To celebrate summer travel, some excerpts from Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist and novelist who covered wars from WWII to Vietnam.
As anyone who travels much knows, things on the road―or water―don’t always go as planned, and that is often where the adventure begins. The focus of these essays are some of Gellhorn’s voyages that didn’t go so well, and include China, Africa, the Caribbean, and Suriname.
The pictures are my own, taken in Northern California.
“The airline, called China National Aviation Company (CNAC) consisted of two DC3s and three DC2s, elderly machines and no nonsense about comfort. Compared to passenger planes now, these were flying beetles.
… We climbed, as if climbing a spiral staircase, in tight jolting circles over Hong Kong until we reached fourteen thousand feet. All lights went off except the dim light in the pilot’s cabin and we crossed the Japanese lines, brightly lit far below. In half an hour, the storm hit us. I had been watching the flickering exhaust flame on a wing, but the wing vanished into cloud that looked grainy and hard as granite. Hail sounded like a threshing machine. Everything froze including the air speed indicator. Roy explained that if the speed dropped below sixty-three miles per hour the plane stalled and went into a spin, but there was no cause for anxiety; he opened his window a crack and judged air speed that way; he’d done it often.”
“The dinghy was not as long as I am. Carlton put the hatch cover in it, making a peculiar seating or lying arrangement, a convex curve for two thirds of the length then a drop to a concave curve. I spread the blankets on this surface, placed the pillow at one end, slid my legs under the seat and established myself with umbrella for sunshade. All I had to do was duck when the boom swung over.”
“With a picnic, water and heavy sandwiches, I set off to explore. St Martin was a magic island. Secret white sand coves indented the shore. I chose one far from town, walled in by thick bush that the rain had polished and framed by swaying royal palms. Under a china-blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas. And waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water, where you could see below to the sand and more passing fish, into silky deep sapphire sea.”
“I was swooning with happiness by five o’clock when I settled on a ruptured cane chair in the lobby to listen to the going gossip. At five o’clock promptly the mosquitoes arrived. ‘Union mosquitoes,’ a soldier observed. ‘They work from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ They were the biggest mosquitoes I had met anywhere and fearless, they zoomed in to cover one’s arms and legs and died feeding while others replaced those you had beaten to death. When the blazing sun went down, the air refused to cool despite nightly rainy season cloudbursts. The rain was lukewarm, encouraged the mosquitoes, turned the streets into quagmires which dried to deep dust a half hour after sunrise. Between five and six in the morning, there was a very faint freshness to breathe.”
Find the book here
Read about Gellhorn, and the journalism prize awarded in her name, here
The only connection here is that I’ve been fascinated by them both lately, and thought it was possible that others might appreciate pictures of the flowers and quotes from the book.
Mark Helprin’s writing is as precise as the wisteria blooms and as inspiring as their scent. Reading his work is a solid lesson in great writing.
“Each tower had a minute of free view, after which it would spend the rest of eternity contemplating the shins of its competitors.”
“The new year was rolling at them as wide and full as a tide racing up the bay, sweeping over old water in an endless coil of ermine cuff.”
“It would take a day at the blackboard to figure out the theory of this alarm system. He had no hope of controverting it in the dark at six degrees above zero. Impressed and even delighted, Peter Lake went around the side of the house and climbed onto the broad ledge of a window.”
“Peter Lake had heard Beverly say that the greater the stillness, the farther you could travel, until, in absolute immobility, you achieved absolute speed. If you could hold your breath, batten yourself down, and stop every atom from its agitation within you, she had said, you could vault past infinity.”
“…of all the means to the tranquility he now sought, a quiet snowfall was the most elegant and the most generous.”
If I could afford to, I think I’d buy this book for everyone I know. Noah is a sharp observer—of himself, other people, and the cultures and country they inhabit—which makes reading his book about growing up in South Africa as much a learning experience as it is good, solid storytelling.
One of many highlights is his relationship with his mother, who truly shines here. She is exceptional and inspiring. He’s done such good work in portraying her that any attempt on my part to synthesize or condense will only detract. You’ll have to read his book to have a chance to get to know her—and, trust me, you don’t want to miss out on that opportunity.
He’s perceptive in his illustrations of the irrational, illogical bases behind apartheid, qualities that show up in the way it was carried out as well. But he also illuminates some of the insidious cunning in the way it was structured. He does a great job of illustrating the distinction between making an opportunity available and making it accessible, and also the effects of language, the ways it can both separate people and bring them closer.
This is one of the passages from the book that had the greatest impact on me. He is talking about his relationship with his father and the time they were unable to spend together under apartheid. To me it is also a description of what all systems of racism and “otherizing,” institutionalized or otherwise, do to all of us:
“Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us…”
Dreams of My Russian Summers, by Andreï Makine
This book is so beautifully written, so deep with indelible images, events, and people, that it’s hard to know where to start or how to shape a review of it. I think it simply has to be read, start to finish. Although I’m reading it slowly because it’s so good I don’t want to reach the end.
So, on the subject of not knowing what to say, I offer these two excerpts on language:
“From then onward we talked but said nothing. Coming between us we could see the screen that is formed by those smooth words, those echoes of the everyday we give voice to; the verbal liquid with which we feel obliged, without knowing why, to fill the silence. With stupefaction I discovered that talking was in fact the best way of saying nothing about the essential.”
“The unsayable! It was mysteriously linked, I know understood, to the essential. The essential was unsayable. Incommunicable. And everything in this world that tortured me with its silent beauty, everything that needed no words, seemed to be essential. The unsayable was essential.”
The Baffler, January 30, 2017
This is a short piece that covers a lot of ground. Doom and extinction as entertainment and as social agenda. Greek mythology. Leaders who lean hard on the fear and anger buttons. Smirking vs. taking a constructive outlook.
The bottom line: detach from apocalypse fixations.
Getting a little weary of the decibel level and alternate reality(ies) of campaign season. It’s like a tide of static that floods through the country, turning all of us into ciphers, categories, and statistics.
It’s helped to be buried in the revision stages of some stories and the imagining stages of others. And I’ve found refuge in reading Langston Hughes (short stories, Saratoga Rain, Who’s Passing for Who?, On the Road) and Vendela Vida (Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name). Another good antidote: walks by the water, where the tides, grasses, and trees aren’t running for office.