Monday, 27 October 2008

Martha Gellhorn's The Face of War seemed as good a place to start as any. I'd completed the biography and I wanted to know why she was known as one of the earliest literary journalists.

Starting in 1937 covering the Civil War in Spain, Gellhorn travelled with troops and assembled reports in the form of features for Collier's magazine.

Gellhorn took to war like a duck to water, revelling in the bonhomie among troops. Because the stories (at least up to the WWII ones) were published almost immediately, there's also the 'us and them' element poking through like a writerly tic.

You wonder if she always included these lines or whether her editors back in New York inserted them before going to print. In either case, it's off-putting. Her dislike of the "cold, ambitous men" and her sympathy for the undrerdog also blinds her to real drama.

Her dislike of the Germans is palpable. Her prognoses are unerringly correct, such as her idea that China would only achieve democracy after (a) universal education and (b) a decent livelihood for the masses, had been achieved.

If Gellhorn didn't exist you'd have to invent her. John Pilger is a man formed in her image. But this, for example, seems unnecessary:

"The French ... are fighting for the honor of France ... they are fighting to get home to a country cleansed of Germans."

It's hard to see the difference, in tone and intent, between this kind of guff and Germany's insane policies that had led to war in the first place. Poetic justice, perhaps, but disturbing when coming from the pen of the writer herself.

Gellhorn uses direct quotes to great advantage. The first piece, dated mid 1937, is from Madrid. The imagery is natural and unforgettable. Her quoting hotel maids discussing the damage to certain rooms, and the way civilians deal with incessant shelling, are truly wonderful.

As she goes on, Gellhorn's reports become less like this, and more like what we can read elsewhere. Which is a pity. Her felicitous phrases are numerous, attesting to her other occupation of novelist.

I feel a "vast directed strength" (a phrase she uses to describe the war effort) in Gellhorn's writing. How many generations does it take to result in this kind of thing?

But Gellhorn clearly likes being among young, handsome, disciplined and resilient men. Which is not surprising.

This is a marvellous book.

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