Mavis Gallant’s “An Unmarried Man’s Summer” (1963)

Walter is just a kid, in comparison to the elderly widows with whom he spends most of his time. And perhaps when he’s driving his sporty little Singer, he’s not thinking about ending things. But in quiet moments, despair sneaks up on him.

Promenade des anglais, Nice, 1960

“The great age of the winter society Walter Henderson frequents on the French Riviera makes him seem young to himself and a stripling to his friends. In a world of elderly widows his relative youth appears a virtue, his existence as a bachelor a precious state.”

“If your life isn’t exactly the way you want it to be by the time you are forty-five,” said Walter’s father, whom he admired, “not much point in continuing. You might as well hang yourself.”

But the widows give him a sense of purpose. And some days the idea of growing old alongside their growing older is enough. Sometimes his fantasies of pushing Mrs. Wiggott in a Bath chair along the Promendade des Anglais at Nice are multi-coloured and satisfactory.

But when his sister, Eve, visits with her family, the summer of an unmarried man is cast in relief against a backdrop of activity and might-have-been’s. Walter’s life comes up short.

Which frustrates Eve, who feels she has had to accept certain limitations in her life; Eve views Walter’s life as having been a panorama of possibilitites, in contrast to her experience.

“I did envy Walter once. Walter, think of the money that was spent educating you. They wouldn’t do it for a girl. Ah, how I used to wish we could have exchanged, then.”

The implication is that she does not wish to exchange now, although at first readers aren’t attending to that, aren’t privy to the view of Walter’s life from without. His life caring for a house which belongs to Miss Cooper and Miss Le Chaine, living off his pension from last war and sharing an income off a small trust fund with Eve, might seem tame – dull, even – but not unpleasant.

Eve, in contrast, is married to Frank Osborn, and they have been farming in South Africa, with their two children:  twelve-year-old Mary and her younger brother Johnny. Walter’s dependents are a cat, named William of Orange, and Angelo, Walter’s seventeen-year-old “comic valet”.

With all of them in Miss Cooper’s and Miss Le Chaine’s house, it is transformed, as though it were “a normal place to be”.

“They were more at home than Walter had ever been. Mornings, he heard them chattering on the terrace or laughing in the kitchen with Angelo. Eve and Angelo planned the meals, and sometimes they went to the market together. The Osborns took over the household food expenses, and Walter, tactfully, made no mention of it. Sometimes the children had their meals in the kitchen with Angelo and the hamster and the cat. But there was no order, no system, to their upbringing.”

Walter is uncomfortable with the new activity but seems helpless to redirect. Cast together with Eve, he has occasion to reflect differently on his everyday existence. Most significantly, he marvels at the weight and promise of her children, who are both connected to and separate from him.

“He answered her remarks (about Riviera people, French politics, the Mediterranean climate, and the cost of things) with his habitual social fluency, but it was the children who took his attention. He marveled at their singleness of purpose, the energy they could release just in tearing off their clothes. They flung into the water and had to be bullied out. Mauve-lipped, chattering, they said, “What’s there to do now?””

Walter is needed. He has value. He impacts the lives of others. He has, for instance, had an integral impact on Angelo’s life. (And if all that sounds a little forced: well, yes.)

“Once, Angelo had been a figure on the wall of a baroque church; from the wall he came toward Walter, with his hand out, cupped for coins. The church had been intended from its beginnings to blister and crack, to set off black hair, appraising black eyes. The four elements of Angelo’s childhood were southern baroque, malaria, idleness, and hunger. They were what he would go back to if Walter were to tire of him, or if he should decide to leave.”

But Angelo is no Mary. And Walter’s niece sparks something in him which he had previously overlooked.

“She was not pretty, no, but quite lovely, in spite of the straight yellow hair, the plain way she was dressed. Walter knew instantly what he would have given her to wear. He thought, Ballet lessons … beautiful French, and saw himself the father of a daughter. ”

This is not a flawless scheme, however. In fact, when Walter asks Mary if she ever wanted to be a ballet dancer, he is disappointed by her disinterest. Which isn’t surprising. Anyway, he had already dismissed that brief fantasy of fatherhood.

“Yes—but to have a daughter one needed a wife. That brought everything down to normal size again. He smiled to himself, thinking how grateful he was that clods like Frank Osborn could cause enchanting girls to appear, all for the enjoyment of vicarious fathers. It was a new idea, one he would discuss next winter with Mrs. Wiggott. He could develop it into a story. It would keep the old dears laughing for weeks.”

Walter can recast his disappointment into an amusement, with just a little doing (like Miss Horeham turns her scarf into a lovely memory in “The Moabitess”). His widows will oblige him by laughing. Of course they’ll probably be dead before his niece finishes school.

The fragility of his acceptance, his appearance of satisfaction, is more visible than it seemed.

“Walter, what are you up to? That sad, crumbling house. Nothing has been changed or painted or made pretty in it for years. You don’t seem to have any friends here. Your telephone never rings. It hasn’t rung once since I’ve been here. And that poor boy.”

Eve has seen through it more quickly than the narrative suggested initially.

As if we, readers, were simply listening to one of Walter’s amusing stories.

“Yet he wanted her to approve of him; he wanted even Frank to approve of him. He was pushed into seeing himself through their eyes. He preferred his own images, his own creations. Once, he had loved a woman much older than himself. He saw her, by chance, after many years, when she was sixty. ‘What will happen when I am sixty?’ he wanted to say. He wondered if Eve, with her boundless concern for other people, had any answer to that. What will happen fifteen years from now, when Miss Cooper claims the house?”

Walter had dreams. Just like Veronica (in “Sunday Afternoons”) and the sisters (in “The Cost of Living”), like Carol (in ‘The Other Paris”) and Barbara (in “One Morning in June”).

What will happen indeed?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second last story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The End of the World and Collected Stories. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

2017-08-08T13:33:40+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Naomi September 8, 2017 at 8:04 am - Reply

    I would like to say that Walter is going to change his life and decide to do something adventurous, but I get the feeling from him that he will only dream of these things and never quite do them. I suppose the old women are lucky to have him.
    When I first started reading the story I thought maybe he was going to be a gold-digger, but that wouldn’t have been ordinary enough for Gallant, would it?
    I especially liked the contrast between Walter and Eve. Maybe her drive comes from wishing she had the opportunities Walter had, and his stagnancy comes from knowing he could do more with his life. Or maybe it was the war that did it to him. I do feel sorry for anyone who has been in a war.

    • Buried In Print September 8, 2017 at 1:04 pm - Reply

      Ooo, I love your hypothesis that Eve and Walter might have different inclinations because of the ease/effort that they were born into (or, not born into, with Eve’s being a woman). In a way, this draws them together once more, too. As though they are both cut from the same cloth, each on their own side of the experience of life in their family (which fits beautifully with the longest story in this collection, how differently siblings turn out – oh, you’d love that story, because of the sibling-thing – maybe you can find it someday)!

      It does seem as though Walter is going to go the same-ol-same-ol route as you’ve suggested. But, then, I suppose that it says something about Gallant, too, that she leaves us where she does, able to imagine the alternative, a happier choice. Yet, his withering is already well underway. (Your comment about her writing a gold-digger’s story made me laugh. No, indeed no. But I did have that thought too!)

      • Naomi September 11, 2017 at 12:16 pm - Reply

        Maybe Gallant doesn’t know herself what happens next in her stories, and that’s how she knows when to stop…

        What’s the name of the longest story?

        • Buried In Print September 11, 2017 at 2:15 pm - Reply

          I was just reading today about how John Inving cannot begin until he knows the last line of a story. I wonder whether Mavis Gallant did know where things would go next for her characters. You don’t think she did? I’m going to have a think on that…

          “Its Image on the Mirror”: hard to find!

          • Naomi September 11, 2017 at 7:06 pm - Reply

            I don’t think I’ve read enough of her stories yet to make a good guess, but I’m going to keep that question in mind when I read them. Let me know if you come up with a theory!

            Couldn’t find it anywhere on the library’s site…

            • Buried In Print September 14, 2017 at 8:18 am

              Of course! And I know…why can’t libraries have e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g?

  2. Alley August 27, 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    Ooo new style again

    So Walter’s dad, real joy of a person there.

    • Buried In Print August 29, 2017 at 7:15 am - Reply

      It’s going to stay like this for awhile now: I’m packing up my box of techy tricks to get back to more reading!
      It’s curious, because a lot of her characters are obviously lonely and cranky, but they aren’t entirely unsympathetic, even when they’re being super judgey.

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