Desperate Character

How It Was

by Mary Welsh Hemingway
Knopf, 537 pp., $12.50

Papa: A Personal Memoir

by Gregory H. Hemingway MD, with a preface by Norman Mailer
Pocket Books, 119 pp., $1.75 (paper)

The collapse of Hemingway’s reputation was in the wind well before he died. His serious admirers had retreated by then to defending the early short stories and parts of The Sun Also Rises and snippets of A Farewell to Arms, and retreat usually leads to rout in these matters: the short stories could not hold out by themselves forever.

Hemingway must have sensed it. His nose for how he was doing was as delicate as a basset hound’s. And of course he tipped his hand grossly by blustering at his critics and at the opposition, while simultaneously feigning gargantuan indifference. His son Gregory’s kind pharmaceutical explanations of his later paranoia may be true, but not necessary: Ernest knew the score. The vultures were waiting for him to die.

At least he managed to leave it in his will, or wish, that we still discuss him that way. The trail of carcasses left behind by him and his set has been duly noted; but at least he left his own among them, Goya-esque undoubtedly, and smelling of the museums, as Gertrude Stein put it, but the only place his talent could go. It deserves a better memorial than his wife and son have given us so far.

At least there’s this: in his own sardonic way, which was not as dumb as it looked—but then, not as bright as a second look promised—he beat them to it. In Across the River and Into the Trees he made a complete ass of himself. Everything since has been a clumsy gloss on that. Mary Hemingway’s How It Was can only be described, in the lingua finca and from the title on down, as bullshit once removed. The tinny tones of Papa are duplicated by a writer who lacks grip. “Noisy, badly ventilated U.S. Army food”; “self-packed suitcases” (where, oh where, does one find those?)—the simple Hemingway sentence, which is at best the height of artifice, becomes a brute necessity for such a writer as this.

There is one blood-curdling and encapsulating sequence in the book in which Mary spells it out to Ernest that no amount of humiliation will make her quit. And she proves it. His Italian mistress could sit in the front of the car while she took the back; she would play Tonto forever to his Lone Ranger on hunting trips; name it. She liked being Mrs. Hemingway, with all its perquisites, and presumably still does. But whether someone who seems to try periodically to get rid of you is the ideal subject for a memoir is a vexed question; although Mary looks on the bright side at regular intervals, the overwhelming impression of Hemingway is of sodden, peevish ruin, worthy of one of Papa’s own hatchet jobs.

Words fail when it comes to the perquisites themselves—the finca, the baby talk, the jolly ship Pilar. What Mary Hemingway understandably elides is that she married an artistically desperate man. Her …

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