No Intention of Retreating

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead
    Vintage, 550 pp, £8.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 09 928401 4

Martha Gellhorn, the war reporter and writer who feared nothing on earth so much as boredom, and hated the ‘kitchen of life’, was enamoured of a different drudgery – life’s cardboard boxes. She moved house obsessively from continent to continent, America to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, back and forth: I daren’t venture an exact number of proper residences, but it’s more than a dozen, in almost as many countries. She was willing to spend weeks on the road, reporting on earth-shaking events or just drifting. But while she wanted to see and know and denounce everything, terrified at being left behind ‘while the world hums at a great distance’, the pull was dwarfed by the push: the need to get out of whatever it was. In 1931, when she had already dropped out of Bryn Mawr, resigned from the Albany Times Union, and seduced and momentarily abandoned her first married man, she wrote to another disconsolate suitor: ‘This urge to run away from what I love is a sort of sadism I no longer pretend to understand.’

‘No longer’: what world-weariness from a 23-year-old! Not much was to change in her nature between that letter and the sign she put up in a London bathroom in 1973, after giving up on one of her Kenya homes: ‘When Things Get Bad, Run.’ Here’s an early snippet from Caroline Moorehead on a related theme, the socialite/misanthrope dilemma, which recurs, essentially unchanged, throughout the book: ‘Martha was happy, she had discovered, on her own; happy, but already aware of the particular dangers of prolonged solitude. Real life, she assumed, something that continued obstinately to elude her, must ultimately mean being with other people. After five weeks wandering along the Mediterranean coast, she returned to Paris.’ There are many such returns, and as many prickly or anguished retreats from society. It seems Gellhorn had to forget that she already knew a thing, and had been through its opposite, and knew all about that, too; belying the passion she brought with buoyantly refreshed language, in diaries and letters, to the contradictions that powered a brilliant, meteoric life, is a consistency that scarcely develops the initial givens. It was the unwanted process of ageing that modulated her trajectory.

Gellhorn’s childhood in St Louis, where she was born in 1908, set her up to be both star and misfit. Her parents were middle-class progressives, each of them half Jewish, the father an immigrant German doctor, the mother – Martha’s greatest love, she always maintained – a suffragette and social reformer. It was a gender-blind, ‘talking family’. Being clever and opinionated was rewarded; conceit or self-pity were as obnoxious as referring to anyone by their colour. Dinner-table rules that surely shaped Gellhorn’s journalistic principles included ‘no gossip or hearsay but everything reported from personal experience’. She lost no time in acquiring this experience, and her early life was a glorious adventure in which being a beautiful, spirited woman among men, decades before we were liberated en masse, was an advantage. Of course, you had to be untainted by any physical or social insecurity, indeed not know the meaning of fear, but then the world was yours: to the discomfort of Gellhorn’s father, who felt she might have taken her socially responsible upbringing the wrong way, and become brash. But courage, passion and confidence earned her a wonderful time in the first half of her life, and journalism allowed her to experience the world at first hand. ‘Even when not pleased with what I write, I am immensely pleased with what I have understood.’

Merely between 1930 and 1934, while trying to make up her mind whether to commit herself to the French political journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel, she covered the League of Nations for the St Louis Post-Dispatch (she was to give the ‘woman’s angle’, which did not interest her, though the spectacle of power did); crossed America coast to coast, for $25 a story, interviewing union leaders, oil millionaires, bullfighters, boxers and poets; bluffed her way into Mexico, where she was soon writing about Rivera and Eisenstein; toured America again with de Jouvenel, working in cafeterias and as a film extra; got a job at Vogue in Paris, covered the World Economic Conference in London, and went with de Jouvenel, Drieu la Rochelle and other young idealists to Berlin for a gruesome attempt at a Franco-German rapprochement. That’s about half of what she did. The writing, quoted here, seems already as concrete, intense and precise as it would ever be. Although she had the self-made woman’s disdain for feminism, the qualities of her style were ‘female’ ones, neglecting abstraction, intellectualism and the big picture in favour of vivid observation of detail, and curiosity about ignored lives. (Admittedly, it’s a dubious cliché to label such attention female. And in many ways Gellhorn was as androgynous as they come. But when, let’s say, a male photographer sneers at her for focusing on civilian suffering in Vietnam – ‘Why do women always have to look for orphanages?’ – we know there’s something to it.)

Though she hadn’t yet made the trip through Depression America that would provide the material for her second and possibly best volume of fiction, The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), she was beginning to see her mission as to speak on behalf of the ‘voiceless and poor’, and for this, not ‘“fine writing", the beautiful mellow phrases and the carefully chosen strange words’, but a ‘faultless carpentry’ was required. The ‘artificial and dead’ Proust was the epitome of everything she loathed about high-flown literature, and she read mostly thrillers throughout her life.

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