“No one is either fully good or fully bad in a Gallant story; her characters are more interesting than that, Gallant is neither a moralist nor a polemicist,” explains Jane Urquhart in the introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of this 1988 collection of stories.
In the opening story, readers are immediately rooted in time and place.
It’s early afternoon, “just before the luncheon gongs were due to be sounded at the pensions and villas along the cliff”.
On the beach: “a baking stretch of shore on the south coast of Spain” with a view of Gibraltar to the west, where it “wavered in the heat”.
(The photograph alongside is of the Gibraltar beach: I imagine the Spanish side of the bay looks similar.)
The characters are not so quickly located and rooted, partly because they do not fit either on the English side or the French side of the pavilion.
The central characters in “By the Sea” sit in the neutral area: the Tuttlingens, from Stuttgart, and Mrs. Owens, from America. And, when Mrs. Parsters arrives, her friends are not there, so she must “settle” for the middle-ground. (In this sense, all are also “in transit”.)
Mrs. Parsters is familiar with “beach protocol”, and she has clear opinions about everything. The bathing, for instance, is impossible. “It’s all the damned insects and jellyfish, not to mention the orange peelings from the cruise ship that went by this morning.”
She has nothing to say to some, little to say to others, and nothing good to say about some others. The first words readers observe are directed towards her dog, Bobby, whose tail is “furled on his back like a Prince of Wales plume”. Mrs. Parsters is near-royalty. Or, at least she seems to think so.
But not everyone is as they first seem. The Tuttlingens, for instance, are not exactly a couple to whom one would refer to in the plural. And although Mrs. Parsters assumes that Mrs. Owens is a divorcée, she is married.
“Mrs. Owens took a deep breath, deciding the time had come to explain, once and for all, that she was not divorced. But, as so frequently happened, by the time she had formulated the sentence, the conversation had moved along.”
If readers need a reminder that there is more to the scene than what appears in the snippets of dialogue, the “strange rabbit paths” as Mrs. Owens views them, and sensory details, we occasionally have an interior view like this one.
Also, details observed, like Heidemarie, companion of Dr. Tuttlingen, cuddling up with Bobby, expressing her interest in England and all the other dogs who reside there. (Mrs. Parsters seems to dangle them in front of her, knowing how badly Heidemarie would like to travel.)
Urquhart continues her observation about Gallant’s characterization: “She specializes instead in the surprises one encounters, and the insights one receives, when walking through the hundreds of shades of grey present in the subtle shadows, shadows so often overlooked by lesser writers.”
Mrs. Owens does eventually disclose that she is married. And Mrs. Parsters discloses (to herself and to readers, but not aloud) that she is not always correct in her own suppositions.
And the sun pours down, so readers can feel the weight of it, as these characters cross the sand and move between transitory spaces. Revealing glimpses of sadness in humourous comments like this one: “In terms of character, no man is the slightest match for a horse….”
Reading this story, yesterday afternoon, the wind picked up and the leaves on the walnut tree in the lot next door cascaded to the grass beneath, the sky darkening early as dinner time approached. Nevermind. Mavis Gallant makes me squint and feel the sand between my toes. She gestures to an empty chair in that neutral-but-not-so-neutral-really territory of the Spanish pavilion, invites me to join.
Go ahead: pull up a seat.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the first story in In Transit. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “In Italy”.