Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Hemingway at the End

STARTING WITH Carlos Baker’s pioneering biography in 1969, called simply Hemingway, I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway, and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep getting into the house. Once, there were people who wrote books about Hemingway who were born after he became famous. By now there are people who write books about Hemingway who were born after he killed himself. Some of these scholars, back in the old days, were professors of American literature in general before they switched full time to Hemingway. Nowadays they tend to spend their entire careers in Hemingway studies. Whether yesterday or today, their common qualification is the ability to produce yet another book about Hemingway, sometimes including a whole new fact.

In my experience, even if you don’t read these books about Hemingway, you will own half a dozen of them. I suppose I keep reading them for the same reason that people can’t help writing them: he’s too much of a problem to leave unsolved. Beside Hemingway, even d’Annunzio is a mere zany. Hemingway’s personality was so extravagant that his creative work occupied only a small corner of it. In some ways, that fact was a blessing. He was never driven back to mere aestheticism when searching for material. He could measure his manhood by how he shot and fished. Unfortunately, he also measured his manhood by how he wrote. It wasn’t enough for him to prove his bravery by shooting a charging lion or blasting at sharks with a tommy gun to preserve the carcass of the giant marlin he had just finished fighting after a whole day in the chair. He wanted us to admire the bravery with which he rewrote his latest manuscript for the 323rd time. For a figure like that, we only had his word for it, and he could get very angry—fighting angry—if anybody suggested that he was making anything up. Honesty and accuracy were masculine things.

But in his case, perhaps in everybody’s case, his sexuality was of a dual nature. Thus his pose of masculinity was in opposition to his sensitivity. This gap in his mental makeup as a writer he tried to weld shut with style. To some extent he succeeded, especially early on, and even when he didn’t succeed he wielded a pervasive influence. The style was a virus. Younger would-be writers took it as the sound of truth, of real experience lived and assimilated. The facts say that he was at his most persuasive when making things up. One of the most lastingly famous scenes in A Farewell to Arms is usually called the Retreat from Caporetto. A long and dazzling tour de force, it has the same stamp of authenticity as a short story like “Big Two-Hearted River.” But Hemingway never saw the Retreat from Caporetto. It happened the year before he got to Italy. He simply had the gift of turning a few facts he had read or heard about into a convincing narrative. He could do the same with a few lies. His way of putting things was a transformative illusion.

As such, it could bind any acolyte with a spell. I have just finished reading Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, the story of the close relationship, stretching from 1934 to 1961, between the great writer and his fishing launch, the Pilar, which, operating out of Key West and Cuba, carried its owner to his adventures with the big fish and the German submarines. (The fish existed, but about the submarines he could only claim to have provided valuable information about their location: i.e., there weren’t any.) The book is a solid seven hundred pages and I read them all, but I don’t begrudge the time. Hendrickson has a good, hard head, and tracks down every exaggeration. Nor is he floored by the consideration that Hemingway should never have needed to exaggerate. No doubt there is the occasional maddened dwarf who dreams of being a giant, but Hemingway was a giant who dreamed of being a giant. Years ago, on my first trip to Cuba, in the days when Castro was still making speeches that could be measured in geological time, I was given a tour of the Finca Vigía and saw the Pilar up on its blocks. You weren’t allowed in the house because the floorboards were giving way, but you could look through the window and marvel at his walls of books. There, on the floor, was a pair of his moccasins. They were like two canoes side by side. The man was from Brobdingnag.

But even though Hendrickson prides himself on getting Hemingway’s number, he can’t help being infected by the style. When Hemingway beats his chest and boasts that he wrote good, Hendrickson forgets to note that for any lesser writer to echo such bombast even faintly is a guarantee that he will write bad. Still, Hendrickson’s brain survived his encounter with Hemingway’s, which was clearly in a dreadful mess long before he ended the agony with a shotgun.

Kenneth S. Lynn’s 1991 full-length biography of Hemingway is another seven hundred–page whopper. Less infected with Papa-style would-be factual posturing, it is even more depressing, because it removes any trust you might have had that Hemingway got sick slowly. Alas, he was in trouble from the beginning. Like Rilke he was raised as a girl by a doting, perhaps slightly mad, mother. He spent his truncated lifetime ridden with doubts about his sexual nature that not even his world-beating pose as an athlete and animal killer could cure. Alcohol couldn’t cure them either. His intake of booze is practically the saddest thing about him, because it became evident, quite early on, that he couldn’t drink at that rate without pickling his brains. Beside him, a mere lush like William Faulkner sounds like a teetotaler. Strangely enough, we tend to think of Scott Fitzgerald as the juice-head, and Hemingway as the man of discipline. When Hemingway, in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” wrote those fateful three words “Poor Scott Fitzgerald,” he helped to weaken his rival’s profile for generations to come. Such is the power of images transmitted posthumously through the media: in actuality, Hemingway was the drinker beyond redemption. But he was so talented, and so masterful at projecting his masculine image, that the impression he gave of being the man in control has lasted all the way until now, and will probably last forever.

There is something to it. Dwight Macdonald was correct to point out that the mannerisms of The Old Man and the Sea go all the way back to the first, supposedly disciplined, stories: but underneath the fussy surface of overwrought simplicity there is a lasting strength of visualization. It wasn’t his alone—D. H. Lawrence was just as good at describing a clear stream in a mountain valley—but Hemingway had the most of it, and in a way you couldn’t miss. He made a thing of it, as young people say.

Unfortunately, to descend another layer, underneath the lasting strength there is an incurable weakness. The duality in his sexual nature was something that he could never explore directly, but only through hints. For the writer who defied all other limitations, his own inner life was taboo. The height of his tragedy was that he could not write about his own finale, which, lasting so long, could have been his great theme. For any writer who does not die instantly, the time of physical decline is a new subject. But he would have been in no condition to tackle it even had he felt free. Too many injuries to the head had wrecked his concentration. He would stand there blasting away at his Royal Quiet DeLuxe (he wrote standing up), typing the same sentence over and over, actually producing the numberless drafts that he had once only boasted of. But even had he been in physical shape, he was psychologically proof against what he would have needed: an honesty that might have been taken as weakness by the media parasites that he had been too afraid of to ward off. His only way out was to destroy himself. He should have had aesthetic objections to that. It left a terrible mess, which his loved ones, to whom he knew he had been a burden, had to clean up. It was ungallant of him, and it wasn’t brave. A measure of his magnificence, however, is that we feel so sorry.