Sitting somewhere in the house in a novel she wrote about the Germans and Czechoslovakia. It was written while she was still angry about what had happened in Spain, and about the inability of anyone to do anything about it. But she had reservations about exploiting Czechoslovakia’s tragedy in a work of fiction in which a woman journalist acts heroically. The tragedies weren’t, in any sense, her property. She seems to have been a fairly rare writer who viewed herself as critically as she did the other things she saw.
The novel I’ll get to someday. Gellhorn was a relentless traveler who made it to more than a hundred countries. Lately I’ve been reading a collection from the late ‘70s, Travels With Myself and Another. The “another” is Hemingway, who accompanied her to occupied China in the late 1930s and comes off better than most ex-spouses do. The collection could be called “My Most Horrible Travels,” which is the theme. There are four of them of substance: China, the Caribbean in the early 1940s, Africa in 1962, and Russia in 1972. All the accounts are sharply observed, acidic, and intensely uncomfortable: you share every itch, sunburn, rash, stink, stomach rebellion, and hour of despairing boredom the author suffered. What you may not share is Gellhorn’s inability to call it quits. The book is for the armchair traveler who will never leave his front porch again.
But it’s a delight. She is one of the least sentimental writers I’ve come across. The long section on Africa is stomach-turning, completely unacceptable if you have to believe that the most primitive humans must have redeeming Western traits. Yet it was to Africa that Gellhorn returned to live. Much of her writing is beautiful without being pretty. Much of the caustic humor is at her own expense. She was intensely interested in a world she recognized as awful. Fortunately for us, even when a magazine article wasn’t in prospect, she wrote home faithfully to her mother, and this collection draws on those reports. More than her one-time companion, Gellhorn seems to have been the real thing.
January 22 2017