For me, Mavis Gallant is the greatest Canadian prose writer. Of the many choices I might have made from her magisterial oeuvre—’An Autobiography,’ ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,’ ‘The Fenton Child,’ the list goes on—I’ve settled on ‘Voices Lost in Snow,’ one of her lovely evocations of 1930s Anglo Montreal. I just love how weird this story is: it begins as a kind of essay in interwar child-rearing strategies before becoming more straightforwardly narrative, but even once it does we’re hard-pressed to know what’s going on (which is fitting, since its subject is the power of childhood ignorance). Most of my students don’t really care for this story, but those who do (and there’s always a handful, it’s quite gratifying) care for it a lot.
Gallant is the master of obliquity: not even in the final section, the most dramatic, is it obvious that the narrator’s father has suggested to her mother’s friend, one of the child’s many godparents, that they embark on a long-contemplated affair (more than that, even, that they run away together), but only if the child is part of the package. It takes all our readerly efforts to see this silent offer being first made and then rebuffed. Reflecting on this moment later in life, the narrator announces “I brush in memory against the spiderweb” of lies, half-truths, and evasions that marks adulthood. That description sends us back to an earlier moment in the story, the description of the narrator’s escape from serious illness: the child’s new doctor, French Canadian, and thus a scandal to the story’s Anglo characters, solemnly declares, “Votre fille a frôlé la phtisie”—she had a brush with consumption. ‘Voices Lost in Snow’ is made up of such echoes, which readers brush past in near incomprehension.
Above all, I love it for a scene in which father and daughter, trudging through the snowy streets of Montreal, hear “a mob roaring four syllables over and over,” “the name of a hockey player admired to the point of dementia.” The father jerks back as if in physical pain, a look of helplessness on his face. He spits out this heartbreaking line (so resonant to any introvert): “Crowds eat me. Noise eats me.”
First published in The New Yorker, March 28, 1976. Collected in Home Truths, Random House, 1985 and Varieties of Exile, NYRB Classics, 2003. Read the story here