This Writing Life: A Missive from Montreal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe describes the way a bone-chilling Montreal winter seeps into her soul, making her writing life more intensely insular.

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.

Mavis Gallant, The Hunger Diaries 1952

This is new to me, this sound of a car bogged in snow. Three floors down in the unplowed street, the vehicle in question is trying like crazy to free itself, tyres spinning the clean drift to grey-brown slush and the engine giving a plaintive, animal whine. It’s new to me, being of the North American winter, which is also new to me. But the sound calls to some familiar and unnameable despair. It brings on a tangible anxiety that I cannot find the logical reason for and so cannot talk myself away from.

It’s been going like this for four or five minutes, and now that the battery is audibly starting to die the sound is more distressing. Like listening to a trapped animal howling and howling and howling until you are sure it will do itself some irreparable damage.

Spring comes into Québec from the west. It is the warm Japan Current that brings the change of season to the West coast of Canada, then the West Wind picks it up. It comes across the prairies in the breath of the Chinook, waking up the grain and caves of bears.

This comes from Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, but it was his Poems 1956–1968 that made me fall in love with Montreal. Or at least the idea of it that I pieced together, as a fourteen-year-old stranded in outer suburban Melbourne. There is still some part of Montreal that is and will always be wine-coloured carpets and nude women lighting cigarettes from the gas range, holding back their long hair. Behemoth nuns lumbering down St Catherine Street. Someone dreaming of Nijinsky. Dirty nylons tucked into the fireplace.

In Montréal spring is like an autopsy. Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark.

But I already know that spring in Montreal will smell like tar, like roadworks; the perennial army of machinery deployed to patch up the pot holes and cracks that opened during the deep freeze and now pit and fissure the streets. Spring will be heralded by bright orange barricades and toxic smoke, molten asphalt, which we will welcome with jokes about Mafia-metered contract work; there’s a hole on St Denis where all the money goes. Pont Champlain is shaking apart and chunks of cement are falling off the Turcot Interchange like lumps of snow melting from bumpers.

But I didn’t come here for the infrastructure. Rather, the disrepair and latent corruption are symptomatic of a larger economic malaise that makes Montreal a wonderfully liveable city in other respects: in rental costs, for instance. And, by extension, in art. I came here – convinced my husband to come here – to write. I came here because I had a small amount of money that I figured might stretch twice as far in Montreal as in Melbourne, buying me twice as much writing time. And because I wanted to live differently for a while. I wanted to live differently despite knowing, with uncomfortable acuity, that wherever you go, there you are.

We arrived in September, in the lead-up to Montreal’s immense, mythological winter. We opened bank accounts, and the clerk pointed to a postcard of Sydney tacked to her wall.

‘You leave paradise? For the Montreal winter? You are insane?’

‘People keep telling us,’ I said. And people did keep telling us. The conversation took the same route every time: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How long are you staying? Are you crazy? And I would feel the little flutter of terror when they went on, The winter, well you know, it’s not so good for your head.

When Patrick and I moved into le Plateau the ash trees were turning gold and orange and red, and their leaves rained down suddenly, like a city-wide dream of money, as we bicycled to the Mont for which the city is named, the autumnal riot spreading around it like a rumor. The leaves blew into the apartment and were so beautiful, so tactile, gathering in the corners of the unfurnished rooms that I didn’t want to chase them out again. And in any case, we had no broom. We had no couch, no desks. In the lounge room there was just a digital projector aimed at a bare white wall and two folding wooden chairs and the yellow leaves heaped in the corners. It felt like camping inside an art installation.

From the back balcony of our third-floor apartment, and from those of surrounding buildings, the spirals of iron staircases ribboned down three or four storeys, spindly as swizzle sticks. Some were painted white or aqua, as if filched from a fleet of scrapped ocean liners and they gave the impression that we were only docked here, waiting for winter to freeze us in, like the Erebus. On the last warm days I perched at the top of ours with book in hand and my bare feet on the sun-warmed iron steps, feeling a little whir of vertigo as I peered down to the garden three storeys below, where cats stalked squirrels through the greenery.

Now in winter such staircases are beautiful death traps from which elderly Québécois need to be guided down by the gloved hand of whoever happens to be walking past at the crucial moment. All the leaves have fallen away and on clear days you can stand in the kitchen and see through three miles of naked branches to the Cross on the Mont, lit up ghostly and lonely atop the now white and black hill, somehow further away than it was in November.

I watch warily as the concave roof of the blocky two-storey next door quietly fills with snow. One morning I look down and see a man shadow-boxing in the street, pivoting lightly over the rat-poison green of sidewalk salt, like a fever dream.

How stripped down life becomes. I am alone most days. I stop wearing my watch. I let my phone run flat, neglect to buy credit. Hardly anyone has the number anyway. I rarely see myself full-length. I mean this in both the literal and metaphoric sense; the only mirror in our apartment is at face level. But also, I mean that I find it difficult to see myself at any kind of remove, to gauge what others think of me. The insularity of the Montreal winter is bodily. In inclement weather everybody is bundled up into goose-down coats with periscope-like hoods that reduce peripheries. It’s as though we’re all walking around in our own little travelling caves, turning pantomimically at intersections to watch for oncoming traffic. On clear days the glare is so punishingly bright it outstrips that of a Perth summer and you have to either shade your eyes or stare at the ground so as not to be dazzled. I write long emails and letters to a handful of people in other parts of the world, but rarely speak beyond the walls of this apartment. I feel more substantial in correspondence than I do in my skin. My voice has become so soft here that nearly every interaction, English or French, begins with the request to speak up.

The windows of this apartment look out to the windows of dozens of other apartments, calling to mind two stories –‘The Persimmon Tree’ by Marjorie Barnard, and Carson McCullers’, ‘Court in the West Eighties’ – in which the quietude of both narrators’ lives is rounded out by the imagined lives of their neighbours. Revisiting these stories, I realise that each anticipates spring in its first sentence: I saw the spring come once, and I won’t forget it (Barnard); It was not until spring that I began to think about the man who lived in the room directly opposite to mine (McCullers). Both imply a dormancy and a re-emerging, the self mirroring the season. I read in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013) about the Icelandic mindset to live the winter as though it were a long night and the summer a long day. I arm myself with such stories, of what it is reasonable to feel. Sometimes when I cannot sleep I get up and try to write and there’ll be a lit rectangle framing somebody else who is also not asleep, just there on the other side of Rue Chabot. And it does make it easier. And I do feel – as in the Barnard story – as if I am recovering from something. Or perhaps the better word is untangling. Learning how to need less and less. Perhaps age twenty-nine is the horse latitudes, a becalmed region where nothing escapes the scrutiny of its worth versus its weight, and I’ll enter my thirtieth year with only what I can carry.

During the first few weeks of living here, I spent most evenings in the bath, reading the Montreal-based stories of Mavis Gallant. Trying to form a fuller sense of the city, if a somewhat outdated one. These stories are set mostly between the 1930s and 1960s; old maps in which many of the coastlines have shifted. But what has once been is never wholly divorceable from what is.

I was on book-buying rations – the worst kind! – printing out what I could from the digital archives of The New Yorker, where Gallant published over a hundred stories. When I’d exhausted their backlog of the Montreal works, I tried a second-hand bookshop on Saint Laurent, run by a birdlike old man murmuring constantly, adoringly to the two cats that stalk amongst the shelves. The man, the cats, the shop itself would not be out of place in Gallant’s Montreal. I was prepared to spend an hour there, hunting through the precarious towers of freckled and crenulated paperbacks. But the collection I wanted was right there waiting in the window, as in a children’s story.

After the Montreal stories, I moved onto ‘The Hunger Diaries’ (The New Yorker, 2012), excerpts from the journal Gallant kept in Spain in the 1950s when she was the same age as I am now, and had just left Canada for a country with comparatively cheaper cost of living, in the pursuit of a career as a short story writer.

I was filled with ice-cold despair because she had touched on the thing I only sometimes let myself suspect might be true: that I have gambled on something and have failed.

The entries span four months of Gallant broke and close to starvation, documenting the grim public face of Francoist Barcelona and Madrid. Between hopeful daily trips to American Express, she sheds possessions to pawnshops and flea markets in order to buy food (and the occasional movie ticket). The first sacrifice is her typewriter (fifteen hundred pesetas), followed by her clock (value unmentioned) her tweed coat (thirteen pesetas) and all of her books (forty pesetas, which is later filched from her pocket).

This travelogue of poverty and quotidian dreariness is interspersed with small joys, small wonders – being sideswiped by euphoria in the middle of the street, then watching its taillights shrink to pinholes and disappear – and with reports on her novel-in-progress which echo the patterns of invincibility and despair typical of such endeavours:

‘This novel, this bird in my mind.’

‘The novel now a series of rooms all connected.’

‘No one is as real to me as people in the novel.’

‘Told Frederick I no longer believe in the novel.’

‘Something in me was lacking, or I would have kept it alive.’

All the while she is being steadily fleeced by her agent, Jacques Chambrun, whose list of other fleecees is impressive, and extends to the likes of Somerset Maugham, Grace Metalious and H.G. Wells. Chambrun was withholding both the news that The New Yorker had purchased two of Gallant’s stories, and the corresponding cheques amounting to $1,535.

I’m reading all this as my own bank account drains to double figures and comparatively modest invoices for stories and permissions go unpaid. Of course the consequences of my funds hitting absolute zero are considerably less life-threatening: I’m not alone here. And here is not Francoist Spain. You are safe, you are warm, you are loved, I remind myself in moments of panic. Still, and in spite of my discomfiture with such comparisons, I begin to form a mental inventory as to the ways in which I am, and am not, like Mavis Gallant in 1952. Which if I were to be gauche enough to lay out on paper would look something like this:

29 29
short stories short stories
unstable, alienating childhood unstable, alienating childhood
newly arrived in a foreign country newly arrived in a foreign country
no degree no degree
unscrupulous agent hahaha, agent...
so broke she was selling her possessions typewriter would fetch about 15 bucks
but then... this isn’t the ’50s and you’re not Mavis Gallant

In the meantime, there is a lot I cannot afford and more still that I am prepared not to afford if it means I can keep going this way; waking each morning with the words already there, fizzing, aflame, with nothing to keep me from carrying them to the desk.

‘Being poor is boring,’ someone once told me bitterly. This comes back to me, in the bath with my sheaf of damp-edged print-outs. I blast more hot water into the tub. There are worse things.

Related posts