Mavis Gallant, “When We Were Nearly Young”

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.03.59 AMAging youths scrape by in Madrid, waiting.

(from The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1960)

I saw inside my eyelids at night the nine of clubs, which is an excellent card, and the ten of hearts, which is better, morally speaking, since it implies gain through effort.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.17.40 AMThe four young people around whom this story barely revolves — our passing-through narrator and three vaguely hopeless Spaniards — are not so much friends as similarly afflicted commiserators. The live near each other. They scrape up crappy meals together. They entertain each others’ delusions. The New Yorker‘s accompanying summary calls them “accidental friends,” united by poverty and the idea that money would soon be sent to rescue them. At the risk of sounding like Ben Rand, I did find myself wondering why these four felt so resigned to their poor prospects. “The Spaniards’ characteristic trait was a certain passiveness,” says the summary. Who wrote that, I wonder? Doesn’t matter. This story captures a specific kind of devoted twenty-something lethargy better than anything else I’ve ever read. I was nearly young once.

A friend had been trying to turn me onto Mavis Gallant but, after immersing myself in the moody suffering of Bolaño, I found no attraction to characters apparently concerned with affluent worry. Turns out I was digging in the wrong spot. Soon this story was printed for me and, finally, I believe I get it. Thank you for the recommendation, Pilar.

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