Her Guns

Jeremy Harding

  • The View from the Ground by Martha Gellhorn
    Granta, 459 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 14 014200 2
  • Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 320 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 340 41517 7

As a young girl growing up in St Louis, Missouri, Martha Gellhorn had a habit of poring over maps; riding on the city’s tramcars, she would imagine she was bound for distant places with exotic names. Seventy years later, her war dispatches, fiction, travel writing and the peacetime journalism – collected here – bear witness to a lifetime of wanderlust. From the clattering cars of the St Louis Transit Authority, the dreamy child has disembarked as a grown woman in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. In all these places she has set down what she saw in her journalism and worked what was less readily apparent into her fiction: five novels, two collections of stories and four groups of novellas.

Gellhorn’s reputation rests largely on her work as a war correspondent who cut her teeth in Spain during the Thirties, going on to cover most of the major European fronts in World War Two and never quite retiring from the game. In her seventies she was in Nicaragua and El Salvador, fulminating against the Reagan Administration’s Central American policy. Her fiction is less well-known, although the first collection of novellas, The trouble I’ve seen (1936), received generous praise from Graham Greene and H.G. Wells. For years, her literary standing was compromised by her ties to Ernest Hemingway in the Thirties and Forties. This has long since ceased to be the case. The Face of War, her collected war reporting, is one of the most readable accounts of conflict in the 20th century, unspoiled by convictions which would have been disastrous in a less able writer. Two new editions have appeared since it was first published in 1959. There is one group of novellas currently in print, a book of travel writing and two novels. The View from the Ground, which spans half a century of peacetime journalism, is a welcome addition to the list of Martha Gellhorn’s available work.

Even in her peacetime reporting, Gellhorn has stuck to her guns: those of the convinced anti-Fascist, champion of labour and critic of American foreign policy who has witnessed one catastrophe after another with a growing sense that governments are on the whole pernicious things, and that poor people must remain in their place if they wish to remain in their skins. Hers is an unambiguous view of the world, which has many villains and countless victims: refugees, orphans, conscripts, persecuted minorities, the unemployed and the disenfranchised. Yet her beliefs are expressed with a grace and good humour largely absent from the two hegemonies – those of Reaganism and Thatcherism – which she takes to characterise the Eighties (‘an infuriating decade’). In her career as a reporter, Gellhorn has rarely let her anger slide into self-righteousness and, in the end, amused self-deprecation is never far away.

Gellhorn left the United States for Europe in 1930, at the age of 21. By her own account, she cut a rather comic figure. ‘I intended to become a foreign correspondent within a few weeks,’ she writes, ‘and Paris was the obvious place to launch my career.’ She took a cheap room with a mirror on the ceiling – curious, she thought, ‘but perhaps that was a French custom.’ She showed up at the New York Times offices and announced that she was available for work. Little came of it beyond a lunch invitation – ‘my enthusiasm for free meals was unbounded’ – and a tip from the bureau chief that she was staying in a brothel.

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