“Literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.”
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. So too were the stories she wrote for the New Yorker—116 in all.
Earlier this week Gallant died at the age of 91 in her apartment in Paris. She had lived there most of her life, after leaving Canada as a relatively young woman. She had no children, was not married and none of her work that I have read betrays any longing for the country or city (Montreal) of her birth.
Throughout the 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 I visited. People had scarcely any money and in Madrid, where Gallant 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. During her last years, when she had been quite ill, she continued to work with Kierman in recalling the details of 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." Lahiri has recently moved with her family from the United States to Rome. Born in London to immigrant parents from West Bengali, raised in Rhode Island, she knows well the effects of such a background. In remembering Gallant, she commented: “the great act of bravery to leave Canada to live in Paris alone and to survive solely by means of her writing is such an extraordinary thing to have done. She was completely on her own.”
In her Paris Review interview Gallant said: “I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.”
In her remembrance of Gallant, Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker, also cited a passage from this interview: “Writing is like a love affair: the beginning is the best part.” Well maybe, but I can think of many exceptions.
Several excerpts from her journals were recently published in 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 governed 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 butterfly beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away.
Today I have no money and no food.
Note: Portions of this expanded post appeared earlier on Marks in the Margin.