What I have been reading lately

Thanks to the University of Adelaide I now have a very clear eBook version of George Orwell’s “Looking Back on the Spanish War”.

…But the laws of nature are not suspended for a ‘red’ army any more than for a ‘white’ one. A louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb, even though the cause you are fighting for happens to be just.

Why is it worth while to point out anything so obvious? Because the bulk of the British and American intelligentsia were manifestly unaware of it then, and are now. Our memories are short nowadays, but look back a bit, dig out the files of New Masses or the Daily Worker, and just have a look at the romantic warmongering muck that our left-wingers were spilling at that time. All the stale old phrases! And the unimaginative callousness of it! The sang-froid with which London faced the bombing of Madrid! Here I am not bothering about the counter-propagandists of the Right, the Lunns, Garvins et hoc genus; they go without saying. But here were the very people who for twenty years had hooted and jeered at the ‘glory’ of war, at atrocity stories, at patriotism, even at physical courage, coming out with stuff that with the alteration of a few names would have fitted into the Daily Mail of 1918. If there was one thing that the British intelligentsia were committed to, it was the debunking version of war, the theory that war is all corpses and latrines and never leads to any good result. Well, the same people who in 1933 sniggered pityingly if you said that in certain circumstances you would fight for your country, in 1937 were denouncing you as a Trotsky-Fascist if you suggested that the stories in New Masses about freshly wounded men clamouring to get back into the fighting might be exaggerated. And the Left intelligentsia made their swing-over from ‘War is hell’ to ‘War is glorious’ not only with no sense of incongruity but almost without any intervening stage. Later the bulk of them were to make other transitions equally violent. There must be a quite large number of people, a sort of central core of the intelligentsia, who approved the ‘King and Country’ declaration in 1935, shouted for a’ firm line against Germany’ in 1937, supported the People’s Convention in 1940, and are demanding a Second Front now.

As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they result rather from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds. When they enthused over the Spanish war they knew, of course, that people were being killed and that to be killed is unpleasant, but they did feel that for a soldier in the Spanish Republican army the experience of war was somehow not degrading. Somehow the latrines stank less, discipline was less irksome. You have only to glance at the New Statesman to see that they believed that; exactly similar blah is being written about the Red Army at this moment. We have become too civilized to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases. The fact that such a platitude is worth writing down shows what the years of rentier capitalism have done to us…

Robust as ever.

It so happens I just finished Waiting for Robert Capa by Susana Fortes. It is a slightly fictionalised account of photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro with the emphasis on events leading to Taro’s death in Spain in 1937.

Until Gerda Taro’s death, and the onset of the Hemingway-Gellhorn legend pushed them from the public gaze, she and her lover, Robert Capo, were the  ‘glamour couple’ associated with reporting on the Spanish Civil War. The pair were supporters of the anti-fascist republicans before that stance became fashionable amongst American and British literary elites. They arrived in Spain before Hemingway and Gellhorn, spent more time on the front lines than the two Americans,  constantly exposed themselves to battlefield dangers (which eventually ended in Taro’s death) and provide more extensively documented coverage of the war in words and photos than any other journalists. Capa since became legendary for his photo-journalism yet Gerda Taro is now an obscure figure. Yet her written and photographic accounts of the conflict, especially her moving portrayals of the innocent and suffering civilian victims of war, provided a model which Gellman copied in her journalistic contributions.

Gerda Pohorylle was born  in 1910 into a Polish-Jewish family in Germany. When her family later moved to Leipzig she became involved in left-wing politics and shortly after the Nazis came to power to power in 1933 was arrested for participating in an anti-Nazi protest. After that she left for Paris and met a Hungarian photographer Andre Friedmann. The pair became lovers. Gerda developed her own photographic skills and helped organise Friedmann’s business.They then reinvented themselves, constructing for Andre the fictional identity of  ‘Robert Capa’ and for her ‘Gerda Taro’, names mimicking the Hollywood director Robert Capra and the star Greta Garbo.

The pair left immediately for Spain when civil war broke out there in July, 1936. Both wanted to document the conflict and support the republican cause. They arrived weeks before the influx of foreign correspondents such as Hemingway and Gellhorn. They went to the front lines and besieged cities, accompanying the Republican forces and reporting, sometimes together, sometimes separately, sending in their photographic and written despatches.Their written and photographic work became increasingly sought after and the couple became for a time the heroic and glamorous face of reporting on the conflict. Gerda was an increasingly skilled photographer. In crucial ways she was a template for Gellhorn. She made full use of her good looks -Gerda was nicknamed La Pequena Rubia, “the little blonde”- and wore fashionable shoes and clothing to the frontlines. She and Capa were both well aware of the publicity and commercial value of  a two lovers working  together in war zones. She visited scenes of intense fighting, disregarded journalistic objectivity with her fervent support for the anti-fascist forces, and concentrated on documenting the war’s impact on the most vulnerable. All these features were quickly taken up by Gellhorn when she arrived. Interestingly, while Tara’s reporting made much of the role of Spanish women as republican militia, Gellhorn had little to say about this feminist aspect of the conflict.

In July, 1937 Taro went to Brunete, near Madrid, to report on the bitter fighting there. She was accompanied by her new lover, a Canadian journalist, Ted Allen. On 25 July the pair joined troops retreating from an air raid by jumping on the running board of a car. An out of control  Republican tank hit  the car, flinging Taro and Allen to the ground. She died the next day. Taro received a spectacular funeral in Paris, attended by thousands and where she was proclaimed an “anti-Fascist martyr”.

The novel sticks quite close to that historical account. (Interestingly, while Hemingway briefly appears in the novel Gellhorn does not.)


Gerda Taro, Republican woman training in Barcelona at the beach, Spain, August 1936

the falling soldier

Robert Capa, “The Falling Soldier”. The novel has a rather convincing if speculative back-story on this classic photo.

See also Robert Capa and Gerda Taro: love in a time of war.

I greatly enjoyed The Cypress Tree by Kamin Mohammadi.

Mohammadi’s vivid narrative brings the sound and taste of Iran to the reader, she brings the history of Iran to life in a way that at least I have not seen, read or heard before and provides a first-hand insight to the experiences of the revolution and Iran’s development to a near Middle Eastern superpower. Even to those like myself who are widely read on Iran, Kamin brings something new to the fore. She writes from a personal perspective, of what she felt, heard and experienced around her, with the Iranian culture illuminating from every page. You find an understanding of Iran and Iranians through each sector of society from upper to lower classes, which for a half Iranian herself was enlightening. The exiled second generation Iranians all know what happened in 1979 but rarely do we get an articulate first hand insight as this…

Then, very different, I also enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson, even if I had not read the middle volume in the trilogy – which I must now do.

If you’re a latecomer to the Stieg Larsson phenomenon, here, briefly, is the deal: Larsson was a Swedish journalist who edited a magazine called Expo, which was devoted to exposing racist and extremist organizations in his nativeland. In his spare time, he worked on a trilogy of crime thrillers, delivering them to his Swedish publisher in 2004. In November of that year, a few months before the first of these novels came out, he died of a heart attack. He was only 50, and he never got to see his books become enormous best sellers — first in Sweden and then, in translation, all over the globe…

Finally, my considered opinion after rereading (forty years on!) Patrick White’s The Vivisector is that the man was a genius. See also My walk to the shops… and Treasure from Wollongong Library.

Few writers so deeply capture what it is to grow old, just to name one of the motifs in this very rich novel. And White does have a sense of humour, as in this rather Hitchcockian moment on page 563: “If you want me to tell you why you’re a misfit, Patrick, it’s because you hate everybody.”