For years I was an avid reader of Mavis Gallant’s "Letters from Paris" that appeared in the New Yorker. They were my introduction to Europe and to the city that for a while became my first and final destination each time I went there.
Throughout the 60 years Gallant lived in Europe she kept a daily journal. They are her accounts of the many changes in Europeans and their cultures after World War 2. The war ended in 1945. My first trip to Europe was nine years later. Rubble was still on the streets of London and almost every city in Germany city I visited. People had scarcely any money and in Madrid, where she lived for a while, Franco was still in power.
A friend of Gallant’s, Frances Kierman, is currently editing the vast, mostly handwritten entries for what will be the first of several volumes of her daily journal entries. Gallant is about to turn 90, has been quite ill recently and is doing her best in working with Kierman to recall some of the incidents she wrote about.
Jhumpa Lahiri recently met Gallant to conduct an interview for Granta magazine. After their meeting, Lahiri wrote, "I had never met a writer who has inspired me so greatly, and towards whom I felt such enormous debt."
Several excerpts from her journals were recently published in the July 9th & 16th double issue of the New Yorker. They are drawn from four months 1952 when she was struggling to survive as a writer in Madrid.
I live on bread wine, and mortadella. Europe for me is govered by the price of mortadella.
When I think of my life before I came here, it is like someone else’s life, something I am being told. I can’t write anyone. At the moment I haven’t the postage, but even if I had, what to say?
Sunshine and little to eat (potatoes and potatoes). To the Prado, that small container overflowing with good things. Back to Goya. I go back and back and still he is haunting and terrifying.
No one is as real to me as people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them, as if the half-empty café were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.
Today from the balcony I see a blind man tapping his way long 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 butterfy beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away.
I hang on the end of hunger. We are all as pale as paper. I can’t wear my blouses because they are dirty and I haven’t soap for them and for me and it has to be me.
Today I have no money and no food.
Told Frederick [a friend] 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.
Chambrun [her agent] has send four hundred dollars and says he will send the rest later. The first thing I bought was good white bread.