Mganga with the Lion

Kenneth Silverman

  • Hemingway: The Thirties by Michael Reynolds
    Norton, 360 pp, £9.95, October 1998, ISBN 0 393 31778 1
  • Hemingway: The Final Years by Michael Reynolds
    Norton, 416 pp, £19.95, July 1999, ISBN 0 393 04748 2
  • True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway
    Heinemann, 319 pp, £16.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 434 00832 X

Michael Reynolds is the marrying kind of biographer: president of the Hemingway Society, he has published a 140-page annotated chronology of Hemingway’s life, a 2300-item inventory of Hemingway’s reading, and a monograph-length study of the creation of A Farewell to Arms, as well as three serial volumes of biography: The Young Hemingway (1986); Hemingway: The Paris Years (1989); and Hemingway: The American Homecoming (1992). These bring Hemingway to the decades covered in the present volumes, which conclude the life story.

Hemingway: The Thirties opens in a seaside hotel on the border between France and Spain, as Hemingway goes through revision after revision to find the right ending for A Farewell to Arms, toiling for ten days on the last three paragraphs. It ends with him shut up in a Havana hotel with a 12lb ham and two stacks of paper, wrestling with the first sentences of For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the decade between come Death in the Afternoon, Winner Take Nothing, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’, To Have and Have Not, Green Hills of Africa. The writing of these dominates and knits together Reynolds’s narrative. There are only two episodes of extended action: Hemingway’s safari to British East Africa in 1933 and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War in 1937-38. For the rest, Reynolds follows him through summers of marlin fishing and autumn bear hunts, and tracks his restless wandering in search of a great good place to write. Friends and acquaintances pop up for a paragraph and drop out: Thomas Wolfe, Gary Cooper, millionaire sportsmen – a parade of guests at Key West who booze, fish, admire the great man and leave.

To Reynolds’s Hemingway nothing really mattered except writing well. Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa are read here as metafictions of a sort, metaphors of Hemingway’s aesthetic. And there is no reason to doubt Reynolds’s claims about Hemingway’s influence. His stories of the Thirties – featuring a lesbian wife, a homosexual bullfighter, a castrated boy – opened up fresh subjects for American fiction, just as his clean, well-lighted prose renewed the language of the tribe.

Reynolds’s interest isn’t confined to the artist: this shed-no-tears portrait of the man is a feast for Hemingway-bashers. The first chapter, subtitled ‘The Music Changes’, shows him on the verge of becoming the best-known writer in America. Finished with Rive Gauche literary life, he is about to open five bank accounts in three states and one foreign country, and to acquire his pirate-black cabin cruiser, the Pilar, from which he will stalk Kraken, the ‘thousand-pound marlin of his dreams’. Tourists will gape at his house in Key West, which has the southern-most swimming-pool in North America and where he employs a cook, a houseboy and a gardener. His round, moustached face will become as familiar to the public as that of most movie stars.

But the new music of riches and fame turned out to consist mostly of explosions of two-fisted sarcasm and rage that alienated virtually all his friends. He picked on the ever-insultable Scott Fitzgerald, taunted Archibald MacLeish for not having a ‘big enough prick’, razzed Gertrude Stein as the ‘lesbian with the old menopause’. Things only got worse after 1936, when sour reviews of Green Hills of Africa left him more than usually depressed about his career. The only possible response to critics of his work was to ‘beat the shit’ out of them. Wallace Stevens, twenty years older than him and slightly crocked, made some disparaging remarks: Hemingway slugged him.

The $25,000 African safari produced its own disappointments: amoebic dysentry, and a kudu with 57-inch horns taken by a friend, compared with his own kudu’s scant 51¼. But the killing was good: 13 zebra; a dozen gazelle; 7 wildebeest and impala; 4 roan, topi, lions and buffalo; 3 reedbucks and cheetahs; 2 klipspringers, bushbucks, oryx, leopards, rhinos and warthogs. And one serval cat and one cobra. And just for laughs, 41 hyenas. ‘I would shoot my own mother,’ he said, ‘if she went in coveys and had a good strong flight.’ He seems to have blasted away at anything that breathed – rats, eagles, porcupines, whales, Fascists, himself.

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