When We Were Nearly Young by Mavis Gallant, 1960
The magic trick:
Mixing remarkable self-awareness with remarkable lack of awareness
There is a wonderful song you may know. It’s called “Common People.” It’s by the band Pulp. It came out in 1995, and features the lyrics of Jarvis Cocker utterly eviscerating the bourgeois art kids “slumming it” in the rougher margins of London’s mid-90s BritPop scene. As a song, it is absolutely definitive of its era. It also, quite accidently, serves as a nice introduction to “When We Were Nearly Young,” Mavis Gallant’s story about a 20-something woman slumming it in 1950s Spain in order to “find herself.”
As Jarvis sings: “Cos everybody hates a tourist..” and I could find little to like about the protagonist of this story, who was apparently drawn pretty directly from Gallant’s own experiences in Spain as a 20-something “tourist.”
That’s all right, though. My distaste does not matter. It’s a very interesting story in its push and pull between self-awareness and self-absorption. The narrator is writing about her time in Spain in the past tense. She describes the situation with total awareness, perfect clarity. She knows she was never truly one of the people there. Her Spanish friends are stuck forever with their poverty and limitations. She is really only visiting – in every sense of the word. She knows that. Her situation is only temporary. But so too – we see from her narration now looking back – was her blindspot. And that’s quite a trick on Gallant’s part.
I see Pilar sitting in an armchair being elegant, and the boys standing or lounging against a mantelpiece. I say boys because I never thought of them as men. I am by the window with my back turned. I disapprove and it shows. I feel like a prig. I tip the painted blind just to see the street and be reassured by a tram going by. It is the 20th century.