The Promise and the Apology: Speech-Acts, Ethics, and Reading in Mavis Gallant's "The Pegnitz Junction"

Article excerpt

The novella "The Pegnitz Junction," a favorite among Mavis Gallant's critics, is also considered her most complex and challenging piece of writing (Schaub 27; Wilkshire 891). Set in post-Second World War Germany, the text is produced from Gallant's position as an interested witness. A Canadian reporter during the war, Gallant went on to live for the rest of her life in Europe, where she wrote a number of works that attempted to come to terms with this traumatic event. Gallant can thus be considered to function as what Ann Kaplan has described as an "embodied translator" (104), where her writing participates in an "ethics of witnessing" (122). This important practice of witnessing, Kaplan argues, "implies a larger ethical framework that has to do with public recognition of atrocities" (122). Gallant's narrative investigates issues of memory, storytelling, writing, reading, speech, and action, and her brilliance lies in her ability to examine issues of language in extremely nuanced ways as well as to engage in analyses in many registers simultaneously, where her technical abilities serve to develop the themes of her story. Motivated by a desire not to look at large objective historical or political structures for answers about why Nazi Germany happened but instead to look "close up" in terms of fascism's "small possibilities in people" (qtd. in Brandt 31), Gallant felt that it was in "every day living" where "the origin of the worm--the worm that destroyed the structure" would be found (qtd. in Schaub 22). Karen Smythe argues that Gallant's stories "approach ... an anagnoristic understanding of the human potential for inhumane behavior, and of the necessity of remembering ethically, so that the extremes of sentimentality and irresponsible forgetting--both of which allow the evasion of responsibility for the past--are condemned" (90).

At its most basic level, the story follows the journey of the protagonist, a young German woman named Christine, who accompanies her lover, Herbert, and his son little Bert to Paris and then back to Germany. Christine is engaged to marry another man, a theology student, and throughout the narrative tries to decide between her two suitors. The three travelers depart from a hotel in Paris and embark on a number of train journeys in order to return home; the story ends with them still in transit and with the characters all in a state of limbo. It is significant that in a narrative that examines such moral themes, Gallant chooses the structure of four-fold allegory to allow her to address larger and world historical issues while focusing on "every day" aspects in the characters' lives. Rather than the particular being subsumed into some larger symbolism, allegory allows her to engage these other levels where the significance of each level remains intact. The voyage thus operates at a literal level as a journey through France and Germany; at the typological level looking back at the past and linking the train journeys to those that took the Jewish people to the death camps in Nazi Germany; at the moral level, as the questioning of how one should act in the present; and, finally, at the teleological level, which presents the future journey of the German people and humanity in general as a question mark, particularly in terms of the generations born after the war. Yet Gallant's use of allegory is anything but morally programmatic or judgmental. She refuses both binary thinking and moral finger-pointing and instead emphasizes an ethics of listening, reading, rereading, reviewing, and understanding the past, even as we realize that any tellings and understandings are going to be selective and limited.

In the 1940s, Gallant was asked in her capacity as a reporter to write captions to accompany the first pictures that were issued of the concentration camps. At the time, she argued that the pictures should speak for themselves, effectively counseling silence and disagreeing with her editors, who wanted something sensationalist (Hancock 39). …