ews of an Ernest Hemingway look alike contest in distant Key West, Florida, USA, took me back to memories of first discovering him, via old copies of ‘A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises’, in second hand bookstores.
The last time I read a Hemingway novel from start to finish was twenty years ago. That was his last and unfinished book, Islands in the Stream. But the man has always loomed large in my memory, bigger than other and much better writers – Joyce, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald – and that’s not because of his books, as good to read as they are. It’s because Hemingway was Hemingway. There has not been any other writer quite like him since, in the US or elsewhere. If there has been or there is, I offer my apologies, but I haven’t heard of them.
The look alike contest was won by Dave Hemingway, no relation. It attracted 140 entrants, and is the highlight event of the annual Hemingway Days festival that celebrates the author’s legacy. It was held at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a frequent hangout of Ernest Hemingway when he lived in Key West in the 1930s before going to settle down in Cuba in 1939.
Not that Hemingway is any danger of being forgotten. His books are continuously in print, and there is a new film called ‘Papa’ about his last years, a joint US-Canadian-Cuban co-production. It has been described as Hollywood’s Havana horror, but I look forward to seeing it even though it’s the Nobel-Prize winner’s brilliant start and adventurous life which was so attractive in the first place, rather than the alcoholic, mentally ill last stages.
Hemingway started life as a newspaper reporter, but volunteered to serve in Italy during WWI as an ambulance driver and was wounded. He was only 20. Recovering in hospital, he met a nurse called Agnes von Kurowsky and wanted to marry her, but she changed her mind later. This episode and period provided the material for his second novel ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ which made him a financially successful, internationally-famous celebrity author.
After marrying his first wife Hadley Richardson, Hemingway moved to Paris, where the Left Bank of the river Seine was a hive of intellectual and artistic activity. Inspired by a trip to Spain with a group of friends, he wrote his first novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ which captures brilliantly the aimlessness, charm and despair of the ‘lost generation’ as these young expatriates who tried to live their lives to the full in Paris in the 1920s came to be called.
Unlike his great contemporary Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway did not continue to focus on the foibles of young, rich and not so rich, and the jazz age. Tragic love against the backdrop of war and violence – these were his themes in both A Farewell To Arms and his next -- and to my mind the greatest -- novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ based on the Spanish Civil War.
"Hemingway started life as a newspaper reporter, but volunteered to serve in Italy during WWI as an ambulance driver and was wounded"
It is easy to see why Hemingway can be so attractive to any young man dreaming of becoming a novelist. He was successful at a very young age, and his themes of tragic love and brutal war are perennial. He made the devilishly difficult profession of novel writing look easy. Besides, his prose style is deceptively lucid and can lull budding writers into thinking that they should write like Hemingway. Reading James Joyce, William Faulkner or D. H. Lawrence, no one in his senses would dream of writing similar prose. But Hemingway’s style looks more achievable – until one tries to write something like the celebrated opening passage of ‘A Farewell to Arms.’
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
This made exceptionally good prose writing look deceptively easy, as many would-be-Hemingways found out to their cost. The word music is integral. Many readers, too, unfortunately mistook this for ‘easy to read’ prose. I have met many people who have read Hemingway but hardly anyone able to read through Scott Fitzgerald, leave alone William Faulkner.
This is also because Hemingway was seen as an ‘action writer’. The same nervy physical energy simmering throughout ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is writ larger than life in ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ which are set against military backgrounds. by the way, there is a boring 1943 film version of the novel which fails to capture the book’s palpable tension despite the presence of Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.
This reputation was enhanced by Hemingway’s life and character as a boisterous man of action. Physically big and strong, ‘Papa’ Hemingway wrote much less from the 1940s on, riding on his early literary success, travelling in Spain and Africa and going through four marriages. In Spain, he admired bullfights and bullfighters, and wrote ‘Death In the Afternoon,’ a major treatise on bullfighting justifying a barbarous sport which is the only work of Hemingway’s which I find unreadable. Compared to Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s magnificent poem ‘Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias’ which manages to encapsulate the spirit of the bullfighter in just a few pages, it now looks like a waste of Hemingway’s time and creative energy.
Incidentally, Hemingway is believed to be the inventor of a cocktail called Death in the Afternoon, made by mixing absinthe with champagne. Any vino reading his early novels would be delighted with the wines listed so meticulously by the author in them.
His African adventures resulted in one great story: ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis MaComber.’ One plane crash there which forced him to head butt his way out of a burning aircraft added to his list of old wounds and pains. But his zest for life remained unabated. He is credited with liberating the Paris Ritz hotel in WWII, and famously hunted German submarines in the seas north of Cuba in his boat Pilar, named after the woman guerrilla leader in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’
After settling down near Havana, he wrote in 1951 The Old Man and the Sea which restored his reputation as a great writer. But the bells soon started tolling for Hemingway; He left Cuba after Castro’s victory, fearing the new government would seize his land. But he was unhappy in the US. Friends thought he was paranoid when he said the FBI was spying on him. But recent research has shown that J. Edgar Hoover told his agents to build a file on Hemingway because of his anti-fascist ideas. A 2009 book called the Rise and the Fall of the KGB in America names Hemingway as a ‘dilettante spy’ for the Soviets who was later dropped because he was unproductive. He committed suicide in 1961.
None of this matters to anyone who picks up a Hemingway novel today. They are as fresh and vital as they were then, and he invented a new writing style for serious fiction.