Another writer might have titled this story “Summer Games”. But in using a French title, Gallant’s English readers are immediately, if only for a brief moment, inhabiting an unfamiliar place. We have a hint of what’s to come.
We are to expect something like the collection’s first story, “By the Sea”. Which is nothing like you might expect from the first sentence of “Jeux d’Ete”:
“Late in the afternoon, when their work was done, the young men of the town sailed their boats along the coast, out past the big hotels where foreigners stayed.”
Contrary to what you think, this story is not about the young men of the town, but about the foreigners, the ones who will not be staying. Even so, because the story begins with the rooted, with the people who call this place home, this story has a distinctly different feel from the collection’s opening story.
The frivolity is unmistakable. And perhaps even more obvious because the story revolves around a trio of girls, who are travelling in the care of a “professional chaperone”. Nancy and Patty and Linda are on the beach. Miss Baxter is supposedly touring churches in town.
One of the girls charmed an Italian reporter when they were in Florence, and he would like to photograph her for a feature article in a magazine.
Linda. Of course it’s Linda. All the men are most interested in Linda.
She cables her parents for their permission. “‘Well, I suppose your parents could hardly refuse,’ said Patty. ‘I mean, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’”
Well, of course it’s even more obvious that Linda’s parents are unlikely to respond with such enthusiasm. But that’s not important. (Or, at least, quite another story.)
Instead, the crux of the story revolves around the desirability of the young girls. No, no, no: that’s not it either. Well, part of it. But because this is a Mavis Gallant story, first we tarry in the significance of Miss Baxter having been away while all this transpired.
The girls aren’t aware of that mattering, but Miss Baxter surely is: where was she while Linda was meeting this reporter in Italy to begin with, and where was she when Linda was telegramming to gain her parents’ “immediate permission”.
Oh, wait. You weren’t thinking of Miss Baxter as an employee? Ah, but she is. Of course she is. As surely as it’s a sure thing that the young men of the town will stare at the trio of girls but, most especially, at Linda.
When Miss Baxter questions and chides Linda, the girls are surprised by the older woman’s reference to her position. It’s a matter to consider: her position. And Miss Baxter is frustrated, so she doesn’t mince words: “My position is that I owe your parents a great deal in return for this trip. Your position is that you are spoiled, silly and rich.”
And, it’s true: the trio of girls are privileged and preoccupied by their own aspirations and desires. They haven’t given much thought to Miss Baxter at all. Linda was fully capable of sending the cable even in Baxie’s absence – so, she did. Her concerns afterwards were about the photo shoot, that’s all.
The girls are oblivious to the class issues at hand. And in the moments in which Linda was cabling her parents, Miss Baxter was oblivious to her charges’ intentions. She was getting to know the locals. Sight-seeing. But not churches.
Here again, we have Gallant’s precise and natural dialogue work. And the delight of an unexpected scene. Because if there was a whiff of presumed scandal at the encounter which led to Linda’s invitation, there is a more pronounced waft in Miss Baxter’s corner of the story.
“We are not like the Italians,” he said. The waiter took away their small glasses and set fresh drinks before them.”
“Thank goodness for that,” Miss Baxter murmured, not really listening.
“Our boys are good boys,” the man said. What he next had to say he assembled from his dictionary. Miss Baxter sipped her new drink, smiling at everyone. He had found the words: “I should say that, with our people, what matters is only the pure animal pleasure of making love.” Uttered in bald English, it sounded quite wrong. Hastily, he ruffled his dictionary again.
It’s important that we understand that Miss Baxter’s companion is taking great pains to express himself clearly. And that he is aware enough to realize that something (perhaps Miss Baxter’s reaction) is a little off with his translation.
But it’s even more important to understand that Miss Baxter’s concerns about communication extend much further than her charges would have ever suspected.
Which is true of all of Gallant’s characters. Even if they only exist on paper for a few pages, each of them has an extensive backstory.
It’s a sure thing.
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 fourth 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: “When We Were Nearly Young”.