In other Mavis Gallant stories, we have met characters whose hold on life is more tenacious than expected.
In “The Remission” (1979), for instance. Everyone has made plans with an exit in mind, but nothing goes as expected.
And in “The End of the World” (1967), we have a son who travels to be at his father’s bedside in a French hospital, but there are different stories circulating about the man’s relationship to mortality in this story: some say they’re closer than others.
We know this story is about the act of disposal. Coupled with uncertainty. But it opens with the certainty of one character’s mortality.
Of course it only appears to be about that single character’s mortality. Because all the characters have a relationship with mortality. And stories like “The Accident” (1967) and an earlier story in this collection, “An Emergency Case”, reveal just how suddenly one’s life might end.
On the surface of it, though, Digby appears poised to outlive his mother: “His hands, shuffling the maps, were aimless and weather-burned; his shrug had something of the adolescent’s ‘Leve me alone.’ Digby was thirty-four.” And perhaps because she thinks this June might be her last June, thirty-four seems much closer to adolescence than one might guess.
As usual, readers have a sharp and evocative impression of Digby’s mother, too: “As for Mrs. Glover, her passion for furniture and arranging rooms had led her to resemble a piece of furniture – but had she not always? There were photographs of her taken thirty years before that a clever caricaturist could have turned into something stiff and unremarkable – a Par[m]igiano ballroom chair.”
And of the judgements and prejudices that simmer beneath the surface of the characters’ experiences, the ever-active assessment of worth, their class and status: “It was odd. The three girls from Janet’s office seemed to agree with her. They glanced at Digby’s hands to see if he hadn’t a touch of coloured blood.” (These are clearly the opinions of the characters, not the author.)
All the while, the characters observe their surroundings in a way which reveals other facets of their perspectives on the world. When Mrs. Glover decides that her son, Digby, should choose the destination of the family vacation that June, and he determines to return to the place in Spain where he and Janet first met, she is disappointed and relieved.
And happy to point out the loss of a view that had once been more impressive. Beautiful, even. “Janet, my dear, I’m afraid I lost you, too. I spent some time looking for the pine trees, and then when I saw them they were dead.”
Janet noticed the trees. Their absence. But to establish much more about her reaction would be to write another story.
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 sixth 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: “The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts”.