“We do not have great writers,” I said. “Something happens to our good writers at a certain age. I can explain but it is quite long and may bore you.”
“Please explain,” he said. “This is what I enjoy. This is the best part of life. The life of the mind. This is not killing kudu.”
—Green Hills of Africa (1935)
The conversation held in the bush country of Kenya between Ernest Hemingway and a stranded Austrian named Kandisky is the only well-remembered part of Green Hills of Africa. It is otherwise given over to the hunting of various beasts, especially the fleet though luckless kudu, a sport for which the reader comes to share Kandisky’s puzzled distaste.
Kandisky, who had read Hemingway’s early poetry in the Querschnitt, implores him to tell how America destroys its writers.
We destroy them in many ways. First, economically. They make money. It is only by hazard that a writer makes money although good books always make money eventually. Then our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishments, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is slop not on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they write when there is nothing to say or no water in the well. Because they are ambitious.
Hemingway saw no need to inform either Kandisky or the reader that he himself had been moved up into a different world of money. The safari had been underwritten by a $25,000 check from his wife Pauline’s generous uncle, who had also bought them, as a honeymoon gift, their handsome and spacious house in Key West. Some day soon, he would be associating his first wife, Hadley, with Paris and a benign poverty and, as Kandisky would say, the life of the mind, and the arduous and hard-purchased acquisition of a style. Pauline would then represent rich people and ease and artistic peril.
Instead, he tells Kandisky of the kind of writing that can be done. “How far prose can be carried if any one is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten” by a writer and “nothing else matters. It is more important than anything he can do.” But you are speaking of poetry, Kandisky objects, and is answered: “It is a prose that has never been written. But it can be written, without tricks and without cheating. With nothing that will go bad afterwards.” It is a prose, he says, much more difficult than poetry, which would have earned a wry smile from Pound and a sphinxlike one from Stein. Theirs was the Paris-based world of American writers in which Hemingway came into possession of his strength as a writer, and which he would come in the end to look backward to as to a lost Garden of Eden.
Every young writer is entitled to boast about the way he intends to write, but the young Hemingway actually got there. We keep saying that the Hemingway of those days was wonderful, but now we say it as ritual, as a stick to beat what he became, and our remembered wonder has faded a bit. Everyone has a favorite passage, though, in which nothing has gone bad.
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
In freshman classes in the Fifties, when many of us were English instructors, we would tell our students that it was wonderful, the way that first paragraph of “In Another Country” prepares us for what follows. They don’t go to the war because they report to a hospital where they are strapped into machines which promise to restore their shattered limbs, stretched out like the carcasses outside the shops. The narrator worries about how he will be if he is sent back to the front, and envies three soldiers with the predatory faces of hawks. That is symbolism, we would tell our students, God forgive us. One patient has no confidence in the machines, an idiotic idea, “a theory like another.” Like theories of how to fight wars.
The experience of war, Lieutenant Henry learns in A Farewell to Arms, renders obscene its theories and abstractions.
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Our memories make his point. The wartime rhetoric dried years ago into the mud of the sunken roads, and if today we remember Caporetto as a disastrous Italian retreat it is because of Hemingway’s novel. We remember Lieutenant Henry on those roads as vividly as we remember Prince Andrei as he lies dying on the field of Borodino.
But as Henry tells us about war’s lethal rhetoric, his creator is simultaneously announcing an aesthetic. It tells us that if what is actually there can be expressed truly, to use a word he would overuse, then the meanings packed within the prose will be released; meaning will draw upon silences and rhythms as well as words. A complicated aesthetic, and not without tricks and mystifications of its own: Hemingway himself had not been at Caporetto or anywhere near it. He did not arrive in Italy until June of 1918 and was wounded a month later at Fossalta. The retreat had taken place in the preceding autumn. Yet its veterans would speak of the astonishing accuracy and precision of the third book of A Farewell to Arms. As Hemingway would remind us, Stephen Crane had not been at Chancellorsville nor had Stendhal been at Waterloo. Art creates the truth of the trusting imagination—aided in this instance by a heavy reading of newspapers, memoirs, military histories. In his brief month, he had seen patriotic slogans peeling from walls and discouraged soldiers moving through mud.
He began the untruths about his own Italian war almost as soon as he got back to Oak Park, telling the local American Legion post that he had served as a lieutenant in the Brigata Ancona during the Monte Grappa offensive. He was a very young man who had displayed bravery under fire; by age-old tradition, returning veterans are not on oath. Unfortunately, the habit grew with the years—lies about himself and about what he was writing, lies of an almost certifiable grandeur. (Kenneth Lynn, in his biography, gathers many of them with the sardonic zeal of a prosecuting attorney.* ) In True at First Light he tells his wife, “Miss Mary,” who serves as the Kandisky of the second safari, that “all a writer of fiction is really is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men.”
We will come soon enough to that newly published “novel” or “memoir” or whatever its publishers choose to call it. He had been interested from early on in the interplay of form and imagination. Green Hills of Africa, he claimed, was an attempt “to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.” And in Death in the Afternoon, his book about bullfighting, he was exploring the shapes of discursive prose, and doing so, part of the time, with energy and wit. It is exasperating to read, passages of swaggering self-display and then pages of absolutely stunning prose, sequences of physical action in the bullring and passages which savor with equal delight Spanish food and the contemplation of death. At the very end of his life, he was hinting that A Moveable Feast should be read as fiction in the form of a memoir. Fictional memoirs are all the rage these days: the man has a lot to answer for.
But in that autumn of 1933, when he was on the first safari, he was at what proved to be the height of his achievement. He had behind him the triumphs of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, and two volumes of short stories, In Our Time and Men Without Women, which changed forever the ways in which American writers would imagine that form. A third volume, Winner Take Nothing, proved that the style remained little short of miraculous, but the title itself seemed to hint that he was expending it upon a world of losers which he had already explored beyond its worth. And yet, as he well knew, it contained some of his best work—“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “A Way You’ll Never Be,” “Fathers and Sons,” “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.”
His reputation among other serious writers could not have been higher. As long ago as 1926 Allen Tate had written of “the recent prophecy that he will be ‘the big man’ in American letters,” and the prophecy, despite Tate’s ironical quotation marks, seemed to be coming true. Eighteen thousand copies of Winner Take Nothing were sold in the first accounting season, which was doing extraordinarily well for a book of short stories intended for the Christmas trade, in one of which a boy chooses that season to castrate himself. There now existed a market for any book written by “Ernest Hemingway.” For already, by the early Thirties, there existed a Hemingway “legend”—a handsome, wounded soldier, boxer, and bullfighter, who was now off to Africa to shoot big game. That he should also be the great hope of American literature seemed too good to be true.
Nabokov says somewhere that the best part of a writer’s biography is the biography of his style. In Hemingway’s case, this presented unique problems. The Hemingway legend existed as a kind of penumbra surrounding the texts, easy enough for any intelligent reader to cut through, but with a slight, peculiar feeling of impropriety. He seemed beyond question a modernist writer, for whom impersonality was a treasured principle. But the stories hinted at a style, an attitude toward experience, which lay beneath the printed page and found affirmation in the public man. Eventually, of course, and in the final works, the legend, bloated beyond belief, would swallow up the words.
In The Sun Also Rises, someone asks Brett’s friend Mike how he went bankrupt, and he says, “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” In the case of Hemingway’s art, we will never know how it happened or how early. There is something heroic in his stubborn refusal to quit. It is chilling to read the accounts of the daily stint of pages, the words religiously counted up, and then, after lunch, because the sun was always below the yardarm somewhere in the world, the gargantuan drinking. But that “shit detector” which he said was essential to a writer was still working, and sooner or later a manuscript would be abandoned and a new one begun. Perhaps some day it might be fitted into the “big sea, air, and land novel” which he kept hinting about to editors and Broadway columnists. He was happily unaware of what would be the future of those unwieldy messes, thanks to the kindness of children and publishers.
First it went gradually, a slow erosion of his near-faultless control of material, and then, even more slowly, of his reputation as a writer whom it was essential to read. The irony—“the irony and the pity”—as Jake Barnes and Bill keep saying—is that as his serious readers came to realize that something was badly amiss, the popular legend swelled larger and larger. And so today he is a grizzled icon smiling and thinking deep thoughts be-hind sea-weathered eyes. An image of the writer as American hero, imperturbable, masterful, hard-drinking.
From time to time, in the final period, he would emerge from his Havana house to go on a second safari, to follow the bulls, to drink at Toots Shor’s, or to shoot doves with Gary Cooper. Or, disastrously, to be interviewed in 1950 by Lillian Ross, who had mastered a technique, unknown to Boswell, by which anybody, talking unguardedly, can be shown to be pretty silly, especially if what he says is, in fact, pretty silly.
His reputation was seriously damaged not by Ross but by the appearance of Across the River and Into the Trees. At the time of the interview he was carrying the galleys with him, like a cyanide pellet. But the grave aesthetic lapses in the novel seemed to readers to find an explanation in the interview. It was there, amid the Injun Joe palaver, that he boasted that he had beat Mr. Turgenev, then “trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one.” Time was, to continue his metaphor, when he would have had Ross on the canvas two minutes into the first round, but that time was gone.
What he had brought back from that first safari was the germ of two stories, written at the height of his powers, and one of them an impressive stretch of those powers. We read them differently now from the way we did then, now that we know so much more about his inner life, more perhaps than people need to know about other people. Today we read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” as a story of the divided self, with Hemingway as both the cool, tough white hunter and as Macomber, the man who comes to know his own cowardice and shame, masters them, and as reward is shot down by his wife. People used to argue about whether or not she had shot him entirely by accident, but there has never been any doubt that Margot Macomber is Exhibit A in any reading of Hemingway as misogynist. Beautiful, poised, lethal, mistress of her own abacus of sexual rewards and deprivations, she chilled at least one undergraduate with a conflict of feelings for which not even the Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates had prepared him. He was too unnerved to admire the story’s technical perfection—the control of pace and the development of mood, the sparse, uncluttered dialogue that forces you to hear what is not being said.
Everyone knew, though, that in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway was writing about himself and his relationship to his art, in ways that at first seem direct but in fact are oblique and, perhaps, self-justifying. It is a crucial “perhaps.” A writer named Harry lies dying of gangrene in the African bush country, waiting for a relief plane which, the reader intuits, will not arrive in time. His wife’s cool sarcasm is difficult to criticize: Harry is a tough case, embittered, vengeful, full of hatred and self-loathing. The wife is society and rich, and he blames her for his corruption and the corruption of his art. He regrets the stories that he will have no time to write, remembering them as scenes, snatches of conversation, emotions which in the writing would have been buried beneath the words. They are memories from his life, and Hemingway’s, shuffled like cards—the world war and its killing, a boyhood at his grandfather’s house, skiing in Austria, things he witnessed as a correspondent in the Twenties. They are a bit like Joyce’s epiphanies but far more like the interchapters of In Our Time.
Now in his mind he saw a railway station at Karagatch and he was standing with his pack and that was the headlight of the Simplon-Orient cutting the dark now and he was leaving Thrace then after the retreat. That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaria and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the Secretary repeating to the other girls, No, you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.
Jeffrey Meyers, in his extremely helpful biography, dates the passage from October 18, 1922, when Hemingway left the Greek frontier for Sofia and then Paris. It is a mute accusation against Fridtjof Nansen for sending refugees to certain death in the Thracian snows. But the alternative, Meyers reminds us, would have been massacre by the Turkish forces. He doesn’t comment upon the irony that Nansen, an Arctic explorer, should have known all about snow. Like all the flashbacks, it is intended to remind us that the Hemingway of In Our Time is alive and well in 1936.
And we are also intended to accept that Harry’s corruption will not be Hemingway’s, who is too tough, too disciplined. Unlike poor Julian—Scott, he was called in the Esquire version—whose romantic awe of wealth and its supposed grace “wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.” Hemingway usually attacked by going out on the battlefield the next day to pistol the wounded. He would wait until A Moveable Feast to do a complete job on Fitzgerald. But in this story, he allows Harry, his surrogate as victim, a dying measure of self-knowledge:
She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.
Serious readers of his work, Lionel Trilling, William Troy, and especially Edmund Wilson, who had been the earliest of his American supporters, worked out a formula to explain what was happening to him in the Thirties: there were two Hemingways, when he wrote as an artist and when he wrote as himself. It is a notion which could only have sustained itself in those high modernist days when the utter, Flaubertian inviolability of Art was taken as a given. Wilson gave it its most felicitous expression. When Hemingway writes in his own person, he is likely to become fatuous, maudlin, silly. But in his art, “his sense of what happens and the way it happens is…sunk deep below the surface and is not conveyed by argument or preaching but by directly transmitted emotion: it is turned into something as hard as crystal and as disturbing as a great lyric.”2
In truth, though, art and “life” are not separated by impermeable membranes and each can begin leaking into the other. Not yet, though. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a successful novel, with marvelous scattered set pieces, but the relieved praise of critics as perceptive as Wilson and Trilling today seems excessive, shaded by pleasure at the author’s recovery from his recent decline, and by complexities of feeling toward the Spanish Civil War. On his best days, Hemingway had a political as well as a literary shit detector, and he was one of the few novelists to be staunch in his defense of the Loyalist cause and wholeheartedly and eloquently shocked by the Stalinist manipulation. His portrait of Marty, the murderous Party functionary, is devastating, and so too are the sketches of Soviet journalists. Neither was it so easy, after his book, to think of La Pasionaria as an Iberian Joan of Arc. A disgust with all ideology runs through the book, a thick undercurrent. Simply, he supported the Loyalists because theirs was, for him, the Spanish cause.
But the book does not seem to me the triumph it once appeared to be, although Meyers argues that it is his best novel. It is a book that has faded, whereas The Sun Also Rises, despite unpleasant shadows, remains vivid and sunshot. It suggests despite itself that his was the art of the miniaturist. It tries to compensate by forcing a crowded narrative within the compass of three days, beginning and ending in the pine forest in the Sierra de Guadarrama, where Robert Jordan waits for his death. We carry away from it, though, not a sense of that imposed structure, but of isolated, discrete scenes of great power—the slaughter of the Fascists in Pilar’s village, El Sordo’s fight on his mountainside.
The final word may be left to Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway’s improbable twin, their opposing selves now locked together forever. Hemingway had sent him a copy signed “To Scott with affection and esteem Ernest.” Fitzgerald, replying, speaks of the massacre scene as “magnificent and also the fight on the mountain and the actual dynamiting scene.” But to his notebook he confided: “It is so to speak Ernest’s ‘Tale of two Cities’ though the comparison isn’t apt. I mean that it is a thoroughly superficial book which has all the profundity of Rebecca.”
It probably did even better in sales than Rebecca, with the Book-of-the-Month Club ordering 200,000 copies, and, within the first six months, 491,000 copies sold. After he had mailed in the galleys, he and Martha Gellhorn took off for Sun Valley, as Averell Harriman’s guests, where Ernest organized a rabbit hunt with his sons and Merle Oberon and Gary Cooper. In December, on his way back to Havana, he learned of Fitzgerald’s death of heart failure in Sheilah Graham’s Hollywood living room.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway has an imaginary but famous conversation between himself and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald—“Julian”—had begun a story, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And “someone”—Hemingway—says, “Yes, they have more money.” He was now and for the rest of his life would be in the world of the rich. In that world, once you have survived the rigors of the Membership Committee, you need not always have the money in a particular year. The coffers will be refilled by your next super-bestseller.
He never—to use a phrase just then coming into use—“sold out.” He never, to borrow a word from his talk with Kandisky, wrote slop when he was writing seriously. It was always the very best he could do, and that, finally, became the problem. Curiously, that world of the rich, in which he was actually living and had identified as a source of corruption, hardly ever enters his work save for strokes of vulgar satire in To Have and Have Not. Harry, of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” had told himself “that you could write about these people; about the very rich; that you were really not of them but a spy in their country; that you could leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of.” In his final years, he became a serious reader of Proust, who had been a spy in several worlds, but it was a bit late to learn the lessons of that master.
The importance of the celebrity culture in the making and undoing of Ernest Hemingway should not be minimized. There is a fine, lively book on the subject, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture, by Leonard Leff, although he ends with the 1932 film of A Farewell to Arms, when that culture was in its infancy. His villains are Hemingway himself, who presided over the process, the editors and publicists at Scribners, the gossip columnists who spread the news of the handsome war hero who just happened to be the best American writer, middleweight division.
He was the first writer of authentic stature to be caught in the crosshairs of that culture. Scott Fitzgerald had been even handsomer, but by the Thirties his Irish charm had faded and only after his approaching death would a deeper, darker legend surround him. To be sure, Mark Twain, Hemingway’s spiritual father, had done his best for himself, with his cigar and his cornball white suit, but he had to work alone, without an infrastructure.
But from the first, Hemingway had been beset by demons with claws sharper than money or fame. Biographers have been telling us of the appalling mother and the suicidal father, of the mother dressing him up as a girl, of his fascination with women’s hair—this last, I should have thought, a harmless caprice. They can appear in first light, at a Havana work table. To the annoyance of biographers, a writer’s deepest problems often turn out to be those of language and structure, of a thwarted imagination.
His Second World War was of an idiosyncratic sort, organizing an amateur spy network in Cuba and transforming the Pilar, his cruiser, into a submarine hunter armed with rifles. Then, over in Europe, he had himself quite a war as an armed guerrilla disguised as a war correspondent. Martha Gellhorn, his leggy, ambitious, and breezy third wife, claimed that the submarine hunt was a dodge to get more gasoline for the Pilar, but Ernest took it seriously, and like his ragtag of young French gunmen it was woven into the legend. For at least one student of Hemingway, Gellhorn is the only one of his wives to earn respect and sympathy. She didn’t hang around places to be abused, not by Hemingway, not by anybody. Great hair, too.
By the war’s end, he had her replacement, a Time correspondent named Mary Welsh. We will encounter her in True at First Light, where he attempts by verbal chivalry to atone for a relationship in which he smothered her with abuse and scurrility. She seems to have been an ingenious, libidinous woman, and would require these qualities in her marriage to a husband given to the enactment of sexual fantasies.
Back in Havana, he settled down to the “the big sea, land and air novel,” which was to occupy him, in one form or another, until his death. It makes for a melancholy and knotted story, for which the reader is referred to Rose Marie Burwell’s Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels. This exemplary study of the texts of the various unfinished narratives is a brilliant piece of scholarship of the old school. Equally, she is a scholar of one of those new schools in which writers do not “write” but “inscribe”—a distinction I have never grasped—and I cannot accept her argument that Hemingway intended A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, and The Garden of Eden as an intricately intertwined “portrait of the artist as painter and writer, and as son, husband, and father.” But the care and scrupulousness with which she argues entitle her to her theory.
In 1946, Michael Reynolds tells us in his recent biography, Hemingway wrote “like a man possessed,” an instance of his own lapidary prose. By late July, he had almost a thousand pages written although he had no set plan for the book, letting it develop as it would. Ominous words for an editor to read, but his letters to Charles Scribner exuded daiquiri-scented confidence. The day before, he once wrote, his word count had been 573 before breakfast, “after which I fucked three times, shot ten straight at pigeons (very fast ones) at the club, drank with five friends a case of Piper Heidsieck Brut and looked all the afternoon for fish.” When you are a legend, publishers accept your lies without demurral, however unlikely they may be, however crudely expressed.
Another problem is that he was isolated, within no world of writers who could give him either dispute or the respect that he had earned. As he chose to put it: “I haven’t known a writer who was a good guy since Jim Joyce died. And he was spotty sometimes.” What about Scott Fitzgerald, who once had given him sound advice on the opening of The Sun Also Rises? “Then we have Scott borrowing on the outline of a thing he’d never, and never could, write, giving samples here and there like a mining prospector with a salted mine.”
Or maybe he would do the war differently from what he had planned; maybe it would be only a noise offstage. This cycle of writing in the morning on narratives that rambled, as he always finally knew, down interminable and labyrinthine hedgerows, and then drinking and bullshitting in the afternoon, and facing his faceless demons in the night, went on for years until, in the fall of 1948, he took Mary to visit the Italian places that he remembered from his first war. He had not published a book, or anything of real worth, for nine years.
Venice, the lagoon, and Torcello yielded him a skyful of birds worth shooting and the atmosphere and feelings from which he created Across the River and Into the Trees. His Colonel Cantwell is a professional who has been broken from general for obscure, unspecified errors, perhaps his own, perhaps his superiors’. He is embittered not by knowledge of his approaching death but by the degradation by modern warfare of the sol-dier’s chivalric code. In Venice, he has fallen in love with an aristocratic beauty of nineteen named Renata (the Re-born), who is at once his muse, his love, and the embodiment of yet another code crumbling within the crumbling city. Cantwell is Hemingway, his noncombatant services as an ambulance driver and war correspondent transformed by the magic of self-love.
The opening chapters, of the duck shoot and the approach to the city, are superb:
He watched the sky lightening beyond the long point of marsh, and turning in the sunken barrel, he looked out across the frozen lagoon, and the marsh, and saw the snow-covered mountains a long way off. Low as he was, no foothills showed, and the mountains rose abruptly from the plain. As he looked toward the mountains he could feel a breeze on his face and he knew, then, the wind would come from there, rising with the sun, and that some birds would surely come flying in from the sea when the wind disturbed them.
The trouble begins—and the novel is in deep trouble—when he walks through the doors of the Gritti Palace, and gets worse when he crosses over to Harry’s Bar. He and the maître d’hôtel and the bartender belong to one of Hemingway’s tiresome make-believe secret societies that exist for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Robert Cohn found out about them in The Sun Also Rises, although he did not find out enough. The novel gets still worse when we are given glimpses into that arcane society of two—Cantwell and his submissive muse—for whom everything from the buttering of toast to the arrangement of cushions in a gondola is part of an elegiac ritual.
Hemingway intends the book’s secret to be buried within its structure. War is the book’s true subject, and it is kept chastely offstage. Cantwell talks about it to his Desdemona in endless conversations held everywhere—at lunch, at dinner, in bed, in a gondola. And what we learn moves us deeper and deeper into a war fought without honor. Hemingway would not have felt offended had we thought of Dante, with Renata as his slightly soiled (by the colonel, in the gondola) muse. It is a marvelous notion, but Othello had more going for him. A novel cannot be saved by structure alone.
The book deserved its devastating reviews. But we know now that throughout those years of silence, or rather of not publishing, he had endured ever-deepening depressions and rages, had battled against temptations to suicide, against a waning creativity, and yet he had kept writing. As John O’Hara, his bellicose protégé, put it: “To use his own favorite metaphor, he may not be able to go the full distance, but he can still hurt you. Always dangerous.”
It is an autumnal novel, and so is The Old Man and the Sea, but with a sad difference. He presented it as a segment of the “big novel.” And so it is, burnished and hand-rubbed and as phony as a three-dollar bill. The mystery, as Kenneth Lynn says, is why this book with its lachrymose sentimentality and its “crucifixion symbolism of the most appalling crudity” should have “evoked such a storm of applause from highbrows and middlebrows alike—and in such overwhelming numbers.” One half of the answer is that it is the perfect middlebrow work of art. Life published the entire text in an edition of 5,300,000, which sold out in days. Michael Reynolds speaks, alas, for posterity: “All the signs were positive; all the readers agreed. The Old Man and the Sea was a stunning book, a story told as simply as a fable, and as tenderly as a love letter.” It is a perfect text for high schools.
Three weeks after Hemingway’s death in 1961, his widow traveled to Cuba for his literary remains, witnesses to creative struggle and defeat. Charles Scribner Jr. has described her arrival in the office, carrying a large shopping bag bulging with unpublished material—completed and uncompleted short stories and fragments, “and the typescripts of three major works, a novel set in Bimini and Cuba, later published under the title Islands in the Stream, the original transcript of Hemingway’s bullfighting journal, The Dangerous Summer, and a major work of fiction, to which Hemingway had given the title, The Garden of Eden.” The capacious shopping bag may also have contained the account of his second safari in 1953, which he abandoned after writing 200,000 words of a rough draft.
Maxwell Perkins, had he been alive, might have shaken his head in perplexity. These were not manuscripts in the ordinary sense, but attempts at coherence and thematic development, overlapping, entangled, repetitious, shifting beneath the author’s pen. Editing Thomas Wolfe had been one thing: fierce slashes through an overgrown jungle of Spanish moss. These, on the other hand, were the pages of a major artist who had once possessed a dandy’s finicking spareness of language.
But by the time of his death, Hemingway had become a superproperty. It was merely a matter of time and editorial ingenuity before the shopping bag was published. With the exception of the cameo which a skillful editor named Tom Jenks shaped out of The Garden of Eden, we do not turn to these “posthumous works” for any of the pleasures of art. That Hemingway abandoned them is not surprising.
Few readers would pick up Islands in the Stream for a second time save in the line of duty. A few landscapes rendered with his usual swift authenticity, long conversations that drift into verbal doodling, characters who are introduced abruptly and then are disappeared like so many Argentinian dissidents. The hero, a stalled painter named Thomas Hudson, is deeply, suicidally embittered, a condition which he exhibits by acting grouchy. It is, as John Updike calls it, “a thoroughly ugly book, brutal and messy….”3
It was edited by Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s first biographer, assisted by Charles Scribner and Mary: one cannot envy them their task. Hemingway’s attitude toward the story he was telling and toward the plot itself fluctuated. Any writer’s first draft can be a landscape of probes and emendations, and this places upon an editor a need to discover the text’s developing life. But Mary Hemingway says, in a note as laconic as a Spartan epigraph: “Charles Scribner, Jr. and I worked together preparing this book for publication from Ernest’s original manuscript. Beyond the routine chores of correcting spelling and punctuation, we made some cuts in the manuscript, I feeling that Ernest would surely have made them himself. The book is all Ernest’s. We have added nothing to it.” This is strictly true, in the negative sense that Willie Sutton never cracked a safe to make a deposit. The meaning of a work of fiction is shaped as much by what is cut away from it as by what is kept, especially in the case of a writer who worked through counterpoints of silence and language. The earthly Hemingway distrusted the judgments of editors and wives.
Of The Garden of Eden we know, although not from Scribner’s, that it exists as some 2,400 pages, out of which Tom Jenks created a comely and absorbing novel of 247 pages. As we are told by a scholar who has examined the manuscript, it is “often more reiterative than cumulative, containing immense repetition that Hemingway seems to have been unable to control, and there is often little evidence among the variants that he privileged one text over another.” Seems to have been unable to control is a chilling phrase.
But Jenks has performed a dazzling feat. The published text glows with language to bring to mind Hemingway at his best, tense with the excitement of narrative clarity yet hinting at mystery just below the skin of the prose. The Mediterranean is not there to be exploited but becomes part of the novel’s texture.
They were living at le Grau du Roi then and the hotel was on a canal that ran from the walled city of Aigues Mortes straight down to the sea. They could see the towers of Aigues Mortes across the low plain of the Camargue and they rode there on their bicycles at some time of nearly every day along the white road that bordered the canal. In the evenings and mornings when there was a rising tide the sea bass would come into it and they would see the mullet jumping wildly to escape from the bass and watch the swelling bulge of the water as the bass attacked.
The first paragraph has carried us into Hemingway country. David Bourne, a young writer, and Catharine, his venturesome bride, are on their honeymoon. Like most honeymoons, it is full of sex and sun and sensuous food and swimming. Catharine wants David to write about their honeymoon, and that is not all she has on her mind. She is eager to experiment with role reversal, and David goes along warily. But the reader knows (we are so clever nowadays) that she is deeply androgynous. Before long, a young and at first enigmatic lesbian named Marita drifts into their lives and first Catharine, then David, goes to bed with her.
There are both direct and hidden links between the story and the life of its creator. It opens on the stretch of the Mediterranean coast where Hemingway and Pauline spent their honeymoon, and it is set in the Twenties, for him, increasingly, a magical past time. He liked to fantasize a lesbian relationship between her and Hadley, his first wife. Both of his women here, like the two wives, have inherited money, which he liked to imagine a source of creative corruption. Bourne calls Marita “Heiress.” Catharine turns out to be insanely jealous of his writing, and near the close of the story has become just plain crazy, with touches of Zelda. She douses Bourne’s stories with gasoline, as Hadley once, by accident, lost Hemingway’s. Throughout his life, he kept obsessively and un-convincingly forgiving her this, in print and out. What Catharine burns are “African stories,” about a safari Bourne had once made with his father, in which an old elephant was killed. At the end, Marita and Bourne are deeply in love, and Bourne is writing steadily and well, like Ernest Hemingway. Whether or not this is an ending dictated by Jenks’s wish to tidy things up is an open question.
Hemingway was dealing here with psychologically explosive material upon which he could never have imposed aesthetic closure. Behind the marlin-fighting bravado lay a different person, uneasily aware of the fragility of gender boundaries, sexually insecure, and aware of aspects of himself which created that insecurity. He had reached the edge of something dangerous and puzzling to him in this unfinishable manuscript. True at First Light, which we are promised is the last unpublished text, is an account of his second African safari, in 1953, accompanied by “Miss Mary,” as he cloyingly calls her, and financed in part by a photojournalism assignment from Look. His way was smoothed by the Kenyan government, anxious to demonstrate that the lucrative safari country was not threatened by Mau Mau activity farther to the east. Philip Percival, the model for the white hunter in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” accompanied them to the Kamani Swamp, and, for the three weeks after he left, they were on their own, although the government kept a solicitous eye on them.
Those weeks form the substance of the unfinished manuscript of which one half is now published. Hemingway had been appointed, with all due ceremony, as “honorary game warden,” a position which in his judgment endowed him with great if unspecified powers, including the settlement of tribal disputes, protection of the shambas against attacks of rogue elephants, organization of defenses against armed Mau Mau infiltration, and whatever else appealed to an active, indeed inflamed imagination. The inhabitants seem to have endured all this with the courtesy extended by tribal societies toward the spiritually afflicted. He was also busy promulgating the doctrines and explaining the rituals of a new religion, and vigorously courting a young Wacumba woman named Debba, whom he intended to marry. Miss Mary may have given her approval, or so he says, but the young woman’s family took a very dim view of the matter. This courtship and a tedious lion hunt form the twin centers of the narrative.
The stay in Africa was cut short by a ferocious air accident, in which Hemingway sustained severe injuries, which he bore with his customary stoicism. He appeared before journalists with his head swathed in bandages, and, according to a report carried globally, carrying a bottle of gin and a bunch of bananas. He later denied these particulars; he tended his legend with care and skill and it was not to be tampered with by some UPI stringer.
The writing in True at First Light is debased middle-Hemingway, put at the service of an autoeroticism which he scarcely bothers to translate from the raw material. From a letter to Harvey Breit: “My girl is completely impudent, her face is impudent in repose, but absolutely loving and delicate rough. I better quit writing about it because I want to write it really and I mustn’t spoil it. Anyway it gives me too bad a hardon.”4 Here is what might be called a corresponding passage:
When we rode together in the front seat she liked to feel the embossing on the old leather pistol. It was a flowered design and very old and worn and she would trace the design with her fingers and then take her hand away and press the pistol and its holster against her thigh.
Denis Zaphiro, the actual game warden, describes Debba as “a slovenly-looking brat” and none too clean. Miss Mary, although worldly in other ways, shared this hygienic reservation. To address such material with respect is impossible. I do not refer to the letter to Breit; we write the damnedest things to friends to enlarge their notion of what we think they think we are like. The publication of this book is a disservice to the reputation of a serious artist.
True at First Light is described by Scribner as “a fictional memoir” and by its editor, Hemingway’s son Patrick, as “an ambiguous counterpoint between fiction and truth.” Gussying up language that way is what the young Hemingway was fighting against. Now he himself is describing Africa as “a ruthless real world made of the unreality of the real.” Send for Kandisky.
In an unpublished passage, Tom Jenks tells us, Hemingway, sleeping beside Miss Mary, dreams that the “wife I had loved first and best and who was the mother of my oldest son was with me and we were sleeping close together….” As Jenks rightly says, Hemingway never forgave himself for betraying Hadley, “whose memory he sentimentally held as an image of his lost innocence.” In truth, so it seems to me, he held Hadley and innocence and the past and Paris and the company of his peers and his surest strengths and powers as a writer together in a congeries of sights and sounds, emotions and images. He had betrayed not merely Hadley but that entire constellation.
That is why A Moveable Feast is itself so moving a book, shot through with genuine (but perhaps not truthful) feelings and the fresh colors of a remembered youth. Small wonder that he turned to those memories after setting aside the tired theatricals of the African narrative. The plane which carried him out offered him a final glimpse of Kilimanjaro, where, as a young writer, he had placed, “close to the western summit…the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Either by the impulse which now recalled him to Paris and his beginnings as a writer, or else by that grace in which all writers secretly believe (he always called it “luck”), he had regained, for one last time, that elegance and power which had once been at his command. Here, in these sketches, it is not a triumphant style, but rather an elegiac avowal of loyalty to a vanished past. He comes almost to the self-knowledge that the dying Harry achieves in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” that the faults lay not in the stars—not in the celebrity, or the fat contracts, not in the money, not in the parish of rich women—but in himself.
It is evidence of true rather than public relations heroism that he was at work on these sketches right up to his admission to the Mayo Clinic, arranging and rearranging their order, as, in the Twenties, he had done with the brilliant interchapters of In Our Time. Down to the end, being a writer was at the core of his being, down to the hour when, outside the door of his hospital room, he taped up a sign saying “FORMER WRITER,” a message so plain that only psychiatrists could fail to understand it.
His brief capture of this late power does not mean that he became a nicer person. A Moveable Feast is the most mellow, but it is also the bitchiest of his books, part gin, part bitters. The capework and the swordwork are impressive: the respectful introduction of Gertrude Stein, the acknowledgment of what he learned from her, and then the seemingly casual: “The way it ended with Gertrude Stein was strange enough.” Ernest Boyd, Wyndham Lewis, John Dos Passos, Gerald and Sara Murphy—down they go, like ducks flying over a frozen lagoon.
He is writing when we first meet him here, in a café on the Place St.-Michel, warm and clean and friendly. The story is “Up in Michigan,” which was to shock some readers, and in the Paris streets outside, as in the story, it is a wild, cold, blowing day. Or he is in Lipp’s, which he could not afford, thinking about his new theory “that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” You could hear that kind of talk all over Paris, from the old masters, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, and from countless two-bit phonies like Robert McAlmon. But he had brought his shit detector with him from Chicago, and he knew what to learn from and what to ignore. Mostly what you learned was to keep your own counsel.
When he couldn’t get a story going, he “would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame,” and then look out over the roofs of Paris and tell himself not to worry. “All you have to do is write that one true sentence.” Everyone knows about Hemingway’s “one true sentence,” both mystification and manifesto, which is best remembered as attached to the peel of the little oranges and the sputter of blue flame.
Sylvia Beach from her bookshop lent him A Sportsman’s Sketches and The Charterhouse of Parma, and the other texts from which Paris in the Twenties and Americans in that Paris were creating a tradition of the modern. Tolstoy showed him Prince Andrei dying at Borodino and Stendhal showed him Fabrizio bewildered at Waterloo.
Poverty was a requirement of that tradition, in a garret by preference, but Hadley and he were in the next best thing, rooms above a sawmill. He associates it not only with creativity but with domesticity and love, love of Hadley, love of little Bumby, love of the cat even. He gives Bumby a bottle and sets to work, with no one awake save Bumby and Puss the Cat and himself. “In those days you did not really need anything, not even the rabbit’s foot, but it was good to feel it in your pocket.” He does not get away with this particular bit of kitsch, and the failure reminds us that stylistically he has been walking the edge of a precipice. He sees the story in deeply sentimental terms, moving toward his corruption at the hands of the rich crowd at Cap d’Antibes, who have been led to him by Dos Passos, “the pilot fish.”
During our last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives and nothing was ever the same again. The winter of the avalanches was like a happy and innocent winter in childhood compared to the next winter, a nightmare winter disguised as the greatest fun of all, and the murderous summer that was to follow. It was the year that the rich showed.
Right there, in that final chapter, the magic breaks into pieces and he becomes, almost but not quite, just another husband explaining how he fell in with a bad crowd and ditched his wife for a woman with more money. Satan made him do it. “When I saw my wife standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” I hope he remembered to buy her flowers.
But before that last chapter, we forgive him everything for the sake of the words and the silences and the “luck.” We even forgive him for what he does to poor Scott Fitzgerald, who didn’t have enough malice in his heart to corrupt himself, let alone other people. “His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the coloring, the very fair hair and the mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.” Nick Carraway describing Tom Buchanan didn’t do better than that.
Before him, there had only been Mark Twain and Stephen Crane to show us what could be done with the American language, and not all that many after him.
October 21, 1999
Carlos Baker’s biography (Scribner, 1969) is the foundation stone on which later biographies rest (Martha Gellhorn called it “the Gospel according to Saint Carlos”). It was clear almost from the start that there would be a need for others. Those by Kenneth Lynn (Simon and Schuster, 1987) and Jeffrey Meyers (Harper and Row, 1985) are solidly written and display good literary judgment, but I prefer that by Meyers, which is unsentimental while lacking Lynn’s curious dislike of his subject. Michael Reynolds has recently published Hemingway: The Final Years, the fourth in a biographical series. Oddly though, his most valuable contribution is Hemingway’s First War (Princeton University Press, 1976), which is not part of the series, but began, soberly and quietly, the necessary demythologizing task. ↩