Candle Moments

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans
    Cape, 792 pp, £25.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 224 07275 5

Until recently, the art of modern biography was too little influenced by the man who invented it, James Boswell, and, even today, many of those who set out to write the lives of authors seem to be led by a suspicion that everything of interest about the subject might already have been said by the subject himself. The literary biographer is haunted by Nabokov’s stylishly defensive comment that the only biography of a writer that matters is the biography of his style.

Yet style is a manifestation of much more than a writer’s own self-fashioning: it speaks of the places he has been and is coloured by what happened there, and in that way comes to define the rhythms of his prose and the patterns of his belief. A biography of Hemingway’s style will amount to nothing if it can’t exhume the way that soldiers’ talk and newspaper-speak, Parisian encounters and African nights found their way into his stories and into the grist of his sentences. I once had dinner with Martha Gellhorn; there was a candle between us, and she told me that the point about Hemingway was that he was the sort of man who could insist there were two candles on the table, that nothing could change his mind about what he believed: ‘Two candles – that was it.’ I took her to mean that Hemingway was not without difficulty in the manner of his commitment to his own vision, or his own double vision.

There’s a very good candle moment in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. As the pair sit down together at the Saracen’s Head in Glasgow, a moth flies into the candle between them. Johnson names the moth ‘Bozzy’ for its habit of burning its wings in the dangerous attempt to get intimate with the flame. Boswell tells the reader this as if it were a necessary contribution to our understanding not only of Johnson, but also of Johnson’s idea of biographers and their task. The Boswellian mode of biography relies on the notion that the experience and the personality of the biographer can be an engaging and necessary part of the story. To Boswell it seemed natural to observe his subject peeling and eating an orange and to describe how he managed it; it also seemed natural for him to set moral traps to catch the movement of his subject’s character, his strategies of revelation and concealment.

Norman Lewis met Hemingway in December 1957 outside Havana. The visit proved a shocking disappointment; it was also a warning. Hemingway sloped around his bedroom in pyjamas, gulping huge glasses of Dubonnet, saying nothing and dismissing everything, while Lewis tried to take stock of the huge ‘exhaustion and emptiness in his face’. He was amazed that this brilliant man, who had seen ‘so many people defeated by age, power and success and written so convincingly about them should have fallen into the trap set by life’.

In Julian Evans’s depiction of the Havana scene in Semi-Invisible Man, we begin to understand the force of Hemingway’s decline and its effect on Lewis’s own persona as an author for whom the boundaries of self and world were already beginning to blur. This is precisely what is achieved by the most effective biographies, where material is first found, then edited, and ultimately transmogrified, at once properly fastened to its several contexts and brought to life by the synthesising intelligence of the biographer. Here’s Evans on the Hemingway meeting, sounding out its ramifications:

On Norman the encounter had a profound effect. Ambitiously courting literary recognition, socially he withdrew into shyness at the slightest provocation. Hospitable and flamboyant among a small circle of friends whom he trusted at Berlemont’s [a Soho pub] and Orchard Street [Lewis’s London flat], among strangers he married a suburban boy’s foundation of inferiority to a writer’s scorn for the general stupidity of polite society. He forced himself to enjoy cocktail parties, generally left early. He was nervous of celebrity well before he met Hemingway in Cuba. The meeting transformed doubt into a profound precept. For the rest of his life he retold the encounter as one of his key stories, referring to it as ‘an experience which was to change my outlook on life, not instantly but slowly over a period of time’.

Evans then quotes from a letter Lewis afterwards wrote to Ian Fleming, who as an editor (or, as he preferred, ‘foreign manager’) on the Sunday Times had sent Lewis to Cuba. ‘There was something biblical about the meeting with Hemingway,’ Lewis wrote,

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