethereal, about Agnes. And although Peter tries to undermine her authority by referring to her as a person of ‘low quality’ and ‘a mole’, he never fully succeeds at the task. Gallant’s narrator makes explicit that Agnes represents an alternative worldview. Agnes tells Peter: ‘my mother was ambitious for me.’ This stands in striking contrast to Peter, whose ‘father’s crowd spent’ while he and his sister ‘lived on the remains’.
Agnes represents an older system in which hard work and self-sufficiency are their own rewards. Proudly, she hangs her framed university certificate on the office wall.
And Peter […] watching her timid movements, her insignificant little face, felt, as you feel the approach of a storm, the charge of moral certainty round her, the belief in work, the faith in undertakings, the bread of the Black Sunday.”
Later in the story, Agnes tells Peter, ‘your blood has gotten thin’. This has a double meaning – not only are his links to the past weaker than they used to be (the money is running out), Peter is losing his connection to his daughters: ‘the children have their aunt now, and he and Sheilah have each other’. The idea of lineage is challenged at both ends: the children are compared to wrens – birds that take over the nests of other birds – and the parents are described as peacocks, beautiful creatures that cannot fly. Hobbling from country to country, but never ‘taking off’, the metaphor is fitting.
The titular ‘Ice House’ refers to a childhood memory that belongs to Agnes. She remembers the ice wagon going down the street in the early morning – one of the few private pleasures she could afford as an older sibling in a large, impoverished family. On that Sunday morning in Canada, Peter takes this memory as his own. This circles back to the idea that Agnes ‘was the true heir of the men from Scotland […] She had been sent to tell him, “You can begin, but not begin again”’. So when Peter states, ‘he has taken the morning that belongs to Agnes’, he relies upon her memories, her sense of self, to mask his own malaise. But while this story is about ruin, both on a societal and individual level, Gallant gestures towards the possibility of redemption. Peter seems to be coming to terms, if only slowly, with the temptations to greed, vanity, envy and sloth that led him astray. Thus, the biblical significance of the names Peter (the redeemer) and Agnes (saviour) are significant. Peter’s future might still be entwined with Sheilah’s, but his past belongs to Agnes:
Peter wonders what they were doing over there in Geneva – not Sheilah and Peter, Agnes and Peter. It is almost as if they had run away together, silly as children, irresponsible as lovers.”
Significantly, Agnes is ‘the only secret Peter has from his wife, the only puzzle he pieces together without her help.’ But the daughters seem closer to solving the mysteries of the past than their father, and by choosing to step away from their parents’ legacy, they represent a hopeful future.
The cover illustration to the latest edition of Paris Stories, published by NYRB, consists of four photographs from the series Man Dies on a Paris Street (1932), by the inter-war photographer Brassaï. In both Brassaï and Gallant, there is a sense of seeing something that should not be seen. Indeed, Michael Ondaatje described Gallant’s stories as sets of ‘dangerous unauthorised portraits’. Agnes sees Peter as no one has before: ‘now she sees me, he thought.’ Likewise, when Peter sees Agnes ‘he knew everything about her, all in a moment’, and yet with his own children he is ‘mystified’. It is interesting that ‘the others couldn’t tell Peter and Agnes apart’. By focusing in such a way on the deformations of self-perception, and the difficulty of truly knowing others, Gallant explores the limits of compassion both for ourselves and others. In doing so, she posits the question: how do we, as individuals or societies, come to terms with the moral failings of our past?
Joseph Ballan, ‘Presence and absence of the belated witness in two short stories by Mavis Gallant’, Scandinavian Jewish Studies ( 2017), 28:1, pp.67-76.
Marie Condé, ‘Mavis Gallant and the Politics of Cruelty’, The Year Book of English Studies, V ol. 31, North American Short Stories and Short Fictions (2001), pp. 168-181.
Marie Condé, ‘Pichipoi’ in Mavis Gallants’ ‘Malcolm and Bea’, Journal of the Short Story in English (1999) [online].
Mavis Gallant, The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street (1963)
Francine Prose, ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street, by Mavis Gallant’, Brick: A Literary Journal (2013), Issue N°91