Guest Post by Janice Gary
While reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, I came across “The Hunger Diaries,” excerpted entries (March-June, 1952) from the journal of novelist and short story writer Mavis Gallant. From the very first sentence, the writing captivated me, plunging me into a world both exotic and maddeningly boring, a life narrated in cinematic detail by an unforgettable voice.
An armed guard in gray, a church, a wild rocky coast which rushes a steel sea… At Portbou, (I) leave the train…my luggage is inspected by insolent guards…I am caught between a quarreling French couple. Evidently, bringing the baby was her idea – he knew better from the start.
The entries in The New Yorker come from a period when Ms. Gallant was living “hand to mouth” in Spain, having left her husband, her journalism job, and her country to make a life as a writer in Europe. Her training as a reporter is evident in the way she records the sights, sounds and events taking place around her. But the hand of an emerging artist is also evident, both in the beauty of the prose and in the compelling material. This is more than a journal; it is a powerful piece of autobiographical writing.
You can almost hear the rumbling of Gallant’s stomach as she continues to stay the course, typing manuscripts, teaching English and selling her clothes for money. She perseveres, hungering not only for food but for the creative spark to sustain a new novel.
This novel, this bird in my mind, I have carried since Austria, suddenly alighted in Madrid. Sitting in the Café Telefonica, eating a dry bun, I saw one of those girls with the long jaw… and of course, that was the girl in the book.
The rollercoaster quality of the prose takes my breath away. Lyrical in one moment, down to the earth the next, Gallant constantly grounds her writing in the stunning power of the ordinary. The dry bun. The insolent guard. The quarreling couple.
The last few months have been a time of ups and downs in my own writing. The intoxication of being contracted for my first book followed by a disorienting lack of direction. There are long days when I do not write at all, which for a writer is a kind of starvation.
That’s why “The Hunger Diaries” speaks so strongly to me. This is a writer who, although famished most of the time, continues to feed herself with observations and insights. It makes me realize how anorexic I have been these last few months, stubbornly refusing to do what I can, write what I can, about whatever I can.
After reading the essay, I pull out my journal. I write about the unrelenting sun, the sharp cries of osprey circling the sky, the emptiness I feel when I’m not writing. Then I return to Mavis Gallant and devour her writing, awed by the strange and wonderful way we writers feed ourselves – and each other – with words.
Editor’s Note: There’s an interesting 1999 Paris Review interview with Mavis Gallant available online.
Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.