This is how my memory works.
I was sitting in the big inner courtyard of the New Tiran Hotel, Naama Bay, south Sinai, drinking duty-free whisky and watching the new moon. The sky was dark blue with light behind it, not yet the real desert blackness. I had the place to myself, silence made the evening faultless. I was not thinking, I was basking in sensations of my skin. I could still feel the cool smooth water of the Red Sea from that late afternoon’s snorkelling. The warm air now was soft on my arms and legs, the tiles of the paving hot under my bare feet. It is wonderful to know exactly when you are happy.
Without warning or reason, I was in a room in Gaylords Hotel in Madrid. It was winter, late 1937 at a guess. I don’t know where Gaylords is; we walked there and back to the Florida Hotel in the dark. E. had been invited to have drinks with Koltzov and I was included in my tag-along role. E. was excited about this rare occasion. No one in our little buddy circle of correspondents had been inside Gaylords or met Koltzov. Gaylords was known to be the Russians’ hotel. Koltzov, E. said, was officially the Pravda correspondent in Madrid but really he was Stalin’s man, Stalin’s eyes and ears on the spot.
Koltzov’s sitting-room was well and expensively furnished like any sitting-room in a first-class hotel in peacetime. It was lit by table lamps and warm. It did not look or feel like any other place I had been in Spain. Koltzov was a small thin man, with thick, well-cut, grey hair. He wore a dark, excellent suit. He had the kind of face that makes an immediate impression of brilliance, of wit, and the quiet manners of complete confidence. I thought he was forty or so, and more French than Russian. There were a few other people. I noticed only a plump, motherly middle-aged woman, probably the real Pravda correspondent, who did the hostess’s job, seeing that the vodka glasses were filled and, more important, passing things to eat, tidbits, I seem to see dabs of caviar on real bread. I cared much more about food but E. must have been overjoyed by the supply of vodka.
And there was Modesto. We were introduced when we arrived, and he had moved across the room, leaving E. to talk with Koltzov. One sentence hit me hard, though I was not listening carefully. Koltzov said: ‘We take Villanueva de la Mierda and they take Córdoba.’ Maybe it wasn’t Córdoba but it was definitely Villanueva de la Mierda. How dare he, living in such singular luxury, speak with cynicism or disdain about the brave, poorly armed men fighting this war. For I believed in the cause of the Spanish Republic as I believed in nothing before or since. I did not like Koltzov, I did not listen any more and I walked away to a table which held a tray of the invaluable tidbits.
Vol. 19 No. 9 · 8 May 1997
The way Martha Gellhorn’s memory works (LRB, 12 December 1996) is admirable. I was both grateful for and alarmed by what it awoke in mine. In 1937 I was a médecin-lieutenant in the 14th (Franco-Belge) International Brigade. I remember very well that day on the Madrid front when I dropped back to Field Headquarters near Torreled-ones to see Colonel Domanski-Dubois, Principal Medical Officer of the 35th Division. But that day, because important visitors were arriving, no one could deal with my problems. I found myself a few paces away from a knot of people in the centre of which was a scruffy man with an eye-shade who wanted everybody’s attention. He was like a man in the Ritz who had left his theatre tickets lying around in the public rooms and had only discovered that they were missing when he and his girl were about to get into the taxi. He was claiming instant personal attention as of right.
This man did indeed have a girl with him; while his fidgets made him most unamiable, her poise and detachment, together with a wonderful freshness, had me instantly and totally subjugated. I was not envious because the unflashy perfection of the noisy fellow’s companion made me think of my own compañera, who was the nurse in charge of the operating theatre of the Brigade’s surgical unit. Her calm Welsh beauty had a quality that this visitor shared.
I wondered how it was that the scruffy man took so little notice of his celestial companion: I wondered why a girl like that was tagging along with this bundle of self-importance. She had quite transcended the scene which he seemed to be aggravating, though I could not perceive what it was all about. He was lucky to travel with that freshness and tolerance and I supposed that there must be another side to him. As we had been in Spain since the end of August 1936 I had learnt my way around and soon found someone to enlighten me. I was taken aback: I could not believe that the author of A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon could really be so self-regarding. I edged in on the group of which he was the nucleus; and I supposed that I might even be able to interest him in our Brigade; my eyes crossed those of that very calm girl; I understood that her patience was greater than my impetuosity and I simply went back to the Front to get on with my job, strangely satisfied after a single exchange of glances with that cool perceptive presence. It is wonderful to confirm, 61 years later, that my decision to leave well alone was right in respect of E. (to use Martha Gellhorn’s cryptonym) but I still regret it in so far as she is concerned. There are no words to remember but I do have that glance.
A week or so later I was in the cellar of the Hotel Flórida with Cyril Connolly. I was dead tired and very depressed. I mentioned my disappointment, not only at my failed contact with a man whose work I admired but just as much at the spectacle of his curmudgeonly behaviour. Madrid was under sporadic artillery fire. The shells were landing near enough for one to feel the shake. Dr Johnson said that when a man knows he is going to be hanged it sharpens his mind wonderfully. We in the civil war had all been living closer to the fact of death than we cared to recognise. Cyril said that E. was in love with death ‘so when near it, no one should expect him to be comfortable company.’ I was not much consoled by this and he went on to tell me to stop thinking of the past and of the future; that was all a waste of time, just so much esprit d’ escalier. ‘All we must do is perfect our present, concentrate on our own immediate performance; both the past and the future can be left for the appraisal of others.’ Connolly quoted Aeneas’ words of comfort to his crew – of which the translation: ‘We have long been no strangers to affliction and have had to bear worse than this.’ Often enough they can seem appropriate. In Madrid, on this occasion, I took them to mean: ‘If you think it is bad now wait till you see what is coming.’