‘Crossing The Alps’ by Margaret Drabble

Crossing The Alps by Margaret Drabble, 196914

The magic trick:

Giving us the man’s interior thoughts, but giving the central character development to the woman

We’re doing a week of stories from Margaret Drabble, an author I was not familiar with until a recommendation from my Aunt Jacqui.

I’m glad I pursued her collected stories, A Day In The Life Of A Smiling Woman. Good stuff!

So we start with one of her best, “Crossing The Alps.”

It’s a road trip story – a couple engaging in an extramarital affair is taking a trip together from London to Yugoslavia (present-day Slovenia). Like any great story on the move, the characters and their relationship change significantly as they move across the map. This one taps into that Brideshead Revisited magic, where the couple crosses the Atlantic Ocean in a way that almost hypnotizes the reader into feeling like they’ve made the journey with the characters.

“Crossing The Alps” has an additional layer: the man in the relationship has some kind of flu bug. He is sick throughout the story, putting the woman in what we understand to be the unique position of power and decisionmaking. So what we see happening is the woman undertaking a change – a confidence and joy of independence. But the story is told in third-person with an emphasis on the free indirect narration of the man’s thoughts. So we’re noting the woman’s growth while the man perhaps is not.

There is character development for sure. The couple’s relationship is fundamentally different by the end. But what exactly those developments mean to each character is not entirely clear. It’s up to us to sort it out.

And that’s quite a trick on Drabble’s part.

The selection:

On the boat, they did all right. He had by then a sore throat, but she gave him some aspirin and some seasickness pills and they even managed to get some sleep. When they woke up, they had breakfast, as the car had not yet been unloaded, and they looked at the map.

“We must be mad to go so far,” she said, looking at the distances they idly proposed to cross. “It’s quite nice here,” she said, looking out at Le Havre and the blue morning sea.

“We can’t stay here, we’ve got to get off,” he said, for this too he had planned, knowing that any kind of inactivity would breed regrets.

“It might make you ill,” she said, though without conviction: she liked the idea of moving as much as he did. Such static lives they led, at their separate homes.

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