Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Destroyer

Father Anonymous has read nearly every word that Ernest Hemingway ever published. (Well, at least in his own lifetime and between hard covers.) Heck, he still cherishes youthful memories of skimming Por quien doblan las campanas in a Madrid bookshop, and lying on the rocky beach at Nice reading Les neiges du Kilimandjaro.

That doesn't make him a fan. Far from it.

In fact, our relationship with EH has been a strange on-and-off affair. Like most Americans born near midcentury, we had a high school English teacher who was besotted with Hemingway, and tried to pass her besottment (besottage? Soteur? Whatever.) down to a new generation. So she assigned his stories to children, which is a good way to make sure that nobody takes a writer very seriously. (Consider poor Mark Twain.)

We dutifully read most of the stories, and a couple of novels, but with the mixture of curiosity and contempt that children routinely bring to assigned authors. And naturally, we regarded Hemingway as kid's stuff. Once we were all grown up and off to college, we certainly weren't going to bother with him anymore -- or, to be honest, with anybody else born after about 1700. It was only in young adulthood that we tried again, on the grounds that Religio Medici, for all its charms, is tough reading for the subway.

It didn't take long to get a sense of how Hemingway's artistic career had played out: a few exceptionally fine stories, one striking novel, and then a fairly quick decline into self-parody. Unless we are mistaken, this seems to the general consensus of the critics, so far as there is one.

Death in the Afternoon, written nineteen years after The Sun Also Rises, and 21 years before the suicide, is a convenient half-way point. It lacks the intellectual honesty of Sun, the willingness to question concepts like masculinity and honor. It is indeed a piece of remarkably good sports writing; but is it really better than anything A.J. Liebling ever wrote about boxing? (For that matter, we're not sure that Hemingway's writing about war was any better than Liebling's, either. And Liebling gave himself the luxury of adverbs.) By the time he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, ten years after that, Hemingway was a national institution -- but his ironies and intimations had been replaced by the stuff of pulp fiction. The best part of that book, by a fur piece, is the epigraph.

The trajectory of Hemingway's writing is roughly parallel to the trajectory of his personal life, but the personal life began in a less attractive place and ended in a vastly more awful one. We don't blame him for his depression or condemn him for his suicide. But the fact is that he was a bit of a pig from the very beginning, and he only got worse. We are reminded of how bad it was by this review of a new biography and a volume of Hemingway's letters. The most damning indictments come from his second son, Gregory, who wrote:

When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons – Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Gellhorn], Patrick, and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centred shit, the stories or the people? ....

God have mercy on your soul for the misery you have caused. If I ever meet you again and you start piling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses.

Err, yes, well. A-hem.

Gregory also called him a "gin-soaked, abusive monster," which certainly seems to fit the facts. And fair warning: It's easy to blame the old, crazy drunk. But even the brilliant young writer of the 1920s was as unfaithful to his first wife as the vicious old celebrity would be to her successors. Not to mention a blowhard, bully and braggart, given to lying about his adventures in war. The gently mocking portrayal in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is funny and true, but still too loving by half.

"Too loving," we say, because Hemingway does not deserve our love. Not, at least, the sort of idolatrous, excuse-making hero-worship that he was given by the reading public of his own time. After 1940, he really wasn't a very good writer, and at no stage of the journey was he much of a human being. He deserves our pity, even compassion if we can muster it, but not -- certainly -- the time it takes to read his last works.

And yet, even so, we here at the Egg have dipped our toes into those last few books, the ones brought out by editors in the hero's name. A Moveable Feast is pretty good, although it has done an unconscionable disservice to the church calendar. But it is The Garden of Eden that fascinates us.

Don't get us wrong, here. As published, the book is a disaster. Reading it was almost physically painful. The editors faced the unenviable task of squeezing 200,000 words of chaotic manuscript into 70,000 words of fiction, and have been roundly brutalized for their failures; but, without examining the documents, it is hard to blame them. One shudders to imagine scrawled notebooks and half-typed pages, illegible and illogical.

Yet the result does exercise a perverse fascination. The main characters are a young writer and his bride, living in France, as their sex life veers toward androgynous role-playing. Hemingway has clearly based some of this -- but how much? -- on his second marriage, to Pauline Pfeiffer. But he was writing years afterward, beginning the thing in 1946. The thought of Ernest Hemingway as a cross-dresser is, all at once, risible, repulsive, and intriguing. Of course it's subtler than that. David, the young writer, doesn't run around provincial France in party dresses; he dyes his hair to match his wife's. But still.

In Eden, a Hemingway well past his artistic prime is trying to dig past the hairy-chested tales of fighting and killing that have become his bread and butter, and to revisit the themes of The Sun Also Rises. If Jake's missing you-know-what was one way to question the nature of masculinity, David's dye job is another -- and, read in context, a more dramatic one. It is, you should pardon the expression, a ballsy move.

It helps to remember that Hemingway's son Gregory, the happy child quoted above, was a transvestite and ultimately transsexual. (He was also deeply troubled in the classic Hemingway fashion: bipolar, alcoholic, and so forth). He would have been 15 when his father started The Garden of Eden. All of which means that, as the book progressed by fits and starts, the father was struggling to understand a strange and apparently painful part of his own sexual history, and the son was doubling up on the strangeness and the pain. A grim evening of theatre lies waiting for some playwright.

And however broken their relationship, they did know each other -- in the same letter, Gregory calls his father "Ernestine." It's the sort of slashing insult that, in those days, few people apart from an estranged son would have thought to administer to the Great Macho Figurehead.

None of this changes our estimation of Hemingway as a man or a writer; quite the contrary. But it does make us think of reading the biography or, when time allows, the new edition of the letters. As entertainment, Hemingway's letters are in a class by themselves. An older selection offered some great moments, such as a description of the competition among writers through history in the language of a boxing match (Cervantes was a tough old bird, and hard to beat, but "I'd thumb Henry james where he had no balls") and a drunken rant in which he invites Senator McCarthy to visit him in Cuba for a showdown.

But mostly, it makes us want to read books by and about nicer people.

No comments: