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.
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.
Was filled with ice-cold despair because he 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:
unstable, alienating childhood
unstable, alienating childhood
newly arrived in a foreign country
newly arrived in a foreign country
so broke she was selling her possessions
typewriter would fetch about 15 bucks
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.
IN DECEMBER THERE is the Incident with Dallaire and the Lamppost. Roméo Dallaire – the Canadian senator and retired general best known for not being able to stop the Rwandan genocide – falls asleep at the wheel of his BMW one morning and collides with a lamppost on Parliament Hill. It is approaching the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. Every day I’m reliving Rwanda… I simply ran out of steam and fell asleep and crashed my car. The Lamppost Incident arrives on the heels of the suicides of three Canadian soldiers, all veterans of the Afghan War. There is a lot of discussion on CBC, in the week that begins with the bent lamppost on Parliament Hill and ends with military suicide graphs in The Globe and Mail. I stand halfway down the hallway, between the kitchen radio and my desk at the other end of the apartment, listening to interviews with both former and active soldiers whose profound shame and fear about ‘coming out’ as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder is palpable. Then the discussion dies away and the next time war is mentioned, it is the closing down of regional Veterans’ Affairs offices across the country.
For the past year I’ve been trying to write about war, specifically about the war after the war; a fictional work informed by my own experience of growing up in a household all but demolished by PTSD. (I hesitated on ‘demolished’ but perhaps demolished is a fair term. We didn’t all survive it.) Sometimes I look at my younger sister and I wonder how we ever grew into anything other than clear mirrors for what we started with. And I look at my father and I want, very much, to understand. I want to be able to reconcile these two versions: the violent, drunken tyrant who punched holes in every door of our commission house, who threw my mother into walls, who walked out repeatedly in the last months of her life, leaving me to radiation burns I did not know how to dress. And the man who would now give whatever he had if I were to ask. Who in my late teens and early twenties helped me to move all of my inherited furniture (including the piano) from house to house to house, up and down stairwells, in spite of his bad back. Who would show up sometimes at my door, following his repat appointments in the city, with a carton of mismatched eggs – ‘real free range!’ – from the Russian lady in the mountains and a bottle of shiraz purchased because the girl on the label, with her old-fashioned dress and bicycle, reminded him of me.
I have kept a small recycling plant in business, running off copies of everything from first-hand accounts to ministerial speeches and Royal Commission reports on chemical agents. Reading more and more on epigenetics, on the anxieties and compromised coping skills of PTSD war veterans, and those of their children. Symptoms I recognise as my own, as my sister’s. Intergenerational, is the word that keeps jumping up to bite me. In spite of the parade of Veterans’ Affairs-affiliated psychiatrists I was referred to between the ages of twelve and twenty, no one ever handed me this term.
Armloads of information, and I’m unsure where to put it all: is it my job to do something with it? If I see a lack in public perception and governmental concern and I have the means to address it – not amend it, but simply to speak to it – is it then my responsibility to do so, to talk about this thing that people continue to not talk about?
What exactly is my responsibility? I’m in the rare position of writing my own job description, so I’ll say that it’s this: to be honest, via whatever means. Sometimes it’s easier to be honest in fiction and poetry. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense of smuggling autobiography in at a safe remove (though, sometimes, that too). I mean that within the reader–writer pact that is fiction, one can get nearer to crueller truths and people don’t turn away so easily. One hopes. I hope. But when the possibility of truth is introduced to fiction, when the two are enmeshed and are not cleanly extricable from one another, it presents another dilemma. People want to know; did this happen? did this really happen? so that they know how they should feel about it.
RECENTLY A PHOTOGRAPHER friend began writing unflinching dispatches from her more debilitating stoushes with depression. I met Leah through the magazine Patrick used to edit. I would gravitate towards her at the launch parties because she is warm and funny and genuine, and has that incredible gift of making people feel more comfortable in themselves, in spite of large bright rooms full of strangers. It’s a useful trait for a photographer, but an admirable quality regardless of trade.
Her blog posts from the thick of things have been wrenching to read in both the concern they provoke and their familiarity:
‘Yesterday wasn’t good. I slept on and off from maybe 4 am until 2 pm. A sweet dream trailed me out into the afternoon and was knocked out within a few seconds by a boulder that pinned everything to the mattress. And so I stayed there for another eight hours until my boyfriend came home. I tried to get up and shower four times but failed so gave up. A couple of days before I had gotten there on the third attempt so knew it was possible.
So yesterday, I would lower myself out of bed and onto my knees on the carpet. I’d wait for the strength to come then crawl forward a few lengths, maybe getting to the bedroom door. At some point there’d be a dilemma – I could crawl further forward and try to reach the kitchen and a snack that might sustain me through the shower process, or I could lay down. Exhausted, I would likely lay down, or if I made it to the kitchen I’d lay down there. And by this point the snack and the shower were not worth it, so after recuperating on the ground I’d make the reverse journey back to bed. The closest I came was my final effort, when I made it to a jar of golden syrup and spooned it in like a desperate woman throwing petrol at a cold fire.’
I have tried before to write as directly as this, but have run short of achieving something communicable and/or publishable. Moxie, I suppose; I ran short of that. A couple of years ago I attempted to write openly about a breakdown I had at the end of 2007. I’m trying to write openly about it now and I just attempted to sneak it under the wire as a breakdown, which is about as limp-wristed as calling it a turn or spell. This is an unpromising way to start. Let me try again. Here is how it went: I stopped sleeping, then I stopped eating and the fog that rolled in was so dense and dark I could not see my way through it, and the idea that it would ever lift seemed as remote as Ittoqqortoormiit. It hung over everything for weeks, a drenching despair, until I became desperate enough to agree to medication. In the past, medication and I had not gotten along terribly well, in some instances the side effects had rivalled the symptoms. The last time I’d sought pharmaceutical help was four or five years earlier. Sitting in a very grand room in Prahran, opposite a woman I knew was going to bill me a very grand amount of money, I tried to come to the point.
‘If I could just…it’s just there’s this very physical…like an ache? Like a tightness in my chest, but more solid? And I can’t get a proper breath around it? Right here,’ I said, pressing three fingers to my solar plexus as though feeling for a pulse. ‘I feel like if I could just get a proper breath around it. If it wasn’t so physical, I might be able to… Do you know what I’m talking about?’
But she didn’t. I don’t actually think she was listening. This suspicion was confirmed when she wrote me a repeat script for sleeping pills I’d already said I didn’t want, because they gave me strange, sinister dreams that slipped out into the mornings as hallucinations, and because they made it impossible to think clearly, to write, to even get up in the mornings. I left frustrated, disillusioned and out-of-pocket. I felt rooked. But in December of 2007 I was back at the bottom of things. It seemed of secondary concern that whatever antidepressants or antipsychotics they threw at me would inevitably muddy my thinking. I figured at worst the drugs might switch me off for a while – a sort of mental defibrillation – and I would wake up from intellectual and creative hibernation with no real damage done, just some lost time to make up for.
The medications, or the particular combination of them, pushed sleep even further away, further smudged the line between paranoia and reality. They made my skin crawl so that I couldn’t stand to be touched, couldn’t stand to have anyone near me and made the notion of food even more repulsive, so that to even think about eating would be enough to make me gag. At some point I decided that the only reasonable course of action would to be to take all of the medication that was not helping me to sleep, eat or to be a moderately functional human, and to put it to more emphatic use. I remember the relief, the lucidity of that decision, the fog clearing for a moment. I woke up in a hospital I remember little of, save the hard-arsed counsellor who called me an idiot, in a good-natured sort of way, and whose directness I was glad of. When I was released the following morning my younger sister made the eight hour drive from Sydney in less than seven to find me baking Christmas biscuits and listening to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack on loop. (I’m fine I’m fine, really – here, eat a dinosaur.) I was still having to hold myself upright on furniture and benchtops as my body tried to process whatever chemicals were lingering in my system. I didn’t do a very good job of talking about it at the time, instead relying on analogies like rickety crutches, like the benchtops and the backs of chairs.
What I later wrote, in response to a prompt from an artist, was this:
I never saw my eyes in those moments (how could I have?) but I imagined something animal there, something unreasonable; the wrong kind of wildness. When people spoke to me it was as though they were trying to coax me out of a confined space. But it was something else that coaxed me out in the end, something voiceless.
There isn’t much left of that year. Everything small enough to hold in a closed fist. The smell of gingerbread. Big Rock Candy Mountain. Another plastic bracelet with my name on it.
At the time I worried that it was too much, too confessional, although an editor would later point out that I was essentially holding up a gingerbread biscuit and a hospital bracelet and expecting people to make sense of this. I agreed to tuck in another couple of lines, somewhere in the middle there:
I woke alone in a house where all of my clothes were too big. I thought: Somebody has swapped all my clothes. Outside my window a potted lemon tree had died of thirst. I threw a bucket of water on it and it came back to life, just like that.
Speaking about depression without the filter of poetry or fiction is much like my attempts at speaking a foreign language: the words evaporate, or they turn to rocks that roll out of my mouth and pile up uselessly around my feet, because I am desperately afraid of sounding foolish. This fear of foolishness is trumped by my fear of being a hypocrite by not talking openly about mental illness, when it is still so under- and misrepresented. My fear of hypocrisy is in turn trumped by my fear of further stigmatising depression and adding truck to the Troubled Female Writer stereotype. The kind of thing that VICE sees fit to parody in a fashion shoot.
I don’t mean to represent depression as an occupational hazard of writing, or of any artform for that matter. There are those of us who come here – to storytelling, to art – simply because they want to entertain, or because they want to make beautiful, important things that make the world a better, more thoughtful place. Then there are those who come here for
the glory – the money, the women, the canapés! (Cue my mother, loud and clear as she was sixteen years ago, informing me that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.)
And there are those of us who come here because it is the best means we have of making sense of ourselves, of making something worthwhile from the things that would otherwise bury us. To run all the dread and guilt and hopelessness through some wonderful, unlikely machine that spins it into an entirely different fabric.
Whatever niggling uncertainties I had about working from this place disintegrated at a Louise Bourgeois exhibition I visited last year when, after being moved beyond tears, beyond even speech, by the subtlest depiction of mortality charted in cloth and thread, I read the following:
What counts, our whole purpose, is to try to understand what we are about, to scrutinise ourselves… Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.
The work itself is an alleviation, a kind of ‘negative reinforcement’, the removal of a harmful stimulus. But somehow it goes beyond that – becomes something that races ahead of us into the greater world, to places and to people we might never have otherwise encountered. It is received, engaged with, connected to. It becomes the antithesis of the alienation that sparked it, becomes its own answer to the question we repeat in myriad ways: how is it we do this? How is it again?
For so many of us, this is the why. This boulder that pins everything to mattress is at other times a driving force. Writing sometimes feels to me like a Hitchcockian chase scene, in which I am pulling down chairs and tables and fully-laden tea trolleys and hat-racks behind myself as I bolt towards some imagined safety. Throwing as much distance and as many obstacles as possible between myself and this constant other, whose exact shape I still cannot distinguish.
Is it enough to get up every morning and lunge hopefully, stubbornly towards the intangible? To try to build something meaningful, something that will last, using the most notoriously unreliable of tools? To ask the same questions, again and again, no longer hoping for answers, but to better understand the shapes of those questions?
One day riding the metro my husband and I stand next to an old man pencilling grey-lead notes on a typewritten philosophy manuscript. Yellowed, marked with peeling sticky notes, the document is perhaps a decade old or older: Paradoxes Absurdes de la Société Moderne. Something like that. After leaving the train we speculate: where was it bound for, this manuscript, this dog-eared relic? When would it become what its author wanted it to be? Would it reach the audience he hoped for it to reach? Did he want for any audience?
For some reason the image of this man flares up all winter. Stopping in doorways along l’avenue du Mont Royal, attacking an onionskin page with a frozen ballpoint held in a bulky glove. I might as well be writing in the dark for all that it’s legible.
SO WHAT IS it about the car in the street, spinning uselessly in the snow, its battery running down; what is it about it that pulls at me? I’ve written my way towards an explanation, and I’m not sure how to feel about it.
It is Wednesday, February 19. The day after Mavis Gallant died. The only diary I keep is a slender burnt-orange planner with the days marked by blue crosses or by blue stars: crosses for the days I was steamrolled by melancholia or dread; stars for the days that I was not. I started with the crosses and stars in the (admittedly futile) hope of finding some kind of intelligible pattern. As though the discovery of some hidden binary might help me to better understand this thing that feels bigger and older than me; inherited, perhaps. Genetic, epigenetic, some chemical skewiffness? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter – I was born shaking with it and will likely go on shaking. It’s a plucked wire that trembles at different frequencies, but there is always the sound of it; the high-pitched whine or the low hum or the lower still whum whum whum, like a bullroarer. It isn’t a question of getting better, of conquering, as people like to say and to sell. It’s a question of becoming a better navigator, of adjusting one’s gait as when walking over ice, a slack bridge, something treacherous.
Here, the winter is showing signs of closing down. Molecules are speeding up. I keep going to the window, watching for the boxer in the snow. I keep thinking about Dallaire and the Lamppost, how it takes a car crash to talk about a war. And about how sleeplessness becomes its own strange cure for whatever keeps us awake, a dull blanket thrown over the things you can no longer stand to look at. I simply ran out of steam and fell asleep and crashed my car.
You’ll come to dread the clear days, people told me at the start. Meaning: the bright fierce winter light, unfiltered. Those mornings we can see clear to the Cross on the Mont, and everything leading up to it.
Down in the street, the car still churns the snow. In a small wooden wine crate that serves as a temporary bookshelf, there are about two dozen books. Equal parts those we brought here from Australia, and those that were purchased from the man with the cats. Amongst them is Sarah Holland-Batt’s poetry collection, Aria (UQP, 2008). I may not open it for months, but I like to know it’s there. So that I can go to it, like now, and find something like an answer waiting faithfully in the last lines of the last poem:
So tell the car idling in the street to go on;
tell the skirmish of chess pieces to go on;
tell the scraps of paper, the lines to go on.
It is winter: that means the blossoms are gone,
that means the days are getting shorter.
And the dark water flows endlessly on.
And the car is gone, suddenly. I didn’t see it go. And here is the gloaming, the deep beautiful aquatic blue of it. Spring isn’t so far away. We’re gaining a minute each evening, we keep reminding ourselves. How to spend it, then?