Touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell – these are the five traditional senses. In this specially commissioned portfolio, five writers – Chloe Aridjis, Fernando A. Flores, Diana Hamilton, Alexandra Kleeman and Madeleine Thien – complicate our individual and shared experiences of these ‘outward wits’, as they were once known, in pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. They do not limit themselves to any one sense; instead, they draw on our ‘inward wits’, which the 16th-century British poet Stephen Hawes, in his ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ (1509), identified as common sense, imagination, fantasy, instinct and memory.
Food may have been an ongoing preoccupation during Mavis Gallant’s first years of travelling around Europe living hand to mouth, but once her writing career was launched in the 1950s and food was readily available, meals became more about conversation than nourishment. You could argue that Mavis was, above all, nourished by social interaction and an almost anthropological study of others – an opportunity that lent itself nicely to the dinner table. I recall one meal in particular, at my parents’ home in Paris in 2010, while my father was Mexican ambassador to UNESCO. A series of photographs taken that day depicts her face mirrored in a silver charger, in an image that also captures the fleeting, illusory nature of permanence in a diplomatic residence.
Mavis reflected in a disc of borrowed silver: the face looking into the camera is vivid and complete; the face in the plate is distorted and at one degree of remove. One acknowledges us, the other peers into mysterious depths we cannot see. I cannot help but envision this double portrait, at times, as emblematic of her life as an émigré. After leaving her native Canada in her early 20s, Mavis spent more than six decades in Paris. Yet, her work never stopped addressing themes of displacement. She had a splendid voice that defied the passage of time – girlish and from another era – and she often addressed people as ‘dear’. That day, we ate and she spoke, humoured by her anecdotes from a distant past, occasionally poking at the cheese soufflé in her plate as it succumbed to gravity. Her manners were delicate and birdlike, and the touch of her hands, I recall, was wonderfully soft.
The previous autumn, we’d taken her to the Louvre to see the exhibition ‘Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice’. (Venice itself, of course, a city of reflections, from the canals to the Renaissance armour.) Mavis had been studying the paintings from the height of the wheelchair we’d procured for her at the entrance. She paused for a long time in front of Titian’s Venus with Mirror (c.1555), the mirror tall and flat, unlike the round convex ones widely used by the Flemish at that time.
In our portrait of Mavis, most of the cutlery has been removed and only the small fork and spoon remain, suggesting the main course has been eaten and we are waiting for dessert. I no longer recall what it was that evening, though it probably involved some variation of chocolate; Mavis was diabetic but she loved sweets.
A few years later, once my parents had returned to Mexico and I had moved to London, I visited Mavis in her flat in the 6th arrondissement. It was to be the last time I’d see her; she died in 2014. One of her first questions was, where was I staying? At a friend’s house, I replied, which was a bit rundown and full of spiders. With the mention of spiders, something was triggered, and they quickly became the leitmotif of the afternoon. Each time Mavis spoke, she would include them in the sentence, either in her replies or else to address an imaginary spider at the window. Her thoughts travelled back in time to her childhood in Canada, where she and her brother once found a large spider in their house, then returned to the present to the imaginary spider in her flat. Telling it to go outside, she was now very concerned with the seen and unseen in her home.
At one point, she stood up and asked me to follow her to look at a favourite painting on the wall: a strange, dreamlike scene, in muted colours, featuring a seated man gazing down at a bundle, perhaps a dog, in his lap while a hatted young woman, in profile, stands to one side of him. Beside her, another woman, with large earrings and a long green skirt, reads out from a book as other figures hurry past. ‘I always thought it was about a girl who had been waiting for someone who never showed up,’ Mavis explained, then sat back down.
Revisiting these photographs of her face reflected in the dinnerware, I feel again the magnitude of her gaze – playful, kind, intelligent, slightly enigmatic. To her right sits a full glass of water, glinting with light from the chandelier. Perhaps she has been sipping at it and it’s been recently refilled. Or has it, in the midst of so much conversation and observation, been forgotten over the course of the meal?
First published in Issue 205