Readers of Mavis Gallant’s early stories have endured a lot of unhappy spouses and unhappy children. In apartments and on beaches, in summer houses and on holiday, It’s hard enough; in confined quarters, it is stressful indeed.
In “The Rejection” we have a divorced father and his daughter in an automobile, for instance: a difficult journey, but not a very long one. Whereas in “The Burgundy Weekend”, the car ride seems to last forever.
Here we have Gilles driving. He has offered to take his cousin, Lucie, and her husband, Jérôme, to Burgundy because he is looking for company on that journey himself.
es, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “Treading Water”.
Wine-production in Burgundy is world-renowned
Lucie takes one look at the backseat, at the dog and luggage back there, and leaps into the front, alongside Gilles, consigning her husband, Jérôme, to that space.
Regardless of the seating arrangements, however: it doesn’t take long for Gilles to conclude that being stuck in a car with the Girards, regardless of the configuration, is an ordeal.
Lucie seems to be aware of the strain but has accepted (or resigned herself) to a constant state of discomfort.
“Every marriage is different, she said [to herself], and ours is like this. It can’t be helped. I don’t know of any that can be called better – only different.”
Gilles is aware that the couple met when she was a nurse and Jérôme was a patient, but Gilles disdains the dynamic in their relationship.
“Gilles said to himself, You would think he [Jérôme] was her dog. You would think he was her infant. Christ, he must be what, now – thirty-nine? More?”
In contrast, although he doesn’t announce it: Gilles is completely happy. He remains superciliously silent. Silently judging.
(How fortunate, I believe, that he has such maladjusted passengers, there to throw his own functionality into relief against their chaotic backdrop.)
“I only wanted to be what I am now – one of the top three or four in my field. I support five people and a dog. I have beautiful homes in two countries. My education is a match for Jérôme’s any day. I don’t create social problems. I am on the side of life, not of failure. I am the equal of my wife, not her dependant. I shall never be poor.”
Readers long for understanding. Readers do sidle up to Jérôme’s backstory, learning of his loneliness in the past, of how he longed for the kind of transformation he believed could occur in the right kind of relationship, of his pursuit of a different kind of meaning. But Jérôme’s character remains out-of-reach. It’s as though he really is stuck in the back-seat of this story, of this world.
Mostly, readers have Lucie’s story and Lucie’s view of events. Which doesn’t mean that readers have any deeper understanding of her as a character. It feels as though she is viewing her own life from a backseat, doubting and questioning whether it is possible to meaningfully connect with even one other human being.
“Lucie understood that somehow, unheard, in a private family message code, Nadine was warning her grandmother: Be careful. The Girards do nothing but quarrel with each other and Lucie Girard may even be a little mad.”
Readers do have some facts. For instance, Lucie is twenty-eight and married late, after others believed that she would not do so.
And, there has been some confusion in Lucie’s life, some drama. An entire story can exist in a single unexplained statement.
Like, this one: “Two of her brothers-in-law each tried to become Lucie’s first lover because she looked like their wives but was a virgin still; but she was too devout, too tired, too afraid.”
That string of reasons – devotion, fatigue, fear – is fascinating. Taken individually, readers could get some sense of Lucie; clumped together, readers can only assume that there are many reasons why Lucie appears to be out-of-step with the world in a way which is difficult to grasp.
Lucie, too, has trouble taking hold. “She could not grasp the meaning of this house, which was neither farm nor mansion; did not see why a scythed field required a fence and a wall around it; did not understand the running, breathless, scowling girl [Nadine, the hostess’ grandmother] with her long cotton frock, bare arms, bare feet, flying hair; even less the plodding old woman who had a white mustache [Marcelle].”
Sometimes Lucie seems to want to make an effort at understanding; other times she seems content to misunderstand (as, for instance, when Jérôme’s interest in Nadine swells and eclipses the girl, who is only playing hostess until her grandmother returns to the house). Lucie appears to be as much of an onlooker in this situation as the house servant, Marcelle.
Other times, she tells herself it’s not even about understanding. “Very often when I haven’t understood a remark, it had turned out not to mean anything.”
This is not a staid and calm story about a summer getaway; it is a story of extremes. There is no catalyst, no dramatic scene, only a steady sense of unsettledness.
At the end of the weekend, when Gilles arrives, at the predetermined time, to pick up the Girards and drive back with them, it’s arranged so that they must sit together in the back-seat. There is no room in the front seat with Gilles.
To talk, Lucie has to lean forward. And, she does.
This modified seating plan doesn’t change things as much as Gilles hoped.
“Gilles experienced a second of prophetic vision: under hostile pressure, felt equally, the Girards might grow to be alike. They could become savage, two wolves. One would need to speak softly to them, move cautiously, never make a move that might seem threatening.”
Finally, he gets up the nerve to ask Lucie if Jérôme is okay. Yes, he is still sitting beside her in the back-seat. Gilles’ asking in Jérôme’s hearing is all just fine, apparently. Which is to say, as fine as it can be.
Lucie’s answer is the solution readers have yearned for: “He has just proved it,” she said. “And he proved it all weekend. But nobody knows that I know.” She sat back and looked out the window, away from both men, wishing them vanished, for the rest of their time together.
No, Jérôme is not fine. Lucie is not fine. Neither is Gilles (although he is “passing”).
Just keep your eyes on the road, dear readers and dear travellers.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the twenty-ninth story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the seri