A Writer’s Apprenticeship in Madrid
In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, I found a wonderful piece called “The Hunger Diaries,” by Mavis Gallant, the Canadian short story writer and novelist. The article is a collection of her journal entries written between March and June 1952, when she was living in Madrid. Gallant was a fledgling fiction writer in her late 20s, who quit her job as a journalist in order to travel through Europe and focus on her fiction.
During the months covered in these diary entries, Gallant was awaiting payment of a short story that had been published in the New Yorker. She had no phone and obviously no email and was relying on her New York-based literary agent, Jacques Chambrun, to forward the checks. But Chambrun neglected to sent along her payments. Apparently, he later became well known for stealing his clients’ money. Gallant, not knowing where the money was or even that a second story had been published in the New Yorker, sold many of her personal items, including clothes, her typewriter and her grandmother’s wedding ring, in order to eat.
A few things struck me that I wanted to share. First, I was so impressed with Gallant’s resolve and her drive to live such a life for the sake of her writing. She’s not the only starving artist to do so. But not everyone keeps a diary about it and as I read these entries, I felt her hunger pains and the doubt she tended over whether she was making the right decision. Famished, she was more worried about her future than food. She writes:
Was filled with ice-cold despair because he [a friend of Gallant’s] had touched on the thing I only sometimes let myself suspect might be true: that I have gambled on something and have failed.
Her doubt is palpable. About her novel, she writes:
Wrote letters to avoid the novel. It is all there, and, once I begin working, I am submerged, but the plunging in frightens me. The people in it aren’t as immediate as they were. I can’t see them on the street anymore.
Told Frederick I no longer believe in the novel. He said, ‘Write it whether you believe in it or not.’ It is like watching a plant die. Something in me was lacking, or I would have kept it alive.
Through it all, however, she maintained her ability to feel joy and to recognize the beauty in the world around her. She writes:
Hungry and nervous, and went home with a blinding headache. But the day was splendid all the same, sunshine in solid blocks of light, a breeze, trees light green, deep-green grass, fountains throwing spray every way with the wind, all soaked and giddy with light.
Despite her doubts, Gallant went on to become a great fiction writer. She wrote two novels: Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970); a play, What is to be Done? (1984); and numerous collections of stories, including The Other Paris (1953), My Heart is Broken (1964), The Pegnitz Junction (1973), The End of the World and Other Stories (1974), Across the Bridge (1976), From the Fifteenth District (1978), Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories (1981), Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris (1985), and In Transit (1988).
Gallant’s ability to persevere in the face of doubt and hunger is an inspiration to us all.