Travels with Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn

travels

While I do want to read Gellhorn’s fiction and her nonfiction war reporting, I started with this collection of travel essays. I should say horror stories.

Gellhorn’s hatred of being bored frequently rousted her out of her comfortable home and sent her off to foreign lands. Often she was able to sell the idea for an article to cover expenses. In this book, written late in her life, she recalls some of her most nightmarish journeys.

In all but one, she sets off by herself. In that one, the first in this collection, she heads to China with her then-husband Ernest Hemingway along for the ride. She doesn’t name him, calling him Unwilling Companion or U.C. It’s 1941, Japan has joined Germany and Italy in the Axis, adding a new element to the long-running Sino-Japanese War.

Although the story alone is harrowing and often hilarious, one of its curious attractions is the window into conditions 80 years ago. Of the PanAm flight she says, “We few all day in roomy comfort, eating and drinking like pigs, visiting the Captain, listening to our fellow travellers, dozing, reading . . .” Not like any flight I’ve ever been on, except once when I was bumped up to First Class, when I frightened the person in the seat next to me by weeping my way through the last 50 pages of a tragic novel.

They stop in Hong Kong, much in the news these days, but back then:

. . . the working city of Hongkong [sic] at the base of the Peak looked as if nailed together hurriedly from odd lots of old wood and sounded like a chronic Chinese New Year. It was brilliant with colour in signs and pennants; the narrow streets were jammed by rickshaws, bicycles, people, but not cars; the highest building was an imposing square bank and it wasn’t very high.

The account of the flight over Japanese lines and the mountains in a DC2 is chilling—literally: “Everything froze including the air speed indicator.” And figuratively: The pilot judged air speed by opening his window a crack. “The passengers were given a rough brown blanket and a brown paper bag for throwing up. The plane was not heated or pressurized.”

The longest section of the book describes her solo trek around and across Africa, inspired by a vision of “a vast lion-coloured plain, ringed by blue mountains. Beautiful wild animals roamed across the land and the sky went up forever.” Ruefully she admits that she didn’t even understand the difference between conditions in west Africa and those in the east. Her naiveté lands her in one scrape after another as she traverses newly independent countries and others on the brink of independence.

Her prose is so clear and she does not spare herself or anyone else. Sometimes, though, I get a whiff of the appeal: stately giraffes drifting through the trees, majestic elephants, the blue mountains she’d dreamed of. In Kericho, at an English-owned hotel on a tea plantation reminds her of a “deadly respectable English provincial hotel”. But out on the terrace “the night sky told you exactly where you were . . . The far off stars were an icy crust; the darkness beyond the stars was more than I could handle. The machinery that keeps me going is not geared to cope with infinity and eternity as so clearly displayed in that sky.” A rare moment of introspection.

These stories are often hilarious, in the way that remembered horrors can be. Her description of wrestling a recalcitrant Land Rover over mountains, trying to read maps that bear little relation to what’s on the ground, while trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade her hired driver to actually take a turn driving seems funny now in the recounting but must have been frustrating and exhausting at the time.

The funniest tale is the one of going to Russia to visit an elderly writer whose work Gellhorn admires. A grateful letter became “pen-pallery”, leading to the writer begging Gellhorn to visit, claiming to be at death’s door. Once again, Gellhorn packed sweaters and warm clothes, remembering the winters in Russian novels, and deciding that the weather reports of temperatures in the 90s (F) must be a mistake. The writer’s tiny apartment is stifling, filled all day long with a crowd of friends coming and going, talking nonstop, only occasionally offering a translation. The bureaucratic run-arounds and the absurd restrictions are all presented with humor, while the real hardship of these people comes through with Gellhorn’s usual compassion.

I have traveled a lot, for work and pleasure, and have some traveler’s tales. These stories, while entertaining, make me glad to be at home.

Where have you traveled? What did you find there?

The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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I remember this book from my childhood. It was on a top shelf in the study, a small room lined with bookcases. Aside from the many-volumed encyclopedia and my grandfather’s law books, most of the shelves were filled with my father’s medical books. We children would pull them down when we wanted to scare ourselves and each other with the photos of rare diseases. So when I saw this book with the title in large letters on the spine, above my reach, I assumed it was another medical book, describing some form of mental disability.

I must have been curious, though, because it is the only title I remember from those walls.

Although I read a lot, I’ve only recently begun to catch up with the classic Russian authors. The Idiot begins with young Prince Muishkin, 26 or 27 years old, traveling by train to St. Petersburg from Switzerland where he’d spent several years being treated for severe epilepsy. He meets two men: Parfen Rogojin, a pale man of about the same age with fiery eyes, and Lebedeff, a social-climbing clerk of about 40.

The two are amused by the prince, who is inappropriately dressed for the cold and who answers their questions with a naive honesty and openness that makes them think him simple-minded. The prince reveals that he has no other plan but to look up a distant relative, Mrs. General Epanchin (Elizabetha Prokofievna). The two take him in hand.

I won’t try to summarise the complicated plot and large cast, but the heart of the book is the prince, whose artless innocence wins over everyone he meets. Dostoevsky said that he wanted to write a novel about a completely good and moral man. Of course, like others the prince has been compared to since, such as Don Quixote and Jesus himself, he brings trouble on himself and those around him. Most people, including the prince himself, call him an idiot, thinking his innocence and epilepsy symptoms of a feeble brain. Gradually, though, they come to appreciate his wisdom and deep insight into those around him.

The prince falls in love with two women who—to their own surprise—both love him back: Nastasia Philipovna, a woman who has been used as a concubine by a man who adopted her as his ward and whom Rogojin also loves, and Aglaya, the youngest and most beloved Epanchin daughter. As A.S. Byatt astutely observes in her review of a recent translation:

The women think they are in a story about seduction, rape, proposals, money and marriage, like most novels in the realm of the passions and economic forces. The prince is in some absolute moral world in which he can instinctively gauge who is being cruel to whom, who is in need and who is tormenting or tormented, without having in him any genuine sexual response of his own to help him to judge his own effect on people.

I found this novel compelling, though I certainly understand the complaints of critics who find the plot contrived and the characters flat. What most impressed and unsettled me was Dostoevsky’s technique of presenting some incident or fact as though we already know all about it, whereas in fact he only explains it some pages or chapters later. At first I was annoyed, but then I realised this was how the prince must feel, adrift in a world where everyone seems to know the rules except him. At the same time, he is utterly sure of his own understanding.

As writers, we are taught that to make characters seem real they must be neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but some mixture. Dostoevsky’s challenge here is to make the purely good prince seem real. He makes the other characters complex enough, like Mrs. General Epanchin berating those whom she most cares for and worries about, or Rogojin who is alternately selfless and grasping.

I think Dostoevsky succeeds in making the prince real. Perhaps that is because I have known a few such people, not perfect certainly, but so innocently good that your heart aches for them, knowing the hurts they will encounter. I’m glad I waited to read this novel. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it so much if as a child I had pulled it down from that top shelf.

What Russian classic have you read that impressed you?