Not just in terms of it being a serious grown-up novel for serious grown-up literary people and thus technically a “hard read”, but also because of the narrative contents of that first half. It was too much for me to handle, and too poorly-timed, I think. Maybe when I was a fun cava-boy in Spain I would’ve been better suited to reading Albertine’s tragedy, because here – in a cold city, looking for work and therefore unable to afford much wine – I’m not bouncing off any ceilings and so a book that rewrites, from an exterior perspective, the worst times of my life was a bad choice. But, meh, I’m fine now. I’ll get a life soon. I’ll go do some karaoke and some open mics this week and I’m gonna go see Niagara Falls in a fortnight and I’ve got one (minor) job interview on Tuesday, so things should slowly start getting better. Also – a brief aside – I’ve got back into the habit of exercising, and the fifth season of The Wire (I only exercise while watching prestige TV) is NOT as good as the previous ones, which means my multi-day-cardio-hours are much less gripping than they have been. But this isn’t the place to give my opinions about The Wire. That’s what real-life friends are for! I get it.
Anyway, this discussion of The Wire is relevant, because being in North America does have one heady advantage to Europe: cheap and easy and legal access to HBO’s back catalogue.
I spent a while browsing (while bing-drinking peppermint tea) one evening last week, and I came across a Nicole Kidman HBO-movie called Hemingway & Gellhorn. It is a biopic about Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel Laureate, and Martha Gellhorn, a badass war correspondent, and their relationship and brief, bad, marriage during the Second World War. Before I pressed “play”, I remembered that somewhere in one of my many boxes of unread books was a text I felt I should first: Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn.
I’ve had this unread book for years, since my youthful interest in Hemingway. Luckily, it has made it through to my 30s where I’m trying to not pretend to not like things that I like (e.g. time travel). I want to watch Hemingway & Gellhorn and I won’t pretend to myself that I don’t. I want to go in, though, knowing who Gellhorn is, how she thinks and what kind of a person she is. (Well, was).
So, to prep myself for the HBO film (which I think I will watch this evening with pizza and peppermint tea), I opened up Gellhorn’s book, subtitled Five Journeys From Hell and originally published in 1978. I had a conflicted, if sometimes rewarding, time.
Basically, it’s racist. Very racist, and if I had more conviction in my progressive ideals than in my old-fashioned need to finish every book I begin reading, then I would have stopped. Gellhorn confuses “hellish travel” with “leaving the developed world”, and a lot of what she “complains” about is merely the reality of poverty.
Don’t go on a recreational trip to the poorest parts of Africa and be disgruntled by the food and the cleanliness and the health and the hygiene; don’t become a war correspondent travelling through China in 1941 and expect comfort and safety and for your dickhead husband to be emotionally supportive. Et cetera.
The sections where Gellhorn is less “culturally” detached from the USA are easier to read: for example, visiting a dissident writer in the USSR in the sixties, trying to find Nazi submarines in the Caribbean in the later stages of the war, and meeting travellers, tourists, of the generation below hers in Israel… All of these are slightly less problematic, but they’re at best disgustingly condescending. Actually, I’m not even sure that’s true: Gellhorn is very racist in the Caribbean and a bit classist when writing about poor, but international, hippies.
The section about travelling across Africa (through many countries) is so hateful – for want of a better word – towards Africa and Africans that it comes as a massive surprise to learn, later in the book, that she chose to live in East Africa for almost a decade afterwards.
Also, Gellhorn is overly and falsely discreet – when writing about her Chinese, wartime, journey, her “unwilling companion” is never named as Hemingway, even though she has his voice absolutely nailed in dialogue and her regretted marriage was no secret. Later on, in Russia, she does mention Hemingway by name, as the American hero of the young Soviet literati. Here she is dismissive but vague – if she doesn’t want to name Hemingway as her ex-husband but she wants to make it clear she hates him (which she indirectly does), why didn’t she take this perfect opportunity to incorporate a dismissive paragraph? Gellhorn also doesn’t name the Russian writer she visits, which I doubt would be hard to work out from the lengthy descriptions of her life and her works. It’s pointless discretion.
Overall, Gellhorn seems to conflate “travelling to poor places” with “horror journeys”. These are not the same thing and to equate them is fucking condescending. In the African section – which is half the book – she is incredibly offensive, in particular when repeatedly mocking the body odour of people in West Africa. When she moves across the continent and picks up a guide, Joshua, in Nairobi, she shows utter contempt for him, seemingly because he is more urbane and thoughtful than the other Africans she has encountered, and all she wanted was a lackey.
It’s not just racism, though: there’s a perceptive comment in the conclusion about countries that have become economically reliant on tourism thinking of the visitors as “gold-bearing locusts”, which rings true. The more tourists, the less welcome yet (after a point) the more necessary they are. Tourism sucks up and prevents other sources of employment: you cannot build a massive factory next to a port that caters for luxury cruiseliners because it would “spoil the view”.
Gellhorn does that thing which we all do, and thinks of herself as a better type of tourist compared to everyone else. But none of us are, are we? We’re all the same.
There are some interesting observations in here, clearly written in comfortable (though journalistic) prose, but it’s not just the language that makes a lot of this book offensive. Gellhorn wasn’t “nice”, she was condescending and arrogant and self-important and racist, and I feel a bit better knowing that before I wrap myself up and watch Nicole Kidman pretending to be her as she has a terrible time with an equally terrible man.
An odd read. Not certain I’d recommend…
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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