Putting Martha in Fiction: A Guest Post by Naomi Wood, Author of “Mrs. Hemingway”
As many of you know, I have been on the mend for the last year, and just started posting again a few months ago. Naomi Wood’s new novel, Mrs. Hemingway has been on my radar for a long time, and it was recently released in the UK and then the United States. Naomi’s book tells the story of each of Hemingway’s marriages from courtship to disintegration. Naomi’s first novel, The Godless Boys, was published in 2011 and is now under option for a movie.
I have wanted to interview Naomi for several months, but I have a specific type of interview in mind, one that takes some thought. When I suggested my idea to Naomi (which involves women and the humorous and not-too humorous perils of researching Hemingway’s personal life) she was enthusiastic, but it will take me a while longer before I get finished. In the meantime, I am delighted to share Naomi’s thoughts on Martha Gellhorn, who Naomi admits is the wife she admires the most. In the post below, Naomi describes her perspective on Martha’s career as a writer, and her own thoughts about writing Martha into her novel. Stay tuned for more information and conversation with Naomi soon — !
“If a writer has any guts he should write all the time, and the lousier the world the harder a writer should work. For if he can do nothing positive, to make the world more liveable or less cruel and stupid, he can at least record truly, and that is something no-one else will do and it is a job that must be done.”
Sound familiar? This quotation is not in fact Hemingway – although the one-dollar words, absence of figurative language, and the injunction to “record truly” all sound distinctly like the writer we know. But this is, in fact, Martha Gellhorn: war-reporter, novelist, and wife no.3 of Ernest’s spousal quartet.
Writing my novel about the four Hemingway wives has meant Martha Gellhorn has had to come into the narrative of Mrs. Hemingway sometimes kicking and screaming. I’m pretty sure this would have made her shudder. Naturally, she did not want to become a footnote in the history of somebody else, and being known as “Mrs. Hemingway” would have been anathema to her. As soon as separating from her husband, she wanted her passport “changed back to Gellhorn. I wanted above all to be free of him and his name; and step out of the whole picture fast,” she told biographer Bernice Kert.
And so putting Martha into my fiction was a daunting task. As a novelist writing about fellow novelists (both Hemingway and Gellhorn) I thought it might be apposite here to discuss her fictions. Many Hemingway fans will have read her war-reportage, both during and after her un/official Hemingway tenure, but her fictional works may be somewhat more unfamiliar.
Gellhorn burst onto the literary scene with her second publication, The Trouble I’ve Seen, in 1936. (Gellhorn dismissed her previous novel, What Mad Pursuit (1934) as a high-school folly, and never allowed it back into print once it had left it. Perhaps this was also because a quote from A Farewell to Arms was also stuck, blushingly, at the beginning.)
The Trouble I’ve Seen is a searing account of people living in Depression America. Gellhorn wrote the novellas as fictionalised accounts of people she met on her travels for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Her reports describe in plain but vivid terms the “houses shot with holes, windows broken, no sewerage, rats,” the children malnourished and syphilitic, the land dead and hope extinguished. Hemingway was a hero to the young writer (she’d had his photograph tacked above her college desk) and one can see how in her writing, just like in Hemingway’s, the site of the suffering is represented in the exterior rather than the interior world.
Gellhorn writes about people who have come beyond endurance. There is Mrs. Maddison: a woman whose house is ‘shot with holes’ and so papers the walls of her shack with magazine advertisements for skin creams and cars she’ll never be able to afford. Most movingly, perhaps, is the moment when a young woman comes into Union-boss Joe’s office. Her starving body is suddenly, crudely, the centre of the narrative:
Whatever reasons had moved him to bring her here were forgotten: her poverty and his, and the senseless waiting of their lives. He held her body with his hands, and drew her towards him. And, then, suddenly, he realised without wanting to that the bones of her naked body were an outrage. This was a half-starved woman, no matter how crisply and mockingly she might talk of her life.
The novellas in The Trouble I’ve Seen are a testament to Gellhorn’s humane response to others’ suffering. The material is indeed hammered out of a great store of human suffering; “a job that must be done” in a “lousy world” indeed.
Her next novel, A Stricken Field (1940), which explores the German annexation of the Czech Sudetenland, again found Martha on fine form. The writing is pitched perfectly as it slowly absorbs the bored terror of the waiting Czech refugees (and which might remind some of Hemingway’s dispatch from Anatolia in 1922):
The crowds moved slowly, as if they too were strangers, uncertain of directions and having nowhere to go. She could not find one face to remember. They all looked alike and no one seemed to have slept, or eaten, or gone shopping, or made love, or transacted business successfully or unsuccessfully, or done any of the things that leave a mark on the eyes or mouths of passers-by. They’re all waiting, she thought.
To my mind, Gellhorn’s fiction is best when she writes about war, perhaps because there is always the electricity of anger in her words, and the spirit of grand resistance. Writing about war has a utility beyond aesthetic pleasure: it can shock the reader “to make the world more liveable or less cruel and stupid”. Hemingway wondered whether his wife wasn’t a little “war-crazy”; on the contrary, I think it made Martha sane.
Her peacetime books I find less powerful, though they still effectively draw on her insightful observations of the human animal. The Heart of Another (1941) and Liana (1944) were both written during her marriage to Hemingway. Neither books quite match the tender despair of The Trouble I’ve Seen or A Stricken Field. However, both intimately explore the disquiet of domestic life, something not too alien to Martha (“We were good in war and when there was no war we made our own,” she wrote to a friend after she and Ernest had returned from Spain. “The battlefield neither of us could survive was domestic life.”)
Liana, especially, explores how paradise can become jail-like. Liana is stuck on a remote Caribbean island married to a man she does not love. Her French lover miserably listens to the radio and longs to contribute meaningfully to the European war. Both are stuck in a “fragrant prison”. It is suggestive of her own restiveness. While Hemingway hunted Nazi U-boats off Cuba, her letters show her longing to be away from this ripe island and back to war: “We will have to get into some sort of serious trouble next winter or I will curl up and melt. I like my catastrophes,” Martha wrote from the Finca, “Oh hell. If there is a war anywhere I want to be at it.”
Gellhorn wrote fiction all of her life, (she died in 1998,) although she always found it much more troublesome than reportage. When it wasn’t going well (which was often) she called it chewing cement. Her postwar fiction still reads well but feels slightly dated: Pretty Tales for Tired People (1965) and The Weather in Africa (1984) both have acerbically-drawn characters, battling quite often with adultery, but the wartime turbulence and quick thrust of the early fiction is a little absent.
In the end, Martha Gellhorn will be remembered for the clarity of her observations in the most appalling of wars. Her dispatches from Madrid, Barcelona, Dachau, and Vietnam are masterful. Her fiction is probably counted nowadays as interesting, but minor. Perhaps this comes down to the fact that she was happiest, not at the page, but out at the Front: “Maybe the reason one is so very gay in a war,” she wrote, “is that the mind, convulsed with horror, simply shuts out the war and is fiercely concentrated on every good thing left in the world. A doorway, a flower stall, the sun, someone to laugh with, and the wonderful fact of being alive.”