The Hunger Diaries

From The New Yorker:

In 1950, at the age of twenty-eight, Mavis Gallant left a job as a journalist in Montreal and moved to Paris. She published her first short story in The New Yorker in 1951, and spent the next decade travelling around Europe, from city to city, from hotel to pension to rented apartment, while working on her fiction. The following excerpts from her diary cover March to June, 1952, when Gallant was living hand to mouth in Spain, giving English lessons and anxiously waiting for payment for her New Yorker stories to arrive via her literary agent, Jacques Chambrun.

The Border, March, 1952

An armed guard in gray, a church, a wild rocky coast on which rushes a steel sea. Black rocks, cliffs, wind, a cold spring sun. Fragile, feathery fruit trees in pink. At Portbou, leave the train. A large room, like a drafty baggage depot. I wait; my luggage is wrenched open and inspected by insolent guards. Organized disorder. Luggage is chalked. People drift to the currency exchange to declare what they are bringing in. I am bringing in so little (twelve thousand lire) that I expect them to think I am hiding more. We are funnelled into a doorway between filthy guards to show our passports. I am caught between a quarrelling French couple. Evidently bringing the baby was her idea—he knew better from the start. A wait, a long one. Inexplicable multilingual confusion, lending of pens, filling out of forms. I reach the window. “Journalist?” says the arrogant young man. (Will they all be like this?) “Beautiful, too!” I know what I must look like after a night and a day and a night in a third-class train. On to another window, where something is stamped, and a rush to the Barcelona train. They seem old (the carriages) but not shabby, just high and rather solid. No compartment doors, thank God, as I have been suffocating since Sicily. I share the window with a young girl who wears the Saint-Germain-des-Prés uniform—plaid slacks, black shirt, peajacket, mascara, no lipstick. Holes in her socks (the heel is a great grubby-white moon) and she obviously doesn’t give a damn. She has two addresses for cheap rooms in Barcelona and Madrid and writes a note for one, Calle de Hortaleza 7, Madrid. The carriage fills: an old woman, who can hardly hide her loathing for Miss Saint-Germain; two businessmen, who gravely offer each other smoking tobacco and papers for rolling; a booted soldier, fat blond wife, two babies. Everyone sleeps. The soldier wakes up and says to one of the babies, who is crying, “Si tú no te callas, te tiras por la ventana,” which I immediately write down, as it is the first sentence in Spanish I have heard and miraculously understood, though if he had not pointed to the window I might not have known about ventana.

Barcelona, March

Gray stone houses, balconies, trolley lines, dust. Like a bourgeois part of Paris suddenly deserted, disappearing under grit and sand.

No restaurants open before ten at night. It rains, it blows, every other sign advertises a detective agency. Nothing in the bookshops, just grammars and technical books. No one smiles. It is a big city, and dirty and gloomy. A suit for a man costs five dollars.

______

Breakfast is always a cup of warm milk flavored with haricot beans, and a bit of dry bread. Orphanage food. The food is very strange and I am bothered by the people staring. It isn’t the lively Italian curiosity but, rather, heavy and dull, like cows in a field.

Madrid, April

I live on bread, wine, and mortadella. Europe for me is governed by the price of mortadella. I know the Uniprix [department store] in France, the Upim in Rome, and here the sepu, all alike, with music piped in. In Madrid, subdued flamenco, and they seem to like the airs from Sigmund Romberg operettas.

Went to see “Oliver Twist,” which was dubbed and seemed very strange. In one scene, when he is beaten, the young people in the audience burst into maniacal laughter.

______

This flat is full of sound. There is a squeaky baby I have not yet seen, who cries like a toy being pressed. His mother croons and sounds like the Duchess in “Alice.” And then there is the strange dark woman who shouts, and a very little, dark old creature with a senile face who creeps up to me and murmurs in the passage. I talk to her cheerfully in English until someone comes and rushes her off to the kitchen. The people are not friendly, but nice. I think not accustomed to foreigners.

______

“Mama, look at the señora smoking,” a little girl cried, staring at me, in a café. Cool wind, fluttering apricot-colored tablecloths. At night the sky is deep indigo, the moon a piece of cold metal. Few city lights, and so it is almost a country sky. The sound of Madrid is a million trampling feet. Its smell is cooking oil. Everything tastes of it, even the breakfast croissants. This flat is awash in it. At lunch I saw a meal being prepared—a bath of oil with something sinister swimming inside.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker