Jump to content, Jump to navigation.

Amber Paulen

Two M.G.s: Martha Gellhorn & Mavis Gallant

A few weeks ago I looked down in my bag to realize that the initials of the two authors I’ve been reading are the same. Besides from this, their similarities include detailed observations and the understanding of what it is like to be outside a culture, or a situation, that you don’t understand and isn’t your own.

Mavis Gallant wrote short stories; she was a Canadian who lived in Paris for most of her life. She has influenced such writers as Alice Munro. I first heard about Mavis Gallant in Jhumpa Lahiri’s opening remarks for Francesca Marciano’s reading at John Cabot University here in Rome. And then I started reading her name everywhere. Like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant’s stories resound with a quiet disquiet. Unlike Alice Munro, whose stories are set mostly in Ontario, Gallant’s stories are peppered across Europe (at least in the collection I’m reading, Paris Stories). They are about people who have been displaced, purposely or accidentally set outside the familiar in varying degrees. I am fascinated with this theme and even if Mavis Gallant wasn’t such a goddamned good writer I would still read stories about it.

Martha Gellhorn is best known as a war journalist, and for being—though she hated the association, as any woman whose work can stand on its would—Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. But it does make for an easy introduction. I first heard about Martha Gellhorn in Max Perkins’s biography by A. Scott Berg. And then I watched this interview with her, and I think it was then that I fell in love. Martha Gellhorn is perhaps the bravest female writer I have ever read. After I finished reading her travel writings, Travels with Myself and Another, I began reading her war writings, collected in The Face of War. Her writings about war are so human and frank and poignant that I’m continuously wondering how on earth I haven’t heard about her before. Honestly, teachers should be handing out her essays in grade school.

In her 1986 introduction to The Face of War:

After a lifetime of war-watching, I see war as an endemic human disease, and governments are the carriers. Only governments prepare, declare and prosecute wars. There is no record of hordes of citizens, on their own, mobbing the seat of government to clamor for war. They must be infected with hate and fear before they catch war fever. They have to be taught that they are endangered by an enemy, and that the vital interests of their state are threatened. The vital interests of the state, which are always about power, have nothing to do with the vital interests of the citizens, which are private and simple and are always about a better life for themselves and their children. You do not kill for such interests, you work for them.

So simple and so true. As she wished George Orwell was alive during the Vietnam war to distill the reason for the overwhelming propaganda on the American side (which she said fell into two categories: “the fear syndrome, which magnifies the Vietcong’s lethal threat to everyone in Vietnam, civilian and military; and the cheer syndrome, which optimistically falsifies the conditions of Vietnamese civil life”), so I wish she was alive to explain what is going on today (with America’s stupid power-mongering and the NSA). The fear syndrome form of propaganda still operates, no doubt.

Martha Gellhorn was a wise, wise woman who should be read more widely.


·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·