Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Extreme Liminality: The Linked Stories of ÉDouard, Juliette, and Lena in Mavis Gallant's Overhead in a Balloon

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Extreme Liminality: The Linked Stories of ÉDouard, Juliette, and Lena in Mavis Gallant's Overhead in a Balloon

Article excerpt

IN Mavis Gallant's collection Overhead in a Balloon, there are four linked stories which concern three characters during and after World War Two. When these stories, "A Recollection," "The Colonel's Child," "Rue de Lille," and "Lena," were reassembled for the 1997 edition of the Selected Stories, Gallant herself put them in chronological order. They concern the recollections of Edouard ?. and his life with his two wives, Juliette and Lena.1 Edouard is a young man in Paris during the German occupation, and he has idealistic dreams of joining the Free French in London and fighting in the Résistance. Meanwhile, he acts out his idealism of resistance by marrying a Hungarian- Jewish woman named Magdalena, fourteen years his senior, and sending her to Cannes, where she can be safe. Magdalena is also a devout convert to Catholicism, while Edouard is an atheist. Which is to say, he not only has no religion, but does not believe in a soul at all: "I did not separate soul from body, since the first did not exist," he admits in "A Recollection" when explaining how he married Magdalena (by "signing" his non-existent children "over to Rome").2 He is the son of "anticlerical and republican" (802) parents. He goes on to London, where he joins up with the Free French. During his first training session on a motorcycle, he falls and breaks his bones, including his nose, and has to be kept in a rest home to recover. While in the hospital, he is visited by another idealistic volunteer, the seventeen-year-old Juliette, who sits and talks with him to keep his mind off his wounds. Juliette is a Protestant of good family. Here, therefore, you have three dispositions coalescing: the Catholic, the Protestant, and the secular.3 It might be said that Édouard's real religion eventually becomes 'literary culture'.

Edouard and Juliette stay together and plan to marry, which they can only accomplish if Magdalena grants him a divorce. Lena, however, being Catholic, refuses to do so (although there are suggestions that she also cares more for him than she will admit to herself, and it only comes out at the very end, in "Lena," that she has it in her to project towards him an "enduring look of pure love," 830), so Edouard and Juliette end up living in a common-law relationship for many years. Finally, when the law does allow divorce, on grounds of separation, the two get married and settle in Paris. Juliette becomes a translator of American literature, and Edouard becomes a radio and television broadcaster, hosting interview shows with cultural figures (a career he arrives at through the help of Juliette's well-connected father). Magdalena, who has been presented to us as a woman with many lovers who pay her way and shower her with finery, and who is thus a kind of high-class courtesan to the powerful and wealthy - "Cosmopolitan," Edouard at one point asserts (805), and then, "Notice how soon after thinking 'cosmopolitan' I thought 'of her sort' " (806) - is not heard of again until the fourth story, by which time she has become an old woman, in her late seventies, and is living in a rest home. Edouard comes to see her regularly and keeps her in gifts and company, while Juliette has suddenly died relatively young, at fifty-nine. In the end, Edouard is sitting by Lena's bedside the way Juliette sat by his. Magdalena still considers herself to be Édouard's only real, true, wife, and Edouard knows it.

This literal summary belies a development on the symbolic level which is rich and resonant. So far, critics have confined discussion to the personalities in question and the historical moment in which they live. Janice Kulyk Keefer finds Édouard a character of "imperturbable coldness and callousness" who is, besides, "repellent."4 Further, Kulyk Keefer asserts that Edouard and Magdalena share a world that is "without any metaphysical resonance whatsoever."5 Magdalena is happy to hear of Juliette's death, and Kulyk Keefer exclaims: "so much for female solidarity, or for Christian virtues of charity and forgiveness. …

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