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Image et Récit

Héliane Ventura
Simone Vauthier
Jean-Michel Lacroix

I. Les mots et la peinture

Mavis Gallant's Double Illusion: Text and Image in "Speck's Idea" and "Overhead in a Balloon"1

Danielle Schaub


"Speck’s Idea" et "Overhead in a Balloon" réfléchissent textuellement et picturalement le déclin d'une société régie par des soucis politiques et purement matériels. Images et texte attirent l'attention des lecteurs sur la qualité illusoire de l'art, devenu un produit de consommation. Tout propriétaire de galerie d'art, un peu illusioniste, un peu metteur en scène d'un théâtre de dupes, trompe à la fois l'artiste et l'amateur, niant par là même la signification de l'art. Cette négation trouve son reflet dans les aptronymes qui, tissés dans la trame du texte et de l’image, renforcent le message des nouvelles. In fine, la fusion des images et de l'imaginaire dans et avec le texte reflète la dégradation esthétique et la futilité de toute quête de la beauté.

Texte intégral

  • 1 I am most indebted to the Israel Association for Canadian Studies without whose research grant thi (...)
  • 2 As Neil Besner rithtly points out the common concern with art is not the only aspect that links th (...)

1Both Mavis Gallant's "Speck’s Idea" and "Overhead in a Balloon" deal with ways in which art is consumed, used, disposed of, and discussed in an illusory manner2. The former concerns the title character's attempt to bring fame to his name and his art gallery. The latter stars Speck's Swiss assistant, Walter Obermauer, in his peregrination through life, religion and art. In both stories, text and image weave a web of meaning where the image, consisting of real or fictitious paintings, book covers and films, reflects the message of the story which in turn conveys the characters' very attitude to pictorial creation, and to art in general. By merging with and in the text, images and the imaginary create a meaningful network throwing light on the reception of art in both stories.

2In "Speck's Idea," an initial picture of human and political desolation finds its textual counterpart in an imaginary article foretelling many ills if all carry on ignoring the situation. Prompted by this imaginary article, Dr Sandor Speck, an art dealer seeking prominence and prosperity, looks for ways of bringing about a new era. He then conceives an abstract image without forms nor hues by conceptualising an exhibition based on the invention, on the intellectual creation, of the work and life of an artist — likely to catch on — whose existence he has yet to trace. In other words, the text is based on the presentation of images or paintings that may or may not exist. Ideal culture — or at least what he believes it to be — he eventually decides to display by exhibiting the works of a mediocre painter. The text, however, shows that the latter’s re-presentation to the world does not really aim to boost a new, more dignified culture, but rather to promote an unsuccessful art dealer. The whole point of the story, evidently, is to make fun of the mercantile art world and of the creation of culture in a politically-and financially-minded society, as comes out through the numerous paintings, drawings and decorations depicted. The actors of this théâtre de dupes are the artists who produce indifferent works and the consumers who believe they are buying art objects. In between stands the illusionist, Sandor Speck who tricks artists about what they do, and their customers about what they buy.

3At the core of the story lies the basic question of authenticity and validity of both text and image in and beyond the fictional world. The creation of the imaginary artist originates in an authenticated text within the text. The "disturbing article in Le Monde" is presented with exact references between brackets — "(front page, lower middle, turn to page 26)" (OB 8) — that confer on it a real character. A sign presumably from the real world, yet belonging to the fictional realm by its very presence in the story, the article, written "by a man who never [takes] up his pen unless civilisation [is] in danger", is meant to unsettle its readers — and supposedly the story's readers too — by mirroring the contemporary decline of society.

Its title, "Redemption Through Art — Last Hope for the West?", had been followed by other disturbing questions: When would the merchants and dealers, compared rather unfairly to money-changers driven from the temple, face up to their responsibility as the tattered century declined? Must the flowering gardens of Western European culture wilt and die along with the decadent political Systems, the exhausted parliaments, the shambling elections, the tired liberal impulses? What of the man in the Street, too modest and confused to mention his cravings? Was he not gasping for one remedy and only one — artistic renovation? And where was this to come from? "In the words of Shakespr [sic.]," the article concluded, supposedly in English, "That is the qustn [sic.]" (OB 8).

  • 3 I am indebted to Wolfgang Hochbruck for drawing my attention to the similarity in discourse.

4The picture raised by the successive questions displays culture — the fictional or the actual, one may wonder — as endangered by the commercial and political strongholds that cannot take in values of a different nature. The content of the article curiously recalls a historical harangue: on 15 March 1848, Sándor Petöfi, a Hungarian poet, became a national hero by addressing a crowd in Budapest preconising a revolution, indeed calling to arms to save the world and humanity3. The provoking questions result in Speck's immediate reaction, ironically so, for by hitting upon the idea of the ideal artist agreeable to all, Speck falls back on the very characteristics abused by the columnist. Indeed, by devising an all-purpose figure, he sticks to philistinism and mercantilism. But then the columnist's mutilation of Shakespeare's name and a famous line from Hamlet reveals his own incapacity to safeguard the world's cultural heritage. This inevitably raises doubts about the identity of the writer: it could easily be Sandor Speck himself, the modem transposition and homonym, at least where his first name is concerned, of the historical figure whose discourse is echoed in less violent, but nonetheless culturally equivalent, words. The problem of the article's authenticity and the identity of its author thus remains unsolved.

  • 4 Again, Wolfgang Hochbruck has reminded me of the name change in the earlier novel, allowing me to (...)
  • 5 Charlotte Sturgess made such a point in a paper on “Pictorial Representation and Narrative in Mavi (...)

5To remain on dodgy grounds, Speck then starts elaborating on the life of the "saviour", inventing one datum after the other, which raises problems of choice over the appropriate representation. A discussion with a Lodge brother leads him eventually to dig out of oblivion a second-rate painter by the name of Hubert Cruche. The latter's name, an aptronym, immediately creates a multiple image in the minds of the readers; une cruche in French means a jug, jugful or twit. The first alludes to his life being filled up with convenient data pouring from Speck's mind; the second stands for his work being poured out onto the market to satiate humanity's thirst for a renewed cultural message; and the last one hints at his being cheated on two levels (an unknowing cuckold, he never questioned the motives behind the sale of all his production for a period of sixteen years to his wife's lover; and, posthumously, he is used by Speck who tries to gain personal recognition through him). His first name Hubert, le patron des chasseurs, even suggests that, without benefiting from it, he offers protection to the East European hunter Speck. The analogy between Speck and a hunter is further enhanced by the existence and name change of another fictional character, namely the protagonist of John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death4. This immigrant novel published in 1957 shows how, in a vain attempt to integrate, Sandor Hunyadi changes his name to Alex Hunter. The parallel drawn highlights Speck's fruitless endeavour and the ultimate reality that he too is a broken man. Apart from being a hunter, Speck also turns out to be a shopkeeper whose small-town mentality finds a reflection in his aptronym: "Speck" in German meaning bacon, he is the local butcher concerned with selling his merchandise regardless of its real quality. Incidentally, taken literally as a very small piece, mark or spot, the name of Speck would reinforce the futility of the art dealer's enterprise, its worthless achievement. Alternatively, taken as an abbreviation, the name would suggest that the man embodies speculation5 without the necessary depth to assimilate all the cultural and ideological data.

6Traces of culture, exposed in paintings, books, representative objects show that the cultural patrimony has an illusory quality: non-existent schools of art — as the Tirana School — are disclosed (OB 3); blatantly fake paintings appear in galleries (OB 3, 7, 35,); souvenirs and other consumers’ objects no longer display old values but other, new, equally conventional, ones — the Pompidou Art Centre for the Eiffel Tower, for instance (OB 44); trivial letters marked by royal stamps are more attractive than real art (OB 28). All these take characters and readers alike into a guided tour of meakness and neglect of real values.

7In such a context, Speck can only adopt, and persist in, a purely mercantile attitude. Every single consideration of art he has shows his commercial — if not speculative — concern:

He knew one thing — art had sunk low on the scale of consumer necessities. To mop up a few back bills, he was showing part of his own collection — his last-ditch old-age-security reserve. He clasped his hands behind his neck, staring at a Vlaminck India ink on his desk. It had been certified genuine by an expert now serving a jail sentence in Zurich (OB 35).

8Art becomes a consumer’s product to be sold in order to make a living. The oxymoronic disclosure about the "genuine" Vlaminck adds to the debasement of aesthetic values. Other allusions to dubious transactions (OB 7, 14) reveal that where money is concerned, Speck does not shrink from any criminal offence, be it faking (OB 7,14) or stealing (OB 3, 14) a painting, or even making something up from start to finish like an art school or even a painter (OB 3, 8-11). Besides, his recollections and considerations of the parting argument he had with his second wife confirm Speck's commercial approach:

In her summing-up of his moral nature, a compendium that had preceded her ringing "Fascist"s, Henriette had declared that Speck appraising an artist's work made her think of a real-estate loan officer examining Chartres Cathedral for leaks. It was true that his feeling for art stopped short of love; it had to... For what if he were to allow passion for painting to set alight his common sense? How would he be able to live then, knowing that the ultimate fate of art was to die of anemia in safe-deposit vaults? (OB 29).

9The comparison with an estate agency loan officer establishes the real nature of Speck's job. He does not, in the least, care about the artistic quality of what he sells; only budget matters concern him. The two questions hinting at an unlikely weakness caused by genuine enjoyment prove to what extent art has sunk low, not "on the scale of consumer necessities" as Speck would have it, but at a more elevated, disinterested level where art is appreciated for its own sake rather than tucked away for fear of robbers in search of marketable goods.

10Since speculators invade the market, it is not surprising that the widow of Hubert Cruche, more of a Lydia than of a cruche, acts as a shrewd businesswoman, flinching at no stratagem available to raise the value of her inheritance. She cleverly tricks Speck into standing by her secret financial hopes. Calling to mind two different, real artist widows, Lydia Cruche behaves like a leech sucking its prey's blood. Like Magritte's wife, she makes sure that all her husband's works will sell well, as she has already shown that over a period of sixteen years she could manage to secure just that. Alternatively, like Utrillo's wife who kept her husband as if on a leash because of his alcoholic condition, she stands as a tough opponent in financial transactions. By pretending to be a Japhethite, a member of a sect rejecting the graven image as creation rivalling God, and thus considering the artist as an impostor, she feigns lack of interest in a retrospective of her husband's works — in other words, she refuses the kind of meat Speck offers her the better to chew afterwards. Eventually by calling on the services of an Italian dealer, she manages to put Speck in a weaker position where the hunter gets hunted by the very wife of the hunters' patron saint.

11Unsurprisingly, Speck suffers from the ups and downs of his enterprise. As an art dealer, he expresses his emotions through visual images in books, films, paintings, images of the mind. Visual references to the landscape (OB 5, 46) offer a transposition of his feelings, at times also compared with actual paintings (OB 23, 43, 45). Even films or cartoons (OB 5, 46) reflect some emotional State of mind while a series of pictures evoking Parisian society and emerging from Speck's imagination, perception or recollection (OB 12-13) clarify his moods. An unexpected source of visual pictures, his emotions add up to the overall artistic parody. On leaving Lydia Cruche after his defeat and the wreckage of his car, Speck has to take a bus back to central Paris. While waiting for it, he equates "the dark shopping center with its Windows shining for no one" to "a Magritte vision of fear" (OB 45), a metonymy that reflects Speck's feeling of betrayal. His feelings expressed through imaginary or real artistic creation that the reader recognises by virtue of its description or alluded message contribute to the visual qualifies of the text.

  • 6 Ronald Hatch rightly remarks that “Speck's Idea” “portrays the sense of disarray arising from a re (...)

12Similarly, political considerations come out through images. Though camouflaged under the innocent sounding name Amandine — a name redolent of sweets or delicate chocolates — the shop opposite Speck's gallery conveys a clear political message. The pictures, book covers and texts exposed in the window indeed indicate that the shop owner favours the French Fascist movement called jeune Europe6:

On the cover of one volume, Uncle Sam shook hands with the Russian Bear over prostrate Europe, depicted as a maiden in a dead faint. A drawing of a spider on a field of banknotes (twelve hundred francs with frame, nine hundred without) jostled the image of a crablike hand clawing away at the map of France (OB 6).

13Visually represented, the political ideas of this movement sarcastically criticise American hegemony and the power of the Soviet Union, much in accordance with war time German propaganda. At this stage, one may share the amused contempt of the implied author — not to say of the author herself — for such views, as the bookseller’s name, Chassepoule (hen chaser), seems to point to his trivial pursuit. As to Speck, he does not question such Fascist ideals, for he refuses to take positions or to get involved. In fact, when he looks for a location for his art gallery he looks for a "safe place" (OB 1-2) politically. However, though he stays away from politics, he does not altogether abstain from thinking of the multi-lateral political reception of his invented painter, thereby giving anew a poor picture of artistic endeavour.

Left, Right, and Center would unite on a single theme: how the taste of two full generations had been corrupted by foreign speculation, cosmopolitan decadence, and the cultural imperialism of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony (OB 9).

14Out of commercial motives, Speck struggles for everybody's agreement which stresses the weakness of the political argumentation he puts forward. As Janice Kulyk Keefer remarks, "French politics is a crazy salad" (186) of contradictory positions with a nationalistic approach somehow echoing some World War II right-wing opinions. The same holds for his imaginary show for which he dreams of enjoying everybody’s approval, though he cannot avoid marking his preferences.

He could see the structure of the show, the sketchbooks and letters in glass cases. It might be worthwhile lacquering the walls black, concentrating strong spots on the correspondence, which straddled half a century, from Degas to Cocteau. The scrawl posted by Drieu la Rochelle just before his suicide would be particularly effective on black. Céline was good; all that crowd was back in vogue now. He might use the early photo of Céline in regimental dress uniform with a splendid helmet. Of course, there would be word from the Left, too, with postcards from Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, and Paul Éluard, and a jaunty get-well message from Louis Aragon and Elsa (OB 10).

15The emphasis put on figures championing extreme right-wing ideas cannot escape anyone's attention: three sentences are devoted to Drieu La Rochelle — the only man of letters who was judged and was to be executed by firing squad after the Second World War for collaborating with the Germans — and to Céline whose major anti-semitic and pro-German writings during the war earned him public condemnation and incarceration in Denmark. Only one line is devoted to left wingers: the pooh-poohing way he speaks about them proves that he adds them as an after-thought to please everyone. In fact, one feels that he rather agrees with the ideas of some fascist groups, as a reminder of the insult proferred by his wife upon leaving him and his own disparaging remark to Lydia Cruche after she has tricked him into accepting her demands.

16In the end, however, the readers wonder who has tricked whom, for Sandor Speck expresses his triumph in two powerful images where the landscape reflects his elated mood and where the cartoon picture he imagines visually proclaims his victory as the hunter taming the wife of the hunters' patron saint and his second wife too.

He opened his eyes and saw rain clouds over Paris glowing with light — the urban aurora. It seemed to Speck that he was entering a better weather zone, leaving behind the gray, indefinite mist in which the souls of discarded lovers are said to wander. He welcomed this new and brassy radiation. He saw himself at the center of a shadeless drawing, hero of a sort of cartoon strip, subduing Lydia, taming Henriette (OB 46).

17Though this picture clearly establishes Speck's confidence, it raises doubts as to the real intentions of Lydia Cruche, who could still change her mind one more time. For in the courting game Speck has embarked on, there is no knowing who will end with the upper hand, as those engaged in it have radically different interests. The illusion remains beyond the final touch.

18In "Overhead in a Balloon," the paintings textually displayed also illustrate an aspect of French culture, namely the general decline of upper-class Parisian society as further exemplified by the life experiences of the lonely art gallery assistant. As he befriends a mediocre French painter with a chain-link name — the distinctive token of nobility — and eventually moves into the flat of the latter's family, Walter faces the way in which French aristocracy establishes and maintains — or rather cripples — human relationships. He unconsciously suffers from such impairment daily although he sees — or should see — its reflection in the paintings of his new friend "Aymeric Something Something de Something de Saint-Régis" (OB 59). Aymeric's paintings suggestively disclose the social behaviour of the French aristocracy, and by extension of his own family too.

Now he painted country houses. Usually he showed the front with the white shutters and all the ivy, and a stretch of lawn with white chairs and a teapot and cups, and some scattered pages of Le Figaro — the only newspaper, often the only anything, his patrons read. He had a hairline touch and could reproduce Le Figaro's social calendar, in which he cleverly embedded his client's name and his own. Some patrons kept a large magnifying glass on a table under the picture, so that guests, peering respectfully, could appreciate their host's permanent place in art (OB 49-50).

19An example of mise en abyme (Ricardou, 47-50), the description "poses the problem of representation within the represented universe of the narrative... by embedding one Art form, that of the picture, within another, the narrative" (Sturgess, 1989, 47). The embedding functions on different levels: it reflects, as Charlotte Sturgess argues, the characters' environmental subordination (47); but it also mirrors their superficiality. While depicting done-up country houses, Aymeric confines his attention to their conventional façades and external signs of wealth much in accordance with the accepted conduct of his family, whose affected politeness conceals their real nature and inclinations. Moreover, the actual presence of the patron's name and his own on the reproduction of Le Figaro textually and pictorially announces their eagerness to be publicised. Beyond mere publicity stands the ultimate necessity to bridge the gap left by their shallow and empty lives. The image of the magnifying glass to decipher the represented text metaphorically confirms the pressing need to inflate the qualities of those encoded — a meaningless endeavour that does not fool those capable of interpreting the signs. Aymeric's minuscule signature on his paintings — a combination of the pictorial and the scriptural — finds a verbal echo in the textual comparison with his voice that is "like the signature that [requires] a magnifying glass; what he [has] to say [is] clear but a kind of secret" (OB 52). The analogy offers a symbolic reinforcement of the aristocracy's ambiguous need to be seen, yet not displayed distastefully.

20Not only does the preceding description of Aymeric's artistic prowess depict the aristocracy's superficiality, it also presents a clear example of metafictional concern (Waugh, 1-19) by characterising the story’s structuring process. Through Aymeric's painting, Gallant actually reveals what she does when devising her story: she too shows the façade, the surface of things, its hotchpotch of disconnected details and her characters' lack of culture and obsession with fame and moving in the best circles. Her ironic vision "overhead in a balloon" gives the story her stamp as well as ridiculing her characters, whose names are inserted in the description of a kind of vanity fair. Text and image thus superimposed magnify the message of the story.

21Further textual/visual intermingling occurs in the description of the inflated picture story on the art gallery:

It happened that one of the Paris Sunday supplements had published a picture story on Walter's gallery, with captions that laid stress on the establishment's boldness, vitality, visibility, international connections, and financial vigor. The supplement had cost Walter's employer a packet, and Walter was not surprised that one of the photographs showed him close to collapse, leaning for support against the wall safe in his private office (OB 50).

22The fictitious magazine article combines both modes of representation whose fictional description ridicules the undertaking by verbally stressing the paradoxical message of weakness contained in the pictures. Pictorial and scriptural presentations thus work at cross purposes, thereby adding an extra ironic layer of meaning. The irony culminates in the insight into the financial burden of the enterprise whose foreseeable disappointing outcome manifests itself as only Aymeric, prompted by his gullibility, pays an eager visit to the gallery. The fantasised representation of the place as packed with anxious buyers and his actual experience as sole visitor offer a contrastive picture not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of the outcome:

The accompanying article described mobbed openings, private viewings to which the police were summoned to keep order, and potential buyers lined up outside in below-freezing weather, bursting in the minute the doors were opened to grab everything off the walls. The name of the painter hardly mattered; the gallery's reputation was enough (OB 50).
Aymeric showed courteous amazement when he heard just how much a show of that kind would cost. The uncultured talk about money was the gallery's way of refusing him, though a clause in the rejection seemed to say that something might still be feasible, in some distant off-season, provided that Aymeric was willing to buy all his own work (OB 51).

23In spite of the basic differences raised by these two pictures — the one imaginary, the other real (as real as fiction can be) — both evoke financial transactions and a purely materialistic approach to art. Some artists are businessmen whose talent ceases to be of aesthetic value: they and others alike take a purely pecuniary interest in art. The comparisons of Aymeric to Degas and Picasso — implicit in the first case, explicit in the second — can therefore not be qualitative; marking a purely matter-of-fact concern, the analogies only establish a parallel to the former for not being married and to the latter for having added his mother's maiden name to his own, not for the similarity in their art. All neglect quality; money rules all. At least, this is the message delivered by both text and image.

24Other textual and visual evocations confirm this view, while insisting on the loss on the human level. For instance, Aymeric's assumption "that a show, a sort of retrospective of lawns and Figaros, would bring fresh patronage, perhaps even from abroad" (OB 50) highlights the purely materialistic concerns that drive the artist. Artistically, such a retrospective implies a multitudinous collection of quasi duplicates — a reflection of French superficiality and ostentation. To this should be added yet another set of images superimposing themselves with the reference to the kind of countryhouses Aymeric is "called in to immortalize" (OB 50): "a done-up village bakery, a barn refurbished and brightened with yellow awnings 'Dallas' had lately made so popular" (OB 50). The allusion to Dallas with its flashy ranches and mansions, not to mention the characters’ decadent life styles, reinforces the mercantile perception of art and the deterioration of human relations such perception seems to accompany. The cinematographic allusion is far from coincidental; for the family watches the serial in semi-religious silence on a television set with a great number of buttons that act as so many barriers to true communication (Schaub, 58). The serial is nothing but a mise en abyme in an admittedly different genre — that of the New World — of the family's relation-ships to one another. Robert, Aymeric's cousin, even goes so far as to announce his own wedding in the middle of an episode as if he were talking about a trivial fact. This recalls innumerable speech acts of the sort in Dallas: the announcement justified in front of "a bright, silent screen" (OB 67) — the image of failed communication — echoes the message conveyed by Dallas, namely, that ties can be established and dissolved thoughtlessly. Robert's careless attitude to human relations is further visually exemplified in his finger drawings of the flat and its new boundaries once he has decided to evict Walter.

"We will have to rearrange the space," said Robert. He traced lines with his finger on the polished table and, with the palm of his hand, wiped something out" (OB 70).

25With its symbolic and ephemeral picture of exclusion, the drawing signifies the annihilation of human emotions and right to vital space, rather than being aesthetically appealing. As such it is reminiscent of Robert's attitude when he conducts an explanatory session on the extended family's dreams: in godlike fashion, Robert decides what dreams mean, often offering a pessimistic interpretation to Walter's dreams peopled with animals and violent scenes. Sacred, the interpretation is based on dues from a bible-like book whose text and images Robert uses to achieve his ends, rather than to offer comfort to others.

26Since the visual and the religious no longer fulfil their function, they cannot offer visions of a better world nor bring comfort to souls in want of an ideal. The mystically inclined Walter looks for a spiritual message in art, but in vain. His constant attempts at harmonising art and faith lead him to the slow discovery of their incompatibility.

Immersion in art had kept him from spiritual knowledge. What he had mistaken for God's beckoning had been a dabbing in colors, sentiment cut loose and set afloat by the sight of a stained-glass window. Years before, when he was still training Walter, his employer had sent him to museums, with a list of things to examine and ponder. God is in art, Walter had decided; then, God is art. Today, he understood: art is God's enemy. God hates art, the trifling rival creation (OB 60).

27Since Walter searches for an absolute in art but cannot find it, he ends up expressing his aversion forcefully.

Virtually anything portrayed as art turned his stomach. There was hardly anything he could look at without feeling sick (OB 66).

28An expression of his religious inclination, his physical disgust for the visual arts also points to his inability to cope with life. Since most objects, kinds of beings and situations have their reflection in art, nothing he ever witnesses or takes part in can ever please him or bring him any satisfaction. At some stage, in a discussion with Aymeric, he discriminates between art and Aymeric's paintings.

"I hate art, too," said Walter. "Oh, I don’t mean that I hate what you do. That, at least, has some meaning — it lets people see how they imagine they live." (OB 54).

29Walter's feeling of repulsion raises an interesting issue, namely that of art and meaning. Art, according to him, has lost its significance. However, to him Aymeric's superficial and idyllic picture of society is meaningful — an arresting paradox if one considers that "Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together" (John Ruskin, The Two Paths, Lecture II, 57). Besides, the picture Aymeric gives of society goes against Walter's profound wish to establish proper relations with others. His artistic delusion results from his desperate need to belong. Ironically the human warmth he erroneously seeks in his adoptive family turns out to be a profit-making enterprise for the latter and a devastating source of worries for Walter. The misreading of Aymeric's paintings thus shows that Walter is a prey to the glamorous message French aristocracy conveys in art. Contrary to the expected reliability inherent in his Swiss citizenship, Walter Obermauer is a drop-out who cannot adjust to the necessities of life. As his name indicates, he is the upper wall without retaining wall, ready to collapse at any excess of weight.

30As a representative of a materialistic society, Walter shows signs of spiritual corruption whose origin can be traced in the purely mercantile approach to culture. Built in a slapdash fashion by contractors seeking to make ever more money, the cultural edifice on which art rests offers no safe ground. Gallant underscores its devastating loss of significance through images reflecting aesthetic degradation. These images stress that the quest for beauty has been replaced by the plain commercial implications of the would-be artistic world. For, in Paris, the middleground between weak willed artists and a gullible public is held by unscrupulous art dealers, who fix the rules of the trade as arbitrarily as the ministers of the most exotic religious faiths.


Works Cited

Besner, Neil K. The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant's Fiction. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1988.

Gallant, Mavis. "Speck's Idea." Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris. Toronto: Macmillan, 1985.

Gallant, Mavis. "Overhead in a Balloon." Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris. Toronto: Macmillan, 1985.

Hatch, Ronald. "Mavis Gallant and the Fascism of Everyday Life" Essays in Canadian Writing 42 (Winter 1990) [special Gallant issue]: 9-40.

Kulyk Keefer, Janice. Reading Mavis Gallant. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Marlyn, John. Under the Ribs of Death. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1957.

Ricardou, Jean. Le nouveau roman. Paris: Seuil (Ecrivains de Toujours), 1978.

Ruskin, John. The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art and its Application to Decoration and Manufacture. London: George Allen, 1900.

Schaub, Danielle. Narrative and Stylistic Devices in Mavis Gallant's "Overhead in a Balloon.'" Journal of the Short Story in English 12 (Spring 1989): 53-62.

Sturgess, Charlotte. "Narrative Strategies in 'Overhead in a Balloon.'" Journal of the Short Story in English 12 (Spring 1989): 45-52.

Sturgess, Charlotte. “Pictorial Representation and Narrative in Mavis Gallant's 'Speck's Idea'." Unpublished paper read in Strasbourg in May 1991.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Routledge (New Accents), 1984.


1 I am most indebted to the Israel Association for Canadian Studies without whose research grant this paper would not have seen the light. All quotations from the stories refer to the 1985 Macmillan edition of Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris. All the references to the collection incorporated into the text of the article use the abbreviation OB.

2 As Neil Besner rithtly points out the common concern with art is not the only aspect that links these two stories. Indeed, they both focus in different degrees on Sandor Speck, an art dealer, and his assistant, Walter: Gallant examines their place in French society and their political and ideological response to the situation they are confronted with (141).

3 I am indebted to Wolfgang Hochbruck for drawing my attention to the similarity in discourse.

4 Again, Wolfgang Hochbruck has reminded me of the name change in the earlier novel, allowing me to make the most of the aptronymic interpretation.

5 Charlotte Sturgess made such a point in a paper on “Pictorial Representation and Narrative in Mavis Gallant's 'Speck's Idea” read in Strasbourg in May 1991. It will appear as part of her thesis to be submitted to Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

6 Ronald Hatch rightly remarks that “Speck's Idea” “portrays the sense of disarray arising from a resurgence of right-wing politics in contemporary French society” (37).

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993

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