Wasted day. Wrote letters to avoid the novel. It is all there, and, once I begin working, I am submerged, but the plunging in frightens me. the people in it aren’t as immediate as they were. I can’t see them on the street anymore. They are real people, but only I know what happened to them. Sometimes when I write I feel I am watched by, what–ghosts? Ghosts of people I have invented? If anyone comes in unexpectedly while I am working I am terrified.
—The Hunger Diaries: A Writer’s Apprentice, Mavis Gallant. The New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012
Strange that Phil directed me to the article. Tuesday or Wednesday night. You have to read this. Mavis-someone, he said when he came in before taking a shower and falling into bed. Gallant, I said. I read a few paragraphs, and in the morning we agreed how our experiences in Spain, his in the 60s, mine in the 70s, were not very different from hers:
I am bothered by the people staring. It isn’t the lively Italian curiosity but, rather, heavy and dull, like cows in a field.
–Barcelona, March 1952
One thing follows another and you forget what you had started reading or there are so many things you have started and so many things to keep track of that it isn’t so surprising not to find your way back. I had an appointment with an ENT at Virginia Mason in Seattle yesterday. I was anxious and always get queasy when asked to sign the forms, agreeing to any procedure deemed necessary, and there’s nothing so disconcerting as the door of an examination room opening and the face above the exteneded hand registering as a twelve-year-old’s. The intern. Many questions asked. Much attention given. Many notes taken. Strange what goes through your head while other things are happening–I didn’t run, I walked. Interns run. Much thrumming–not sure that’s the word–the tapping of fingertips on tissue through skin–all very thorough–repeated when the doctor himself opened the “ear room” to which I’d been transferred and extended his hand–another twelve-year-old face, this one wearing Clark Kent glasses. But his voice was strong and he sounded certain of himself. I was dismissed finally. All clear, apparently, though it doesn’t feel so to me. And then I was walking.
I was in a part of Seattle I hadn’t walked before and recognized a feeling I get sometimes when I walk in an unknown city and liking not knowing where I am exactly. It was a hot afternoon. I followed the sidewalks that were shaded and wended my way to what is still for me the new location of the Elliott Bay Bookstore. I had gone to look for books on Scotland, particularly the islands to the west, but found myself instead recalling titles and characters mentioned by characters in novels who were reading other novels–Gemma, for instance, in Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy, reading Kim and Kidnapped. And then I remembered that the novel is described as “both an homage to and a modern variation on the enduring classic Jane Eyre.” Shamefully, I have never read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I found it on the shelf, and when I opened to the first page, was swept into the part of my mind I miss the most, the part of myself that forgets, we can do anything.
The names of the writers and the titles of the books I wanted to find came to me faster than I feared I would be able to remember them. I thought of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness next, which I had read, thanks to Bill Dickinson all of those years ago, and which Michael Ondaatje contemplates in his A Room for London address, which appealed to me so much, particularly the way he described those parts of the novel that depict the Thames:
Someone once mentioned the phrase ’port accents’ to me. And the idea of the existence of such a thing hovered in the air while I was writing my novel about a sea journey. Now and then the ship I was writing about would dock at Aden or Port Said, and the talk in those ports would be not so much the language of the country but a language based on commerce and transport. It would be speedy and efficient, a casually invented informal Esperanto, a lingo that did not involve translation so much as a crashing together of nouns and phrases like the commentaries during hockey games in Canada that include Quebec joual as well as English colloquialisms, a useful but non-existent language, a ‘connecting’ language, the word ‘pidgin’ deriving from the old Chinese pronunciation of the English word for ‘business’.
—Michael Ondaatje, 23-24 June 2012
I want to walk beside the Thames again when I am in London, this time thinking about Ondaatje’s depiction of Conrad walking there:
Józef Korzeniowski arrived in England in 1878, barely knowing anyone for 15 years until he met Edward Garnett in 1894, and changed his name to Joseph Conrad. He too lived for years in solitude, a ‘lonely Londoner’, speaking with the heavy foreign accent he would have all his life.
I continued my zig-zag journey through the shelves, backtracking from Ondaatje to Conrad; from Livesey to Bronte to Stevenson to Kipling. It was while I was thumbing through the meager supply of novels by Muriel Spark that I thought of Mavis Gallant. Back to G. What a surprise to find her collection Paris Stories, selected and with an introduction by Michael Ondaatje.