Saturday, 1 January 2011

Celebrating Travel and Survival with Martha Gellhorn

Picture - Skanderbeg Square, Tirana, Albania

This is not a proper travel book says Martha Gellhorn in her introduction to Travels with Myself and Another [the 'other' being Ernest Hemingway, although she never refers to him by name in the book, preferring to call him UC - short for Unwilling Companion.] She goes on is an account of my best horror journeys, chosen from a wide range, recollected with tenderness now that they are past. All amateur travellers have experienced horror journeys, long or short, sooner or later, one way or another. As a student of disaster, I note that we react alike to our tribulations: frayed and bitter at the time, proud afterwards. Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival.

From this short quote, you can tell immediately that this is someone of great strength of character, who utterly eschews self-pity and has a keen insight into human nature. I've quoted that last sentence in talks I've given about travel and travel writing because it seems particularly apposite to anyone who has ever set off into the unknown, with that familiar (to me anyway) mixture of excitement and dread mixed in with disbelief on some level, at what one is doing, as if there is some detached part of oneself that witnesses but declines to take part in, this folly. But – if one never set out, though there would be no problems or difficult experiences, there would be no enjoyment of the unknown adventure either, as well as none of that self-esteem she talks about, that accompanies survival even if , for much less intrepid travellers like myself, self-esteem might be too grand a word for a profound sense of relief and thankfulness.

Martha Gellhorn was of course a highly professional journalist and writer, reporting from various war zones, including the Spanish Civil War in 1939, where Hemingway was also a war correspondent. She may describe herself as an 'amateur traveller' but she uses the word in its original meaning of 'a lover of'. And she does love travelling. In the first chapter Credentials she describes 'the traveller's deep dark night of the soul [which] can happen anywhere at any hour'. But it would never stop her travelling. 'I was not unique' she says, not 'singled out for special misfortune. Besides, I was in the same position towards travel as a leopard is towards his spots.....Place names were the most powerful magic I knew. Still are.'

As well as the other necessary ingredients for making a journey, for me, books almost always play a part in the experience. Books I've brought with me or that I've acquired along the way. They affect and reflect my perceptions of and interactions with, the journey and the places themselves - just as they do when I am not travelling.

A few years ago a friend told me about Martha Gellhorn's book, recommending it. In the days before I ordered books from amazon, in fact, when I was hardly ever able to buy new books, I scoured second hand bookshops but was not able to find a copy. And so, forgot about it. A year or so later, I found myself living in a small town in the Scottish Borders. This was because I had come back from Albania earlier than expected, and had rented my own house out to someone else. A friend fortunately had an empty property where I was able to live until I could move back into my own house. This town had a wonderful café and second-hand bookshop – The Damascus Drum. Browsing through it one day there was Martha Gellhorn's book. Another one that caught my eye was Ella Maillart's The Cruel Way, an account of her overland journey to Afghanistan accompanied by someone to whom she gave the pseudonym Christina. This friend of hers also wrote articles about their journey and I became intrigued by this anonymous person who, according to Maillart, was such a good writer.

A month or so later, I was in France, house sitting for friends near Toulouse. I went into a bookshop there, and in the travel section discovered from the blurb on the back of one of Ella Maillart's books that her companion on that trip was one Annemarie Schwarzenbach. I bought a book of hers, became fascinated by her writing and her life, and over the next few years, read several of her books as well as a biography (by Dominique Laure Miermont) and have translated some of her work. I'm working on a translation of her book about the Afghanistan journey Ou est La Terre des Promesses/Alle Wege sind Offen. A chapter of this - The Steppe - and one of her poems, has been published in Pilvax 7, an English-language magazine from Budapest, Hungary. I'm particularly happy about this as it is, as far as I know, the first English translation from this travel book to appear in print. There is very little of any of her work that I could find available in English. An excerpt from this can be found online here.

In the same magazine you can also find an excerpt from one of my own more challenging journeys, From Tirana to Pogradec. If it did not quite match in terms of 'horror journey' one of Martha Gellhorn's riveting accounts, it was one of my more colourful experiences. 'Recollected with tenderness' most definitely and, as far as I can tell, as far as one can be sure of anything, one which I did indeed survive.

Lake Ohrid at Pogradec, Albania

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