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The best books on Love, War, and Longing

recommended by Janine di Giovanni

War reporter tells us that her life is permeated with sense of loss and longing. She quotes her heroine Martha Gellhorn: "I have a sudden notion of why history is such a mess. Human beings do not live long enough"

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Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni is one of Europe's most respected and experienced war reporters. Born in the US, she began reporting by covering the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s and went on to report nearly every violent conflict since then. Her trademark has always been to write about the human cost of war, to attempt to give war a human face, and to work in conflict zones that the world's press has forgotten.

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Your first book is The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

This is a book about the end of the Habsburg Empire and about a father and a son, and it was the favourite book of most journalists who worked in the Balkans. It has these themes of melancholy and the Balkans is a very melancholy place, especially in autumn. This book is very evocative of that. Roth came of age at the end of the Habsburg Empire and he killed himself on the Rue des Tournelles, just two streets away from where I live. He was an alcoholic. He was one of the great European novelists of the time but is very cultish – not as widely known as he should be. He writes very evocatively and hauntingly of a vanished world, about losing your youth, your friends, your family. It’s not cheerful, but the Balkans is not a cheerful place.

“He writes very evocatively and hauntingly of a vanished world, about losing your youth, your friends, your family.”

The father and son relationship in the book is a very damaged one. The son is a failed soldier who lets his father down in every imaginable way. There is a scene where he’s talking to his father, a typically strong figure, and he can’t shake thoughts of death. He’s haunted by death and keeps saying something like; ‘The dead, the dead.’ So, it’s also about him longing for the love of his father. It’s about longing.

Next you’ve chosen A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway’s such a jerk in many ways. He’s so macho and he treated his wives terribly – until the last one. She kind of turned the tables. He was cruel to Fitzgerald who was a more fragile figure and probably a better writer, but I love this book.

This book is written from a point of weakness, late in his life when his wife was caring for him but bullying him, and he’s looking back on his life as a young man – his first love! His first wife. He treated her terribly, of course, and left her for her friend, but here he’s talking about Paris and being poor with a baby and his wife, and there is something so moving about this macho man looking back at his life with regret. I live on the Rue Notre Dame des Champs which is where they lived in this period he’s writing about, and I walk past the apartment every day and think about them. It’s not just a portrait of a lost generation, but it’s about longing for youth and about regret. I mean, he was such an arsehole, but this is his best work, I think. Just writing about Paris and being young.

Tell me about the Elliot Paul book, The Last Time I Saw Paris.

Ah, this is about longing for a life that no longer exists. Elliot Paul was unknown to me until somebody recommended this book, but apparently he was quite a famous American journalist living in Paris in the 1920s, and he did this amazing thing which was to write a biography of a street, Rue de la Huchette. It’s a complete dump now this street, it’s right in a tourist area and full of Greek gyros stands, but then it was a quintessential Parisian street and Paul profiles everyone on it, from the local tramp and the prostitutes to the shop owners, doctor, dentist, and he creates this unbelievably vivid picture of life in the 20s in Paris. It’s the only biography of a street I’ve ever heard of – apart from one in Sarajevo that someone was trying to do – and I’ve never read anything like this before. He starts in 1923 and ends in the late 1930s just before the start of WWII when he goes back to New York. Then he comes back after the war and…everything’s gone.

It’s tragic. He goes back to find all the wonderful characters and some have been killed, the Jews have been deported, there are kids who have been horribly scarred by it all and he says the Nazis have made a ‘fair haul’ of this street. He writes; ‘In future years the day of the black rain will always be remembered…’

It’s so beautiful and it’s totally unknown. In a way it’s sad that such a brilliant chronicler, who far surpasses Hemingway, has been forgotten.

And now you’re cheating by having two books by Martha Gellhorn – Travels with Myself and Another and The View From the Ground.

Well, she’s a hero of mine, even though she was not very nice to other women. She was one of those people. I once interviewed her for The Times and I was so excited. She lived in Wales and I got buses and traipsed across fields and I finally got there and she opened the door and said; ‘I hope you’re not expecting lunch because you’re not getting any.’

Her book, The View from the Ground, a collection of her journalism over six decades, was the only book I took with me to Sarajevo and I used to read it every night in my sleeping bag. Travels With Another is about her marriage to Hemingway, but she never names him in the book. They had this terrible divorce and she scooped him on D-Day. It’s such a journalistic story. Basically, they had already separated and he was with somebody else and she had been commissioned to cover D-Day for Collier’s magazine. They were all holed up in the Dorchester, which is where the journalists were in London during the war, and Hemingway was this famous writer and could have done it for anyone, but he called Collier’s and told them he wanted to cover D-Day for them. They said; ‘Well, we’ve got this stringer there but we’d be delighted.’ And he big-footed her!

But she actually scooped him because she snuck off on to a hospital ship and got the story. He was on the cover and her story ran inside, but it was her story that was ‘the’ great piece about D-Day. Anyway, Travels With Another is a memoir of when they were still in love, travelling together. It’s a very glamorous book – she was thin and blonde and they travelled to China and she talks about their life together. Then she writes about her travels alone and there’s this great moment where she writes; ‘I have a sudden notion of why history is such a mess. Human beings do not live long enough. We only learn from experience and we have no time to use it in a continuous and sensible way.’

She writes like a novelist and, knowing her story, it’s just a wonderful picture of this couple who loved each other, who had this affair during the Spanish Civil War and it just…turned to ashes! There are lists and lists of the places she travelled to – Chad, Sudan, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Malaya, Finland. It’s one thing to do it now, but in the 1940s…

This is a strange one. Homer’s Odyssey.

I first read this when I had pneumonia when I was about nine. I was at my parents’ beach house and my brothers were going in and out to the beach and I was stuck on the sofa for a month. Can you imagine? It was the Odyssey in comic book form. My dad bought me the Iliad and the Odyssey, but I found the Iliad kind of boring – there were all these ships going in and out and a lot of waiting around. War is like that really – a lot of waiting around. But the Odyssey was wonderful. I read it again in high school and I think you need to focus on it, you need a kind of mindfulness to read it. I can’t take it all in at once.

How is it about longing?

It’s about wanting to go home! The thing I loved about Odysseus was that he’s so in love with adventure and with love. He stays on the island with Calypso for seven years and he’s so close really to Penelope, who’s there waiting for him and knitting her shroud all this time. And he keeps getting delayed, finally by Calypso. I am such a useless, sappy romantic – I think with my heart not my head – and I love this longing for home but the kind of unreality of it, the truth that you can never really go back. But he does get home. It’s a love story and it’s about our…conflicting longings, I suppose.

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Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni is one of Europe's most respected and experienced war reporters. Born in the US, she began reporting by covering the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s and went on to report nearly every violent conflict since then. Her trademark has always been to write about the human cost of war, to attempt to give war a human face, and to work in conflict zones that the world's press has forgotten.