Mavis Gallant’s “Travellers Must Be Content” (1959)

Wishart has summer plans. They remind me of Walter’s widow-soaked season in “An Unmarried Man’s Summer”. Here, however, Bonnie is a divorcee.

“Like many spiteful, snobbish, fussy men, or a certain type of murderer, Wishart chose his friends among middle-aged solitary women.”

It’s not just for effect, this comment: there is something darker in Wishart’s nature. No, he’s not a murderer, but it’s possible that spending substantial amount of time with him could provoke a homicidal episode. Ask Bonnie.

In other years, apparently, their summer holidays ended with Bonnie and Wishart fighting and going their separate ways in a huff which was barely mended before the following summer. This season begins well enough, but the strain begins to show when Wishart’s next destination falls through.

The next woman in line delays her invitation to Venice and Wishart is forced to stay longer with Bonnie (and admit, both to her and to himself, that he was not as deeply desirable a companion as he may have pretended). Now he is no longer there with Bonnie by choice, now she must admit that he is the kind of man one might put off: neither party is content.

“He looked with real suspicion now at the sand, probably treacherous with broken bottles, and at the sea, which, though blue and sparkling, was probably full of germs. Even the sky was violated; across the face of it an airplane was writing the name of a drink.”

Their relationship is not romantic, however. Bonnie’s daughter, Flor, jokes that her parents are Catholics, “so they don’t believe in their own divorce”. Bonnie’s romantic energy is directed towards encouraging Flor’s efforts. Wishart’s attendance barely supports the possibility that some man, some time, may have an interest in Bonnie, but she is always on the lookout for a gentleman. Looking past Wishart, that is.

“But what did Wishart know about men? He was a woman-haunter, woman’s best friend. She put on her sunglasses in order to hide her exasperation with him, because he was a man but not the right person.”

Wishart sneers at romance and holds women in contempt generally. “If he let his thoughts move without restraint into the world of women, he discovered an area dimly lighted and faintly disgusting, like a kitchen in a slum. It was a world of migraines, miscarriages, disorder, and tears.”

Both Bonnie and Wishart are disillusioned. Inwardly, each itemizes the qualities in the other which are lamentable, distasteful, and disgusting. It feels both intensely personal and wholly removed from this relationship: together, they despise what they claim they do not want and, instead, despise one another.

Young Flor, however, still has her dreams, even if she has moved to a lower-level flat this summer, down in the grit with her new beau.

“Lacking an emotional country, it might be possible to consider another person one’s home. She pressed her face against his unmoving arm, accepting everything imperfect, as one accepts a faulty but beloved country, or the language in which one’s thoughts are formed. It was the most dangerous of ideas, this ‘Only you can save me,’ but her need to think it was so overwhelming that she wondered if this was what men, in the past, had been trying to say when they had talked to her about love.”

For Mavis Gallant, a woman in exile, the idea of home is central to this story which is not, in the end, about men and women at all. The dialogue and the scenic creations are entertaining and engaging, but the core relationship is between Bonnie and Flor. It is cast against the backdrop of summer in Cannes, but it is an ongoing drama of lonely and relentless interdependence between two rootless women, neither of whom knows her own self well enough to enjoy her own solitude.

“This was July. The summer, a fruit already emptied by wasps, still hung on its tree.”

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-seventh 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 week’s story: “On With the New in France”.

2018-02-20T13:54:54+00:00

7 Comments

  1. […] It’s a stark contrast to a sad summer in Cannes, but a light breeze which is greatly appreciated amidst that July heat. […]

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife February 28, 2018 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    So interesting that it’s more about the two women in the end than the boorish Wishart. Makes the story more appealing!

    • Buried In Print February 28, 2018 at 8:27 pm - Reply

      It’s interesting how often her stories seem to focus on men, more often than Alice Munro for sure, but it’s also interesting how prominent the women are even when they are not the main characters.

  3. Naomi February 22, 2018 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    The loneliness just oozes out of this story, doesn’t it? Poor Flor… And Wishart needs to get a life.

    • Buried In Print February 22, 2018 at 6:07 pm - Reply

      They were both pretty nasty at times but, overall, I felt so sad for them, too. And, as things went on, for Flor, too, because her mother’s bitterness and disappointment is going to tug at her for the rest of their time together.

  4. annelogan17 February 20, 2018 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    Even though the characters begin to resent it, this story sounds very evocative, like the setting seems to play it’s own key role. It also makes me want to go to Cannes! LOL

    • Buried In Print February 20, 2018 at 7:14 pm - Reply

      Bonnie could use a good girlfriend: just send her a telegram to let her know you’re on your way!

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