“Don’t Describe It, Remember It”

Mavis Gallant, who died in 2014, at the age of ninety-one, would have celebrated her hundredth birthday this month. A prolific short-story writer—she published a hundred and sixteen stories in The New Yorker in her lifetime—Gallant was also a dedicated diarist, who recorded the narrative of her own life for some fifty-five years. The following passages are drawn from her diaries from 1954. Four years earlier, Gallant, who was Canadian, had quit her job as a journalist at the Montreal Standard and moved to Europe, where she planned to work on fiction. While travelling from place to place and writing stories, she also gave shape to her own experiences in her journals. As she instructed herself in one entry, “don’t describe it, remember it.” (Other excerpts from Gallant’s diaries appeared in The New Yorker in 1968, 2001, and 2012.)

London, February, 1954

In the cab I felt a familiar excitement, then there came the London air, that awful smell of cooking vegetables, and I was afraid. The approaching squares of windows each lighted by a ceiling lamp, clothes drying, row after row, square after square.

London: At five in the evening, rain. From the National Gallery, misty lights, misty birds, red buses. At the Portrait Gallery I was saturated with faces and drawn back another day. I realized my intense feeling where people are concerned: when the face of Ben Jonson came out of the wall I felt breathless with shock. The faces, the reality of people: people and art, people alive through art, faces formed by art. I felt involved not with pictures but with art and people—in other times, as happy as I am capable of being on an unemotional level. I felt intensely there and later the importance and continuity of England and the importance of the tough, fibrous language.

Down Whitehall in the rain. Rain and rain and I was wet and cold and happy. “You’re not English,” said the young policeman on Trafalgar Square. “Where are you from?” “Do you like Canada?” he said, and then, confused, “I mean.” White and gray, milk white and bread brown—milk in a brown pottery bowl—that was Whitehall in the afternoon rain. Then the first lacy shapes in the mist—Parliament and Westminster Abbey. My father became very clear to me. [Gallant’s father, Albert Stewart Roy de Trafford Young, had emigrated from England to Canada.] No, I am not English. But some things became clear, fell into place.

In Westminster Abbey I was cold and took off my shoes. There was a service, a few lights, a choir, a few people. In all of London, these few. Walking I looked down, a diamond of stone: “O Rare Ben Jonson.” Then I was saturated with kings, and kept in this time only by vulgarity: the vulgarity of the RAF Chapel, of the Canadian royal chairs, the cleric guide—“This here is all that Edward I done for his family.” “Mary Queen of Scots had Lord Darnley done in.” “If you want to give something it’s quite in order.” The Coronation Chair, and the stone, and I understood—not the queen, but Virginia Woolf, and I felt an identity again with KM [the writer Katherine Mansfield], but for a lesser and sillier reason: we the Colonial outsiders looking in. And I thought of Freya Stark brought up in Italy and crying desperately in Persia “I was an Imperialist. I was just as imperialist as they (the English colony) were.”

In St. James’s Park it rained, there were a few people, hurrying doll shapes, the pond flat and gray, done with brush strokes, the water birds. I loved everything; I was happy everywhere.

Walked down Bond Street, bought an umbrella, walked then through St. James’s over the bridge surrounded by a wall of minarets made of fog. Through Queen Anne’s Gate, and spoke to an old lady moving slowly on a cane. “You’re a long way from the Tate,” she said, and took me through the Dean’s Yard where pimply self-conscious boys from Westminster were doing military drill, ordered about by little pigs of sixteen or so. Through a low pointed arch, and suddenly the two spires of the Abbey made of gray tissue paper, a little wreath of gold tissue crinkled at the top. The sky milk gray, and, flapping insistently just inside my frame of vision, the branches and buds of a black, wet tree. One of the spires was soon to fall, my companion said.

At the Tate, I was bouleversée by the Turner watercolors—so totally unexpected, fiery, delicate. The French collection was difficult: because it was England, in the dry cardboard atmosphere of England, I judged (unwillingly) through English eyes. Rouault’s “L’Italienne,” strong and sensuous, beautifully and sensitively framed in an old Italian piece. And a superb (oh damn that word) thing called “Orthodox Boys.” Don’t describe it, remember it.

Solitude has become such a habit that it is disturbing to find I no longer notice anything or anyone except the things I wish to see. It was so disturbing today—this habit—that at the Tate I forced myself to take notice of the shape of the room I was standing in: because, like a dream or a fog, I existed and the paintings existed. Everything else melted like water. In a crowd I suddenly waken from an interior life and force myself to see and recognize the faces.

Hampstead Heath, wet underfoot, a milky smoky light low on the horizon. We walked through paths that sucked at the shoes. At five the sun hung like an orange, an inch above the trees, giving neither heat nor light. Birds screeched.

An English kitchen: Across the fireplace, a line of children’s clothes, stiff and dry. A cat, a kitten, a large and smelly poodle. A plate of biscuits. Tea in large coffee cups without handles.

Margaret Ann [Margaret Ann Bjornson Elton, a Canadian friend of Gallant’s, who had married Sir Arthur Elton, a baronet]. She looks like an Edwardian portrait now, thin and taut: each plane of her face seems outlined with heavy crayon shadow. Hands made of wire and string. Two little girls in brown smocked frocks. Her metamorphosis is beyond believing. Ten years ago, round-faced, suited, fluffy haired, a little snippet from Manitoba. Did she, then, dream of this? She must have. It is too perfect—the Edwardian husband and children, the room stinking of money through its shabbiness. It must, to her, have represented the last bay of security—to be Lady E., and to be that person precisely this way. Nanny’s voice upstairs. M. hasn’t lost her Manitoba accent. The Rs roll like boulders. “The children mustn’t be Amurrican,” she said, in an American voice.

I walked down the Strand to St. Mary-le-Bow. Supports because of bomb damage, deep clear starry-blue windows. A young man praying with almost forced intensity—posing for someone—God. St. Clement Danes so mellowed a bomb shell that it might always have been that way—four empty walls, a romantic ruin in a busy city street. Along Victoria Embankment gulls swooped and cried and the spires of Westminster and the House were made of smoke and shadow.

At five o’clock the light over the city was violet, and the air soft.

Hampton Court—a homely palace, like a kitchen garden for Versailles. Huddled along the river, low, and reddish. Sun, air like milk, the Thames still and milk gray. There were crocuses, little spiraling patches of them, like something spilled by mistake on the lawns, and snow drifts. Crossing the bridge, seeing the milk blue sky and the painted pink clouds—everything gray, muted, wrapped in gauze—I understood English painting and something, a little more, grew in my love of English prose. Is that what I mean?

The English beauty has changed: three hundred years ago—said holy patriarch—she was dark, thick lipped, with slight, almond eyes. Slight flush on the cheeks and even the nose. Smallish curls drawn down on the forehead. A plump pink hand. But the slightly malicious look—haughty, selfish, bitterly amused—of upper-class women has survived.

Like a day in March—rain and pale blue sky and sudden hot sun, hot on one’s back. It was cold. I walked to one end of Green Park and looked at one street where I’d stayed in 1950; it seemed twenty years ago, something ill loved and ill remembered. Then walked to the British Museum, and Russell Square where it was cold and I sat in the park and could not find the ghost nor the trace nor the shadow of Woolf. At one end a skyscraper of the Montreal sort—like the Bell Telephone Building on Beaver Hall Hill. Houses, two old-fashioned brown hotels, bomb-gaps, traffic, traffic, a pink-salmon-grayish setting sun.

There to Margaret Ann’s party, where I saw Vivien Leigh. Then to Antonio and I ached for Spain. There were Spaniards in the audience and they called out in that rich and lovely language. Spain is so unreal that it might have been the only reality of my life. I can see and feel and smell Madrid and Málaga and Barcelona. [Gallant was, most likely, attending a performance of Antonio and his Spanish Ballet Company at the Palace Theatre.] Barcelona, Carrer Tallers 11—the hotel, the shutters, the heat, the noise from the street. Someday I’ll go back. There will be time for everything: Oh God do not consider this a boast, but a prayer.

Vivian Leigh and Olivier—their false smiles at the final curtain. [Leigh and Laurence Olivier were performing in Terence Rattigan’s play “The Sleeping Prince: An Occasional Fairy Tale,” at the Phoenix Theatre.]

Venice, July, 1954

The Côte was blue and gold and bright glassy green. Then we turned into Italy, where it rained. Rain at the dreary Turin airport, damp outside the anonymous glass at Milan. The country, carved into neat tiny strips of pasture, became the color of Italian art: after the rain there was even a hole in the clouds through which light, red and gold, poured down like liquid metal, and there ought to have been a bearded God or a Virgin with one foot on the new moon. Venice looked accidentally spilled into the sea—brown and umber and dark green. The water round it is opaque, muddled green, as if children had been cleaning their paint brushes. My porter rushed me along, pointing out buildings, while I nodded, really seeing nothing, and saying, “Oui, je vois.” [“Yes, I see.”] I make people speak French because I cannot bear what they do to English.

The hotel is a horror, a Cook’s establishment, the lobby full of luggage from bus parties: food and furniture fit. I have a sudden feeling that I am stranded here, and I count the days until I sail for Dubrovnik. Only two things touched me during the first evening’s walk: steps going into the water, looking as if they would be cool to touch, round and smooth as pebbles on a beach, and a sudden, loud, Italian mother-voice from behind the shuttered window of an old house. People do live here, then—not only tourists and Peggy Guggenheim.

The foreigners are very odd and the English I hear is painful. During dinner a gondola went by outside, trailing awful music, and an English family rushed to the window. They were like the English in Tossa, coarse and southern looking, black lace and hanging earrings. The mother said, of the gondolier, “Isn’t he smart, in his jumper!” Later, in my own room, I had the most extraordinary sensation of freedom. Perhaps I like to be anonymous, with everything I own crammed into the smallest space, and no one about. I would like to be as anonymous as a tree or a stone. But, already, my waiter knows me, and the number of my room has been written on a bottle of wine.

All day I tormented myself with thoughts of how illogical it seemed to be leaving the Côte and how he didn’t want me to stay because “it would be difficult.” C’est amer, amer [It’s bitter, bitter], and I feel it in my throat. J. H. is a romantic. In a way, he prefers our being apart. He warms himself with the idea of love. He can live on an idea, as romantics can. All this situation needs is one act of courage. I cannot live on an idea (as he can) but I could live knowing that I was never to see him again. It would be better than this. I would never come back to France.

Morning is gray and damp, and the street sounds like Palermo. At half-past six I hear cries and the rush of feet and voices, voices. Qu’est-ce que je fais ici? [What am I doing here?] I am here because “It would be difficult—there are grandmothers and godmothers.” The cafés along the water are horrifying and some of the streets, bleak and empty, look as if everyone had died of plague. The city reeks of death, and decay—oh, the crumbling decay of the houses, and the empty windows. Who lives here? The guardians of this tomb, I suppose, and the tourists. And the sick pigeons. There was a moment when I saw what it could be—I saw water quivering along the ceiling of the dining room. Another when I held in my mouth a cold fresh fig that tasted of cream. The rest is heat, and drafts, and being stared at, and death like the death in Palermo.

Read Colette until my head ached. Then I took out and reread “Madrid” and “Jasmine.” “Jasmine” wants cutting, which will take time. I should finish both this month. The evening corso, and thunder. I wish it would rain and rain. My life seems to have stopped, or have been interrupted. Across the street, they are closing the shutters of the little boy’s room. He came out on his balcony, small and pale and on tiptoe, and looked into the street until a servant took him away.

Germans everywhere, herds of them, in conducted parties. They filled the staircase and I had panic feelings, caught between two groups in two rooms, unable to [go] back or ahead; and of course my horror of crowds and of being touched by strangers is now almost maladif [an illness]. At the hairdresser this afternoon I had to exert the most intense control over myself or I’d have got up and rushed out of the shop. The man cutting my hair had made an error and kept going around my head, combing and prodding. I do hate the staring here: sometimes I become so tense when men follow me that I wind the strap of my handbag tighter and tighter round my hand, and don’t notice it, and afterwards I see the marks and feel the rush of stopped blood.

A lovely day, though blue and pale yellow and blue ceiling over the piazza, and all the roses and golds of the houses shining. I wish it meant something to me, but I am here for the wrong reason, and Venice is like a travel film through which I sit, impatient, waiting for something important.

Two Germans in the basilica, he and she.

He: (indicating a Star of David carved in the bas-relief) “It is a star, very old, Jewish, and has six points.”

She (incredulous) “Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf,” etc. Turns to him with amazement and adoration, “You are right!”

What I hope for in Dubrovnik is sun and peace and work. I was more interested in the Biennale than in the city itself. I know this is a limitation in me. But something comes to me through painting, something of the artist, no matter how prejudiced or inaccurate I am. Whereas a tomb-city filled with people who have no connection even with the tomb (will they lie there?) gives me nothing. Then too (oh, be fair!) there is this gnawing malaise and pain at the J. affair. My pride speaks up and says, “I am still here, I am still part of you.” When I told J. he simply did not hear. Also, I am not working. And I can never be certain how well I have managed my life.

Eight-fifteen, and I sit in the bar of this chrome and neon horror-hotel, surrounded by Cockneys, waiting to go off to the boat. Any change excites me. Even a silly little trip down the Adriatic gives me the feeling of anticipation and hope I had when I was coming to Europe. I always think everything will change, life will change, I will change, and no amount of letdown can teach me anything.

Yugoslavia, July, 1954

The coast is green and sharply rolling. Low gray sky that drops to the hills. Little white and terracotta towns. Spots of rain. I found a quiet spot on the upper deck and as soon as I had sat down dozens of people seemed to be trying to sit on my lap. A Swede said, “Are you Swedish, because you are wearing the Swedish colors.” I said, “If you think I am Swedish why are you speaking English?” He said, “I have to start somehow.”

Dubrovnik, July, 1954

In two days: Met a Croat nationalist with a long nose. Swallows filled the air early in the evening as we drank beer. He looked up “swallows” in my dictionary. Couples walked up and down. An officer in white at the next table.

The moon over the town. The moon on the water at dinnertime. Silver and black. Moon at midnight, reddish, embedded in clouds. Path on the water.

The sound of church bells came over the water early this morning, after the rain had stopped. It was hot and steamy outside. I got up and walked into town and climbed the city walls. The town became a saucer of tiled rooftops, with here and there a terrace and geraniums in windows growing in tin cans. The houses are thick and solid and must be easy to paint—block after block, only the difference in texture, from wall to roof and the flowering bushes between walls. Then to a café where the Croat found me and we argued about politics.

Letter from Russell [Gallant’s literary agent, Diarmuid Russell] to say “Poor Franzi” was taken by Harper’s Bazaar. I think it probably is a poor story; I scarcely remember it. I feel in fact a bit embarrassed remembering it at all. Milan must spend all his time looking out for me. He found me in the Wedding March Café and we walked together around the town. He has a brown face, long nose, and blue eyes. I suppose he is intelligent. I have noticed the odd frankness and rather offhand contempt I show men in whom I have no interest.

Often I have the curious feeling this is my last holiday. I feel cut off, as if I were already dead, and in a somewhat better place.

A stormy hot day, clouds like a blanket of white felt. At a quarter to eight J. called, sounding harsh and urgent and terribly businesslike. Went alone to bathe—early—and watched the inky green waves bend and spread over the landing. The constant, strong sound, the clean rush of water. There was a composition if one could paint—the uneven thin green bars beside me, through which I looked, the form of the railings, and those odd iron posts standing out of the water, all stern and cold and early morning, totally empty of people.

A letter from J., two pages, saying that he has nothing to report and that he hates shaving. I tore it across and threw it in the waste basket.

The hotel is full of American girls with neat hair and fat legs and bottoms. The Smith College choir.

Hôtel Saint-Georges, Paris, August, 1954

Letter from J. It is like a minor, very minor, Russian story. U. has “found out about us” and is “terrifyingly unhappy and brave as a lion” and he must “think of what is best for everyone.” What does he mean? It sounds like an executioner. Felt all day as if I were walking in my sleep.

This morning I wakened feeling strong and somehow indifferent—hard, even—as if something, some protective spirit, were saying to me: “It isn’t your problem. It is between the two of them, and always has been. Let them settle it.” But then came the next letter (he did not wait a full 24 hours before deciding on the execution): “This I suppose is goodbye.” Why? It isn’t necessary. I went out. The sun was shining. It seems years since Dubrovnik. I wish I were there and none of this had happened yet.

Saturday. I feel physically destroyed, as if I had been run over by a tank. I think that when people look at me they see how unhappy I am, and that unhappiness is the only disease we are all afraid of catching. I have it. It will scar me for life, like smallpox.

Quotations for a cruel record:

“I know it is hard for you to trust men, but time will prove my case.”

“When you have our children, I shall be with you in them, always.”

“Of course you shall have our child, and I shall always love you and care for you both.”

“ . . . until one of us dies.”

“Only a war could separate us.”

He said, he said, he said.

I feel as if I might easily slip over into madness. I feel run over, demolished, crushed. I feel as if I had no reason to live. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t understand how to think or feel. It is as if a frozen wound were thawing and causing the greatest possible agony.

I must stop this. Everything seems small and faraway, even my hand holding the pen.

If I were croyante [a believer] I would pray, “please let this day come to an end.” I must do something—work, or travel. Move.

Oh, how I wish today would end! It is hot August weather, but I feel as cold—no, this is rubbish. I feel as if my unhappiness were a visible disease. I scarcely remember Dubrovnik. I must have been there when I was very young.

Sleeplessness. I cannot seem to make myself move. The wound grows deeper and darker and more disabling every day. Now I am paralyzed with it.

Paris is hot and smells of dust and the end of summer.

Clinique Morin, Paris, September, 1954

When we crossed the ugly busy Place de la Nation, looking for a taxi, Pilar burst out, “He speaks of nightmares, but who is living the nightmare? It is you.” If I had not myself suggested a clinic, he would have let me miscarry in a hotel, washing his hands of it, saying, “The risk is yours.” He hates Americans, I am told. It was only coming into the clinic last night, late and alone, that I realized how serious the situation was. I sat on a chair in the white and gray room while two nurses made up the bed and one of them said “Maintenant couchez-vous, et vous n’avez plus le droit de bouger.” [“Now lie down, and you are no longer allowed to move.”] I was frightened—I hate hospitals, the smell of them, and my body revolted against every simple and innocent thing done to it—“piqûre calmante” [“a sedative injection”] (would it harm the child?), the thermometer, the examination. Alone. I wept with despair, which is difficult to understand now, in daylight. I felt as if I had to explain myself to someone hard and cold, like Calais (whose stony face as she advised me to “get rid of it, tear it out, it is only a cell” still chills me, with what it reveals of her). Despair that I was alone, I suppose. Not at having the child. Only that I was pregnant under such miserable circumstances, and losing it, all at once. The room was dark, the shutters closed; the icepack froze me to the bone, and I was afraid for the embryo, the thread-like cell. I wondered if it would ever know, or care, that I had wanted it and fought for it. Against everyone, even my doctor.

Suzanne would have me write J.: “J’ai l’honneur de vous informer . . .” [“I have the honor of informing you . . .”]

How dirty they are. Nothing is ever washed or rinsed. The nurses making the bed said, “Get up, it is easier for us. We won’t tell the doctor.” I asked a nurse if she would rub my back, as I am always in one position. She said, “Do you think that’s all I have to do?” And “did you bring any alcohol or cologne? No?” They won’t even give me a little talc. And this is a private clinic. Although I am in constant nausea, a black sea of it, I am sent things like prawns still in the shell. I saw my bill. I am charged for the sugar with my tea, which I never use anyway.

Hôtel Saint-Georges, Paris, October, 1954

I have changed rooms. [ . . .] The new room has the same roses on the wall, but mercifully faded. An armoire that squeaks. A tiny extra bed, for a child I suppose. I am constantly ill and light-headed. There is a mild pity in my friends’ behavior, impossible to tolerate. I think of the possible child, I think “we.” . . . No, this must not degenerate into self-pity. But I can’t help falling into the past, I wish I were in Málaga, waiting to take the tram. No, really, I wish nothing.

I can’t depend on anything now except nature and art. I can’t trust personal relations. He did that. Am I being fair? Yes, wholly.

Morning seems years ago. I sit at the round table in the middle of the room. Under the hanging light the cloth is red and hurts my eyes.

I am acutely sensitive now to scent and to noise. The odor of eau de cologne, of food cooking, of cards, of rooms, of dust, nauseates me. Sound is excruciating. I walk and move in a dream state. As if I had moved in and in and in on myself, leaving my skin abandoned and deadened and thick. I shall go to Austria, to a farm in the mountains. ♦

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