That Summer in Paris
There is an irony which usually defeats the memoir and makes it an inferior art. The man who can tell a good story in company about his friends is usually not able to find a prose which can capture the nuances of his voice. Invariably, the language is leached out—the account tends to have a droning episodic quality as if some movie queen were recounting the separate toils of her lovers to a tape recorder.
Now the worst to be said for That Summer in Paris is that Morley Callaghan has not altogether avoided this blight. Using himself as a character of reasonable dimensions, an honest sensible hard-nosed ego-bastard, a talented short story writer, a good husband, a good Irish-Catholic, a good college boxer, and a good expatriate, his memoir is built on the premise that catgut is good for stringing pearls. So one is taken by Callaghan for a three-to-five page description of each of his separate meetings with Maxwell Perkins, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, Josephine Herbst, Sinclair Lewis, Robert McAlmon, Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Pauline Hemingway, Michael Arlen, Ludwig Lewisohn, Allen Tate, Edward Titus, Joan Miró, and Zelda Fitzgerald. It is dim writing. One has only to compare the chapter he gives to Sinclair Lewis (one of the more elaborate cameos) against some equivalent number of pages Wolfe devoted to a similar portrait, and the result is no contest. A deadness comes back from Callaghan’s echo. His short portraits are written at the level of a conversation with somebody who might tell you he met Truman Capote.
“Well,” you might respond, “what is he like?”
“Well,” says your friend, “he’s small, you know, and he’s kind of bright.”
If one knows some of the people mentioned, or is obsessed with the period, then Morley Callaghan’s memoir will satisfy. But it is not a good book. It is in fact a modest bad dull book which contains a superb short story about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Callaghan. One can push so far as to say it is probably the most dramatic single story about Hemingway’s relation to Fitzgerald in the literature. If Callaghan had been ready to stop at this, he could have had a long short story or a short memoir which might have become a classic. Instead he attenuated his material over a run of 255 pages, and so reminds one of a remark Fitzgerald once made to Callaghan. Talking about The Great Gatsby, he said the book had done reasonably well but was hardly a best-seller. “It was too short a book,” Fitzgerald said. “Remember this, Morley. Never write a book under sixty thousand words.”
That’s it. Callaghan has remembered, and has proceeded to stretch it out. As literature, it’s a mistake. Financially, Fitzgerald’s advice might still prove wise. The author now has a book instead of a story; the value of a movie sale is increased. The story about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Callaghan done by John Huston, produced by Sam Spiegel, could make a very good movie. For the first time one has the confidence that an eyewitness has been able to cut a bonafide trail through the charm, the mystery, and the curious perversity of Hemingway’s personality. One gets a good intimation of what was very bad in the man, and the portrait is reinforced by the fact that Callaghan was not out to damage the reputation—on the contrary, he is nearly obsessed by the presence of taint in a man he considers great.
In turn, Fitzgerald is also admired. In fact he is even loved as a friend, loved perhaps more than Hemingway. Yet Callaghan fixes his character for our attention. Like many an American writer to come after him, Fitzgerald was one of those men who do not give up early on the search to acquire more manhood for themselves. His method was to admire men who were strong. In this sense he was a salesman. When the beloved object did not smile back, Fitzgerald, like Willy Loman, looked into an earthquake. We are offered Fitzgerald at just such a moment.
Talking to Callaghan one day, Fitzgerald referred to Hemingway’s ability as a boxer, and remarked that while Hemingway was probably not good enough to be heavyweight champion of the world, he was undoubtedly as good as Young Stribling, the light-heavyweight champion. “Look, Scott,” said Callaghan, “Ernest is an amateur. I’m an amateur. All this talk is ridiculous.” Unconvinced, Fitzgerald asked to come along to the gym at the American Club and watch Hemingway and Callaghan box. But Callaghan has let the reader in earlier on one small point. Hemingway, four inches taller and forty pounds heavier than Callaghan, “may have thought about boxing, dreamed about it, consorted with old fighters and hung around gyms,” but Callaghan “had done more actual boxing with men who could box a little and weren’t just taking exercise or fooling around.”
So on an historic afternoon in June in Paris in 1929, Hemingway and Callaghan boxed a few rounds with Fitzgerald serving as timekeeper. The second round went on for a long time. Both men began to get tired, Hemingway got careless. Callaghan caught him a good punch and dropped Hemingway on his back. At the next instant Fitzgerald cried out, “Oh, my God! I let the round go four minutes.”
“All right, Scott,” Ernest said. “If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”
According to Callaghan’s estimate, Scott never recovered from that moment. One believes it. Four months later, a cruel and wildly inaccurate story about this episode appeared in the Herald Tribune book section. It was followed by a cable sent collect by Fitzgerald at Hemingway’s insistence. “HAVE SEEN STORY IN HERALD TRIBUNE. ERNEST AND I AWAIT YOUR CORRECTION. SCOTT FITZGERALD.”
Since Callaghan had already written such a letter to the paper, none of the three men could ever forgive each other.
As the vignettes, the memoirs, and the biographies of Hemingway proliferate, Callaghan’s summer in Paris may take on an importance beyond its literary merit, for it offers a fine clue to the logic of Hemingway’s mind, and tempts one to make the prediction that there will be no definitive biography of Hemingway until the nature of his personal torture is better comprehended. It is possible Hemingway lived every day of his life in the style of the suicide. What a great dread is that. It is the dread which sits in the silences of his short declarative sentences. At any instant, by any failure in magic, by a mean defeat, or by a moment of cowardice, Hemingway could be thrust back again into the agonizing demands of his courage. For the life of his talent must have depended on living in a psychic terrain where one must either be brave beyond one’s limit, or sicken closer into a bad illness, or, indeed, by the ultimate logic of the suicide, must advance the hour in which one would make another reconnaissance into one’s death.
That may be why Hemingway turned in such fury on Fitzgerald. To be knocked down by a smaller man could only imprison him further into the dread he was forever trying to avoid. Each time his physical vanity suffered a defeat, he would be forced to embark on a new existential gamble with his life. So he would naturally think of Fitzgerald’s little error as an act of treachery, for the result of that extra minute in the second round could only be a new bout of anxiety which would drive his instinct into ever more dangerous situations. Most men find their profoundest passion in looking for a way to escape their private and secret torture. It is not likely that Hemingway was a brave man who sought danger for the sake of the sensations it provided him. What is more likely the truth of his long odyssey is that he struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all of his life, that his inner landscape was a nightmare, and he spent his nights wrestling with the gods. It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself. There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.