Thursday, July 12, 2012
July 9 & 16, 2012 Issue
Jon Michaud’s “Mavis Gallant: Fact Into Fiction” (“Back Issues,” newyorker.com, July 2, 2012) points out an interesting fact: “Gallant took the experiences recorded in her Madrid diary and transformed them into her short story, “When We Were Nearly Young,” which was published in The New Yorker [October 15, 1960].” Comparing the story with the diary excerpts, published in this week’s New Yorker (“The Hunger Diaries”), I find that I much prefer the diary version. It seems more real, i.e., more alive, closer to reality, truer to life. For example, here is Gallant’s diary description of a young woman she encounters on the Barcelona train:
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.
That “the heel is a great grubby-white moon” is inspired! There’s nothing like this in the story. The girl gets only a brief mention (“A girl had given me the address on a train, warning me to say nothing about it to anyone”). In the diary, Gallant describes her own face as follows:
Sometimes catching sight of myself in a glass on the street, I am bewildered at what I have become – even my expression seems shabby, as if I were one with the street now.
I love that “as if I were one with the street now.” Gallant omits it from the story. She simply says, “In no time at all, I had the speech and the movements and the very expression on my face of seedy Madrid.”
Some of the incidents recorded in the diary occur in the story, but their details are described differently. For example, the knife that the “poor madman” in the restaurant uses to comb his hair becomes, in the story, a fork that he uses to scratch his head. And in the pickpocket incident, there’s a change from sale of all her books for forty pesetas to sale of a coat and skirt for a dollar-fifty.
The main difference between “The Hunger Diaries” and “When We Were Nearly Young” is that the former brims with sharp observation (e.g., “The sound of Madrid is a million trampling feet”; “There are babies, little girls in white skirts so starched they stand out like lampshades, gold buttons in their ears”; “Streams of urine everywhere, under café tables”). Few of the story’s descriptions are as pungent and specific as the diary’s are.
Geoff Dyer, in his review of John Cheever’s Journals, wrote, “I would go further and suggest that this selection from his journals represents Cheever’s greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival” (“John Cheever: The Journals,” Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, 2011). I suggest the same can be said about Mavis Gallant’s diaries.