Nightmare Landscapes


Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn is yet another of those authors whose books have lurked on my shelves for decades, following me faithfully from house to house in the hope of being read. I finally did pick up one of her volumes last year, but ironically enough it wasn’t the two that had been with me for years (“The Honeyed Peace” and “The Weather in Africa”), but a Virago I’d come across, “The Stricken Field”. I was absolutely knocked out by her writing and determined to read more, though I was drawn to her travel writing.

I’d lucked out on finding any of this (even Foyles didn’t stock any) until I stumbled across Eland Books via a picture on Simon’s blog here; intrigued by the picture I investigated and got a copy of their catalogue. I rather wish I hadn’t, as it’s terribly tempting, but they publish a couple of Gellhorn titles, including this one, which is subtitled “Five Journeys From Hell”. I confess – I just couldn’t resist…


Gellhorn published this book in 1978, looking back on journeys from the past and drawing on her memories and journals. She’s always honest about what she can and can’t recall, and the longest section is the African one, where she kept extensive records of events. All are journeys with difficulties and I have to say that I wouldn’t want to have been travelling with her on any of them… Framed by chapters containing Gellhorn’s meditations on why we travel, how we travel and the changes that have come about, the book covers four trips to far-flung places that you actually might not want to visit.

The first section covers a journey by Gellhorn and an Unwilling Companion (UC) through China, during WW2. The UC is, of course, Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was briefly married. The journey is truly a difficult one – they encounter disease, poverty, degradation and out-and-out stupidity. The travelling conditions are appalling and you wonder why Gellhorn, a self-confessed cleanliness freak, would subject herself to filth, insects, lack of sanitation et al. But she does, and she’s always amusing despite the horrors; and has plenty to say about the awful conditions in which the Chinese poor live. Hemingway, despite his not wanting to travel, steps up to the bar and actually enjoys himself, drinking with whoever he can find to accompany him, while Gellhorn suffers from the lack of sanitation.

Then there is “Messing About In Boats”, a quite jaw-dropping account of floating about in the Caribbean sea during WW2 trying to track down U-boats – yes, U-boats! Quite what Gellhorn would have done with them had she found them is anybody’s guess, but it’s not a journey you’d want to repeat yourself. But there are still moments when things go her way – a recurrent theme in the book is Martha’s love of swimming, in beautiful, deserted coves, away from the world. She finds one on this journey and it’s wonderful; but the modern Gellhorn rues the changes that have come over the land since she was there:

The last time I saw that beautiful cove on Virgin Gorda it was full of suntanned bodies and ringed by boats, from swan yachts to rubber Zodiacs, and there were bottles and plastic debris on the sea-bed and picnic litter on the sand, because the rich are as disgusting as the poor in their carelessness of the natural world.

This is followed by the African section, the longest; Gellhorn is in search of huge landscape and wide open skies (the ‘natural world’ mentioned in the quote above; instead she encounters prejudice, races living alongside, but not understanding, one another, inequality and ignorance. She’s always clear-eyed about what she sees and honest about what she encounters.



Martha Gellhorn in 1941 by an unknown photographer (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)



As Gellhorn travels through Africa, she eventually washes up in Nairobi, where she takes Joshua, who must be the worst guide *ever*: a driver who can’t drive, has no interest in the bush or animals, and is frankly a liar, a fraud and a waste of space. How Gellhorn tolerated him, I don’t know – I would have killed him after a day! Finally, however, she manages to find the experiences she’s looking for – sightings of great animals; the landscape she desires; a sense of the big country.

I have a sudden notion of why history is such a mess: humans do not live long enough. We only learn from experience and have not time to use it in a continuous and sensible way. Thus I knew the thirties and forties of this century, but have only been peeking at the fifties and sixties… It is as if the human race was constantly making new road maps, unable to guide itself due to changing directions.

The final journey is the one I admit attracted me most; Gellhorn has struck up a pen-pal style relationship with Nadhezda Mandelstam, writer and widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam. Despite her better judgement, Gellhorn travels to Soviet Russia to visit her friend, a journey fraught with frustrations, Soviet double-speak, misunderstanding with Mandelstam and a lack of real rapport between those living either side of the Iron Curtain. It’s a fascinating tale, and one that really captures the *greyness* of life living in the USSR in the latter days of Soviet rule.

Russians take literature far more seriously than we do, the proof being that Stalin thought it advisable to kill so many writers, while his successors send writers to concentration camps or insane asylums or deport them. Total censorship also shows how the state fears the independent power of words.

These journeys really *are* hellish and Gellhorn makes no bones about how awful the experiences are. However, she’s writing at enough of a distance to stand back and mock herself a little, which is refreshing. The prose is atmospheric and evocative; Gellhorn’s indignation at the sufferings of ordinary people is never fake; and the book is a surprising joy to read, opening one’s eyes to the horrors that can be found when travelling the world and never glossing over the realities. The book is always entertaining, gasp-inducing and fascinating. Gellhorn was an intrepid traveller and a powerful writer, and although I’m so glad I didn’t share her travels in reality, reading about them was a real experience!

Virago Volumes: A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn


What was I saying about being a trivial reader? That’s perhaps the wrong word – fickle might be a better word; for example, there are many, many books I’ve had on my shelves for 30 years and *never read*! I’m trying to rectify that at the moment (Proust being the main example); but Martha Gellhorn is another case in point. However, paradoxically, the book of hers I chose to pick up was this one, “A Stricken Field”, one of my more recent Virago acquisitions. I thought the subject matter (Prague in 1938) might fit better with my current mindset, and Gellhorn was on my mind from reading about her in Sybille Bedford’s “Pleasures and Landscapes”. So there you are – I’m following my random reading muse as usual!


Gellhorn, of course, is as fascinating a character as Bedford. A war correspondent from a young age, witnessing the Spanish Civil War amongst other things, she’s cursed with often being remembered only for having been married to Hemingway – although pleasingly Wikipedia put her other achievements first: Martha Ellis Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was an American novelist, travel writer, and journalist, considered by the London Daily Telegraph, among others, to be one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. Gellhorn was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945. At the age of 89, ill and almost completely blind, she committed suicide. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her.”

So Gellhorn was obviously no ordinary woman and had no ordinary life – in fact, I imagine that a biography would be a really good read! However, apart from her reporting she also wrote fiction, and this book is her first full-length novel, published in 1940 when war was beginning to tear Europe apart; and also after years of conflicts on that continent, in Spain, and also in Germany, where the Nazi regime had been gradually developing an iron grip. The novel opens with Mary Douglas, an American journalist, flying into Prague in 1938. Munich pact etc. Mary is young, but she’s not naive, having seen the Spanish Civil War, and she knows that the creeping menace of the Nazis threatens the countries and people she loves. She’s hoping to find her friend Rita, a left-wing German who’s fled to Prague in search of safety, and they do indeed meet up early in the story. Rita lost her brother to the enemy’s brutality, and works for the resistance in Prague, trying to help fellow refugees survive. She has also found a fragile kind of happiness with a fellow worker, Peter; but they are living on a knife-edge, like every other enemy of Fascism at large in a country now being dominated by the jackboot. All the refugees are being forcibly repatriated to places where they will be tortured, put in concentration camps, and most probably die horribly. Can Mary and her journalist friends do anything to help – or is the impending cataclysm too much for any humanitarian efforts?

ASF is a remarkably powerful and moving novel; to be frank, it’s gut-wrenching, both in the emotional sense (as we ache for the suffering of the refugees) and the literal sense (there are references to torture, and one particularly awful interrogation scene). If I’m honest, the book as a novel is not particularly accomplished – the regular shifts in perspective are clumsy at times and hard to follow; the character of Mary never really develops much; and the group of journalists are just that, a fairly amorphous band who don’t take on much of an individual form. However, the book’s strength is in its reportage. It’s recording a piece of history, a shocking and horrible time, but one that needs not to be forgotten. The story of Rita and her lover Peter stands for any number of stories, for the thousands of people who suffered under oppression (and indeed those who still do). Gellhorn captures haunting images: Rita staggering down dark streets in Prague, not knowing where she’s going or why; the bundled up humans at the railway station being forced into trains taking them to their doom; those who cannot cope with the thought of leaving and take another way out…

“She thought: there will have to be a terrible justice, blowing over the world, to avenge all the needless suffering. Thus far, she had seen the innocent punished and insulted, pursued and destroyed; and when they tried to protect themselves, their enemies were swift, unanimous and relentless. Simple men were ignorant enough still to fight against each other instead of fighting side by side. She had seen only the triumph of the lie and the victory of the liars. It will take a long time to change this, she thought, we learn very little, we learn very slowly. She was afraid she would be reporting disaster and defeat her whole life.”


Martha Gellhorn in 1941 by an unknown photographer (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a stark story of a stark time; Mary tries at one point to involve some politicians in her attempts to help the refugees, but even they are powerless to make any difference. There are many shocks in this book, not the least the contrast between the privileges Mary enjoys because she holds an American passport, and the lack of everything – food, money, security, a chance at life – that the expelled refugees have. But what shocked me most of all was when this book was written and published. Gellhorn wrote the book in 1939, based on her real visits to Prague, and published it in 1940. In the 1938 of this book, the concentration camps and the treatment of Jews and Socialists is common knowledge – the reporters have become almost indifferent to it. I somehow had the impression that the revelations about Nazi camps after the war came as a shock to the world, but it seems that the facts were already well-known. Which leaves me thinking about man’s inhumanity to man, and how this vicious cruelty was allowed to carry on by all the so-called civilised nations. And thus it ever was and thus it ever will be – the bigwigs make their strategies and move little models around on a plan (or nowadays a digital simulation) but these represent real people, and it’s the latter who always pay the price for conflict – a look at the news reports nowadays proves that nothing’s changed.

It was a painful experience, but I *am* glad I read this book. As Gellhorn says in her afterword “Novels don’t decide the course of history or change it but they can show what history is like for people who have no choice except to live through it or die from it. I remembered for them.” She certainly did that, and this book should continue to be read so that we never forget.

A book-buying Jaunt to Leicester!


It has been a little manic here lately at the Ramblings – in fact, it’s been a bit of year with family ill-health and changes in personal life, culminating in the tension waiting for Youngest Child’s A level results to see if she has got a university place. So it was rather lovely to take a few days out recently to visit Middle Child in Leicester – which obviously involved a little book hunting also, as the city does seem to be spoiled with charity shops! We also got the opportunity to visit the Aged Parents, who live half an hour from Leicester by train, so that was rather nice too. I took Eldest Child and Youngest Child with me so it was quite a reunion!

Another fun extra from this trip was visiting the local art gallery in New Walk and seeing some amazing Lyonel Feininger paintings. And the Richard III dig was close by so we had a quick look at this and the exhibition about the excavations – fascinating!

Oddly enough, I noticed this visit how lacking Leicester is in traditional bookshops – or indeed dedicated second-hand bookstores. This seems a little strange, as it’s a university city, yet it has one Waterstones (not that big a branch although the staff were very helpful and knowledgeable). Apart from that, I found one actual second-hand book shop in The Lanes, and that was it apart from the charity shops. Middle Child reckons that people mainly order online because students can’t afford new stuff – a sad tendency but one I can identify with :s

While in Leicester I did have a little bit of a reading crisis, as I had foolishly only taken one book with me to read – Olivia Manning’s “The Spoilt City”, which I finished quite early in the visit (review to follow). I had reckoned on finding a new book or two in Leicester – which I did, but for reasons below, I couldn’t read any of them! This caused much angst as there was nothing on Middle Child’s shelves I hadn’t already read, so I ended up with Christie’s “The ABC Murders” (which I love very much, but didn’t take me long to get through) and then survived on an anniversary edition of New Statesman and Sherlock Holmes stories on MC’s K****e! I was *very* glad to get back to my books!

On to newbies! I was hoping for Viragos as I usually find them in the Loros Charity Bookshop but in fact MC found the first for me in the Age Concern shop for £1.25:

nymphMargaret Kennedy has passed across my radar quite a bit lately so I was delighted to find a copy of her most famous book. It’s been previously well-loved, obviously, but is all intact so I’m happy to give it a new home!

whiteObviously I am a bit of a Virago collector, and for a long time I’ve been trying to get the three Antonia White books that follow on from Frost in May, the first ever Virago. These were the last two I needed and so coming across them in the Age Concern bookshop for £1.75 each in great nick was a delight! I’ve had to update my wish list on LibraryThing following this trip to Leicester…

westThese were my last finds – “The Edwardians” and “Cousin Rosamund” in wonderful condition, for £2 each in the actual secondhand bookshop (which worryingly had a lot less stock than my last visit) I enjoyed my recent read of West a lot so this was a great find!

The observant among you might wonder why I couldn’t read one of these when I was having my book crisis – well the Whites and West are later books in a series, and I just didn’t fancy starting one of the others because in truth I was in the mood to read some Graham Greene for SavidgeReads‘ Greene for Gran event. I have now started “No Man’s Land”, a lovely little Hesperus Greene which I am enjoying immensely.

As a postscript, on my return a package was awaiting me with a new (old) book via the wonderful ReadItSwapIt – another one from my wish list:

strickenSo August has proved to be a good month for Virago hunting!

(and as another postscript, Youngest Child passed with flying colours and has got the university place she wanted – yay!)

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