Mavis Gallant: “A question of writing or not writing”

After I read excerpts from Mavis Gallant’s diaries, I went into The New Yorker‘s online archives and read one of her short stories from 1963, called “An Unmarried Man’s Summer.” It had hints of the subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) social criticism I love so much in Dorothy Parker’s short stories and Joan Didion’s reportage.

In 1952, with hardly a penny in her pocket while she waited for payment for her stories (perhaps this is what Taylor Cotter is missing out on), Gallant wrote from Madrid:

“And now it is suddenly cold, like March in New York. This place cries to be written about–the passive, shuffling crowds, crowds everywhere, levelled off, everyone the same. Well-dressed people are the exception, and the gap between them and the rest of us can be measured in miles. I am really shabby now: I noticed it yesterday when I passed two beautifully groomed women, hair waved, good suits, perfume. They brushed by me with the same half-curious, half-impatient air they had for the rest of the street. I have only my Austrian shoes left, very scuffed, and stockings so full of runs that I can scarcely fasten the garter. They’re so sheer that the runs don’t show. Other clothes very tacky: everything needs cleaning. (Mummy’s only advice to me, ever, in her whole life, was ‘Don’t buy cheap clothes.’) Nothing looks working-class, but just Madrid-level seedy. 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 to anyone. At the moment, I haven’t the postage, but, even if I had, what to say? I am not pitying myself, because I chose it. Evidently this is the way it has to be. I am committed. It is a question of writing or not writing. There is no other way. If there is, I missed it.”


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