I read a lovely short story this morning out of Alain Gerber’s collection, Les Jours de Vin et de Roses. Gerber is a French author with an impressive list of novels and essays; his non-fiction work centers on jazz and he works for the French radio. Les Jours de Vin et de Roses (1984) is his only short story collection, it not being a popular genre in most of Europe – something Smithereens was bemoaning the other day and a subject on which I couldn’t agree more. I’m a big fan of the short story for how it can distill a moment into something larger, something representative of an entire lifetime.
Gerber’s story Mon fils l’écrivain [My son, the writer] does this exceptionally well. The situation is simple – a son has come out from Paris to visit his father in the small rural village where the older man has retired. The story is narrated by the father. When they sit down to lunch, the son pulls a book (his own, a recent publication) out of his bag and hands it over to his father. He mentions there is a dedication but the father quickly changes the subject of their conversation. The book sits on the edge of the sideboard throughout their entire meal and both men are keenly aware of its presence but unable to bring it up again.
Later, they take a walk to collect mushrooms. And again the son tries to bring up his literary career. He mentions he might actually get an award for this new novel. Again, the father changes the subject. The son mentions the book’s dedication, says it’s a nod to something they share between them – a kind of memory. And the father answers:
A mon âge, ce ne sont pas les souvenirs qui me manquent!
[At my age, I don’t need any more memories!]
It’s a horrible scene. Full of this awkward, broken feeling between the two men. The son is trying very hard to engage with his father and the father recognizes all this but can’t react. He’s literally unable to accept any offering from his son. They return to the father’s house and eat an omelette with the mushrooms they’ve just collected.
The dinner scene provides a clue as to what makes the father so reserved. They sit silently at the table, the son searching for a subject of conversation. The father muses that he’s always eaten in silence, that it doesn’t bother him, that he wasn’t allowed to speak at his own father’s table. This reflection takes him one step further to a kind of evaluation of the kind of father he was, but then he quickly rejects the utility of that kind of thinking. And comments to himself that he would never have made a good writer – he sees no use in opening a can of worms. Of course the son’s book is still lying on the sideboard. At one point the father gets up to get a bottle of brandy.
J’ai vu mon fils tressaillir lorsque je me suis approché du buffet pour y prendre la bouteille d’eau-de-vie. Il est possible que je l’aie surveillé dans la glace, mine de rien. Il est même possible que j’aie tout fait pour qu’il croie que j’allais chercher le livre.
[I watched my son start when I went toward the sideboard to get the bottle of brandy. Perhaps I was secretly watching him in the mirror. Maybe I even led him to think I was going to go pick up the book.]
The rest of the story just follows these two through to the end of the son’s visit. Their parting is, again, very tense. Very sad. Gerber manages with just a few sentences to reveal how impossible it is for the two men to communicate. The father comes off as very cold and distant, but just after the son leaves the reader is given a glimpse of the father’s real thoughts. His son is finally out of his sight, but the father continues to see him, imagines exactly what he’ll be doing.
Mon fils monte dans le train en première classe, avec près d’une demi-heure d’avance. Il choisit un compartiment vide et se demande avec angoisse s’il le restera jusqu’à la fin du voyage. Je le connais bien. Je n’ignore rien de lui. Il va tirer de son sac un autre exemplaire de son livre. Il en lire quelques pages au hasard et pensera qu’une fois de plus, il a échoué dans sa tentative. Il pensera cela à cause de moi.
[My son steps into the first class compartment of the train, nearly 30 minutes early. He selects an empty wagon and then wonders, anxiously, whether it will remain that way for the entire trip. I know him well. There is nothing I don’t know about him. He will take another copy of his book out of his bag. He will read a few pages at random and once again, he will think his project failed. He will think this because of me.]
The story continues on for a few more paragraphs, giving just a few more subtle clues as to why the father behaves this way toward his son. It’s quite a short story – just over 2500 words – but there is so much here about generational misunderstanding…the father doesn’t even know what the son writes about, but he’s simply too afraid to look. He assumes their experiences are far too disparate to ever meet on common ground. And in fact, because of his fear, he creates differences that don’t even exist.