The July 9 & 16 issue of the New Yorker has a selection of Mavis Gallant’s wonderful journal entries from her days as a starving writer in Spain. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to the article, since they’ll only show it online to subscribers. It’s worth getting hold of a copy. Gallant was living in Spain in 1952, and the whole country was poor along with her. At one low point, she was reduced to pawning her typewriter and living on potatoes. Her response to her plight, as recorded in her journal is matter-of-fact and fearless. The words are a wonderful tonic against writer’s despair.
I am not pitying myself, because I chose it. Evidently this is the way it has to be. I am committed. It is a question of writing or not writing. There is no other way. If there is, I missed it.
She describes buying a ticket to the movies instead of food. “Chose cinema over potatoes.” she writes. And she explains that when you are desperately poor, you don’t want to see more poor people in the film; you want to see the rich, their clothes their jewels, their homes. A silly plot twist has one of the characters, dressing in rags and pretending to be poor. Gallant writes that she was “…furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal.”
This is great stuff, and one is naturally reminded of others writing about being down and out in Europe. Hemingway and Henry Miller come to mind, of course. But after reading Gallant their stuff seems self-congratulatory and tinged with adolescent male braggadocio. Gallant comes a lot closer to expressing the real courage it takes to bet everything on your art and just “keep on writing”.
I have to include a longer quote that illustrates her powers of observation and a deceptively simple style that gave me chills when I read this journal entry.
Today from the balcony I see a blind man tapping his way along the buildings across the street. He reaches a street crossing; everyone watches, silent, and lets him walk full on into the side of a building. When he has recovered (for a moment he was like a butterfly beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away. Pure detached curiosity: “What happens when a blind man collides with a wall?” Then, “Only that?”