In the collection, In Transit, this story’s placement, next to “When We Were Nearly Young” is brilliant. Two experiences of impoverishment: with different settings, life stages, and stakes. But rather than focus on a series of single people, “Better Times” concentrates on a married couple: Susan and Guy.
It’s tempting to dig into this disappointing relationship. (Susan: “I didn’t think being married to you would be like this.” Guy: “Marriage had seemed a small thing then – a sand flea. But Marigold had been right; his life was too dodgy for wives, and it was better without witnesses, alone.”)
But, instead, I’m reminded of Gallant’s skill at succinctly sketching characters. How their thoughts – or their absence of thoughts – or their preoccupations can be so revealing.
Pale-eyed, old war hero, nearly successful salesman – of nearly anything – he thought of the flags and the yachts, and of the present, with its gains and rewards.
Watchfulness made her seem without expression. That look – empty, receptive – and her light, straight hair caused her to be compared to a medieval pageboy or a picture-book Anglo-Saxon girl, uncoarsened by Norman blood.
Pointe de Pen-Hir, Camaret-sur-Mer, France
Aunt Val went to Wales, bearing an empty bird cage she had promised the cousins years before, and two of the thirty bottles of inferior gin, so as to have refreshment during the voyage.
Yellow-toothed, smelling of unwashed woollen garments and cold tobacco pipes, dragged by a slavering boxer dog on a lead, Major Terry entered the drawing room, sat on a sheeted sofa, and could not take his eyes away from Guy’s wife.
One could explore the way that Gallant uses time in this story.
(It speeds and slows, mimicking characters’ resignation and restlessness.)
How this is connected to the ebb and flow of devotion between the two main characters.
Or consider the ways that the political and economical realities of the post-war setting have on tangential (and main) characters, how subtly readers are educated on these matters.
(Gallant’s ties to Europe were solid by the time this collection was published in 1988.)
How security and optimism, desperation and self-reliance do (and don’t) take hold, in people and pocketbooks.
Or spend time with either Guy or Susan, study the method by which Gallant steadily and cohesively builds their characterization.
(Until you can imagine the rest of the collection is devoted to stories which detail their background and future events in their lives.)
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: “A Question of Disposal”.