Mavis Gallant’s “Malcolm and Bea” (1968)

They are no longer only thieves and rascals: “All men are filth.” Bea is perhaps no more unhappy than Marian Kimber, but she is more outwardly disgruntled. And even though she says this with a laugh, there’s an undeniable edge to it.

“My mother was a saint and my father worshipped her. We were very, very happy. Three girls. When I was thirteen my mother said to me, ‘All men are filth.’ Bea laughs.”

What exactly is she laughing about? That her mother was perfect, her father worshipped that perfection, and yet her mother was not at all satisfied with her marriage? That her mother actually had the perfect relationship but refused to recognize its worth? That none of the three girls saw through the charade of an unsaintly mother and a contemptuous father until their mother set them straight?

It’s hard to know which of these might be true because Bea is all-over-the-place with everyone. When her son, Roy, annoys her, she declares that he is not really hers, just some child sent home from the hospital with her in error.

Roy is Bea’s son, but he is not Malcolm’s son, which Malcolm think Bea may have forgotten but, in any case, Malcolm is certain that Roy shouldn’t hear such a thing from his mother. He insists that Bea correct her statement vehemently and clearly.

“Of course Roy was hers! She said so, laughing. He was hers like the crickets she kept in plastic cages and fed on scraps of lettuce the size of Ruth’s fingernails; like the hedgehog she raised and trained to drink milk out of a wineglass; like the birds she buys on the Quai de la Corse in Paris and turns out to freeze or starve or be pecked to death. It is always after she has said something harebrained, on the very limit of reason, that she seems most appealing. Her outrageousness is part of the coloration of their marriage, their substitute for a plot.”

Here, too, Bea laughs. And Malcom likes her laughing. Even though he sees her behaviour as outrageous, identifies it as off-kilter.

Readers can view Bea and Malcolm’s relationship in post-war France against another couple’s relationship, Leonard and Verna’s, their closest friends and the only Canadians they know there.

But things are a bit unsettled for them just now too; Leonard’s mistress has just cut her wrist with the dull side of a fruit knife and people are asking questions.

It’s getting harder for Verna to act like she doesn’t know about Leonard’s betrayal. It’s getting harder for everyone involved to carry on conversations without revealing something painful.

“Every marriage is about something. It must have a plot. Sometimes it has a puzzling or incoherent plot. If you saw it acted out, it would bore you. ‘Turn it off,’ you would say. ‘No one I know lives that way.’ It has a mood, a setting, a vocabulary, bone structure, a climate.”

But Malcolm has admitted that in his marriage to Bea her outrageousness substitutes for plot. So there is no mood, no setting, no vocabulary, no bone structure, no climate.

That’s a lot of stuff to miss in a relationship, any relationship, but certainly in a marriage.

Better to keep a cricket in a box than have a spouse or a child.

Not boring, no. Not incoherent either. But puzzling, yes.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: The Pegnitz Junction, discussion scheduled to begin May 1, 2018.

2018-03-05T15:06:08+00:00

2 Comments

  1. annelogan17 March 20, 2018 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Sounds like Bea’s doing a lot of laughing-is she suffering from a bit of hysteria or what?

    • Buried In Print March 22, 2018 at 12:51 pm - Reply

      Maybe! I feel like she might be forced to consider the absurdity of it all, lest the reality seep into her awareness.

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