I read this on the train yesterday, on my way to London to meet M at the wonderful Dishoom in Covent Garden. I usually take a slim novel on a train journey, something around 150-200 pages fits neatly in my bag, and on Wednesday evening I picked out Susana Fortes’s Waiting for Robert Capa.
I knew that Robert Capa was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, the renowned photographic co-operative which hosts many iconic images of the 20th and 21st century, but I hadn’t realised that the name and American identity was a construct thought up by his lover to help sell his work, or at least according to Fortes’s novel. She, too, was a photographer and she, too, changed her name (to Gerda Taro), but sadly she died before Magnum was set up. Fortes’s novel is both a passionate love story and a testament to the art and courage of those who put themselves at risk to record the stark realities of war. Capa and Taro, both Jewish, escaped the threat of the Nazi regime in their native countries – Capa from Hungary and Taro from Germany – but both threw themselves into the maelstrom of the Spanish Civil War which is where Capa made his name, hailed by Picture Post in 1938 as ‘The Greatest War Photographer in the World’. When reading a novel whose main protagonists are historical figures it’s all too easy to confuse fact with fiction but Fortes has clearly done a great deal of research and is careful to point out in a note at the back of the book that while the main events of the novel are factual much of the rest has been recreated using the ‘liberty that is the privilege of the novelist’. It’s an excellent, thought provoking novel but I should have kept it for home and given it the concentration it deserves. Even the quiet carriage has its distractions.
If Gerda Taro had survived would her name have been as celebrated as Capa’s, or would the fact that she was a woman have relegated her to a secondary position? Sadly, the latter still seems to be the case in so many instances. Yesterday the Guardian reported that Wikipedia have been slowly but surely moving entries for women novelists from their American Novelists pages to a new American Women Novelists category. All well and good except that they failed to rename the original category ‘American Male Novelists’. Outrage on social media has been such that the Wikipedians are now having to put the women back in their rightful position. In a year in which women are dominating the UK prize lists – in the Desmond Elliot Prize longlist, announced yesterday seven of the ten novels are written by women, and Hilary Mantel continues to sweep the board – it’s still the case that novels both written and reviewed by men dominate the books pages. It defies logic when anyone who’s worked in a bookshop will tell you that far more women than men buy books. But, then, sexism isn’t logical.