A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (TLS)

Martha Gellhorn’s first full length novel was published in 1940 and recounts a week spent by Mary Douglas, a war correspondent, in Prague, in 1938, during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. There are two strings to the narrative. The first details the wide-eyed, impassioned gaze of this journalist on a city teeming with lifeless people, “like old bundles of gray cloth”. The second, the love story of communists Rita and Peter.  This, the novel’s core, despite playing out the hackneyed theme of the struggle of love in a climate of war, reads as terribly fragile, poignant against the austere backdrop.

This plot is caught up within another, less grandiose, equally tragic:  the dilemmas of a journalist, unable to affect change in a landscape heavy with injustice.  Journalist and communists’ shared cause stands in contrast to the somewhat seedy glamour of the group of “bright and dispassionate” other hacks reporting there. These, “the usual camp followers of catastrophe” and the novelist figure peddling others’ tales:  “hearing a name, that meant a face, a story, something you could store up and later alter in your imagination, until it had a shape”, divulge something of the author’s own insecurities.  As journalist, and novelist, these characters parody aspects of Gellhorn’s own.  This self-consciousness reveals itself in an offhand jibe at Mary Douglas.  “You’re wasting yourself in this business.  If I were a woman, and looked like you, I’d marry for money.  It’s only sensible.”

A Stricken Field sometimes reads like a series of newspaper reports, scenes glimpsed and tacked one to another. But Gellhorn’s forte lies in reporting the small narratives behind the headlines, so, in this novel she gives voice to the unheard. She depicts the houses of refugees “furnished with still bodies”, as if on canvas: “people painted against the walls, growing from the floor, the woman with one hand on her hip as if she had always been standing in just that position”. Gellhorn as novelist is able to dwell on situations, to write with a slower, more intimate gaze.

Underlying Mary Douglas’ finally futile efforts to affect change, Rita and Peter’s tragic finale, are Gellhorn’s own frustrations.  In the afterword, dated 1985, she says of A Stricken Field: “I wrote out the accumulated rage and grief of the past two years in this one story, one small aspect of the ignoble history of our time.”

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

Republished by Chicago Press, 2011
Originally published 1940

978 0 22628 696 9

This review appeared in the TLS, April 20 2012


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