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.

Himself especially. Already getting around on a rebuilt right knee, his World War One badge of courage, he collected many more injuries in the course of the Thirties, especially when unhappy about his work. A punch-bag workout gained him a six-stitch cut on his hand; getting thrown by his horse brought six stitches more, on his face. His car overturned, fracturing his arm, putting him on morphine and immobilising him for three weeks. When he tried to finish off a shark, two bullet fragments ricocheted into his leg. He spoke of gunning himself down permanently, of how he was ‘going to blow my lousy head off’.

Reynolds does not speculate about the aetiology of Hemingway’s mood swings from Good Old Boy to Suicidal Gorilla. Although his much-hated mother and his father’s suicide shadow the whole Life, Reynolds’s intention is not to dissect but to dramatise, to re-create what it felt like to be Ernest Hemingway. That he does with uncommon authenticity. But he offers little explanation other than a few murmurs about the ‘genetic inheritance of cyclical depression’ or the ‘old American story of promise fulfilled ... the Dream and its dark side’. The dark side, too, of the old American gospel of self-reliance and action, especially as the Transcendentalists preached it. ‘Let us enter in the state of war and wake Thor and Woden,’ Emerson demanded. ‘Check this lying hospitality and lying affection.’ Consider Thoreau’s not-so-Green lament in Walden: ‘We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is not more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.’

In this and other ways a nightmare version of Thoreau, Hemingway seems to have paid little attention to his three sons beyond teaching them to clean their kill. (‘Let ... the children cry,’ Thoreau advised.) He roamed the world with Pauline, his second wife. The centre of the family, she provided meals and paid the bills. ‘Her reward is his writing,’ Reynolds remarks, ‘for the well-being of which she will sacrifice almost anything.’ Ultimately, she sacrificed Ernest. When she was 42, he dropped her for the 28-year-old Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn’s political convictions led her to Madrid, a city under siege, to write pieces for Collier’s. Hemingway covered the war for the North American News Alliance. They became lovers at the Hotel Florida, rocked by incoming rounds and fortified by tins of confit d’oie.

Hemingway’s involvement in the Civil War was at first hesitant. Casually racist and anti-semitic, he chuckled over ‘shiny-headed niggers’ and put down Key West as a ‘Jew-administered phony of a town’. But he was not a zealot. He did not vote, supported no party and distrusted all politicians. Although he despised ‘chickenshit Communists’ and other ideologues, he openly committed himself to Spain’s left-wing government, even taking to the stump. The New Masses praised his awakened social conscience, but Sinclair Lewis begged him to let it lie: ‘Please quit saving Spain and start saving Ernest Hemingway.’ Whatever else, Hemingway understood and often told his readers that the democracies must give up neutrality or eventually fight Hitler and Mussolini across Europe.

At the end of the decade, sitting in the Havana hotel with his writing paper and ham, his beard greyed, Hemingway began turning what he saw of the war into the novel about a dynamiter, a girl and a band of partisans. Reynolds’s eloquent final pages look forward to this moment, the starting-point of his concluding volume. They brood, too, over the costly bond between Hemingway’s surly excesses and his aesthetic triumphs. No butchering on the Serengeti Plain, no ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’; no dumping Pauline, no Martha-Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Reynolds’s previous volumes, like most biographies, are linear narratives in the simple past tense: ‘he sat down with his pencil in hand, but nothing came of it.’ Hemingway: The Thirties, however, is so strikingly conceived as to deserve notice independently of its subject. Reynolds keeps shifting the tense from past to present or future, changing typography, bringing in new voices and points of view, flashing news bulletins – unemployment, the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, Nazis marching in Nuremberg. He does not connect these fragments to the main storyline but sets them off by indentation or type ornament, to produce a hypertext of stacked-up voices and events that outdoes the routine ‘historical background’ in creating an envelope of world and local events.

Reynolds pulls all this off without compromising his scholarship. The narrative clings to Hemingway’s papers: not only his correspondence and journals but royalty statements, chequebooks, grocers’ bills, contracts, maps, hunting logs, assignments of copyright. At the same time, he avoids the clumpiness common to other deeply researched biographies, the prose-on-stilts rhythm of pieced-together index cards.

By this high standard of technical invention, The Final Years is a bit of a letdown. Part of the problem now lies in the biographical material. Another war, another marriage, another safari; more celebs, more accidents, more nasty insults. Great stuff, but by Volume Five the reader has already heard it all. To make it seem less familiar Reynolds would probably have had to find another fresh language and structure. Instead, his prose is less energetic than before, and he returns from hypertext clusters to a traditional sequence: Hemingway did this and then he did that. And by now, whether on safari or at his desk, Hemingway was often just going through the motions, trying to remember what it had once been like to be him. Reynolds tells this depressing story without tenderness, as Vesalius drew bodies skinned to reveal muscle and tendon: biography écorché.

The war that Hemingway had seen coming was his fifth since 1918. Now 45 years old, he accompanied an RAF bomber raid on V-I launch sites; shimmied down rope-ladders into a landing-craft headed for the Normandy beaches; liberated for his own use a German motorcycle and a wine cellar stocked with Lafite 1915. Late in the war he joined up with the tough 22nd Infantry for the battle of Hürtgen Forest. Reynolds joltingly renders the 17 bam-splat days of sleet, mortar bursts and body parts that cost the Division more than 2700 casualties: ‘no-body has ever been anywhere,’ Hemingway decided, ‘that hasn’t been with Infantry.’

Meanwhile, the marriage to Martha Gellhorn was ending. ‘He woke me when I was trying to sleep to bully, snarl, mock,’ she recalled. ‘I only wanted excitement and danger, I had no responsibility to anyone. I was selfish beyond belief ... it never stopped.’ When Hemingway reached London to join the D-Day armada, he began courting a small, curly-haired American journalist whose British husband was out of the country – Mary Welsh. Soon they were living as lovers in newly liberated Paris. On the day Germany surrendered she moved into the Finca Vigia, the 15-acre estate Hemingway had bought outside Havana. About a year later they married.

Mary found Hemingway exciting, admired his gift, and intermittently at least enjoyed their genderbending. ‘She has always wanted to be a boy and thinks as a boy,’ Hemingway wrote of their sex games. ‘She loves me to be her girls, which I love to be.’ But he played Bo-Peep less often than Torquemada. He spat at her and denounced her as a whore and a moron. More than ever concerned with size and hardness, he boasted that one month he gave her ‘Mr Scrooby’ 55 times. Yet as in his first three marriages, he flirted and prowled – friends’ wives, prostitutes, near-nymphets. With 18-year-old, green-eyed Adriana Ivancich, from a good Venetian family, he fell mooningly in love. In her presence he once threw a glassful of wine in Mary’s face.

By the late Forties, Hemingway the colourful roughneck was becoming a full-time brute. Seated at a café with Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth, he brushed off an elderly autograph-seeker with: ‘Sir, you look to me to be a cocksucker.’ It was around this time that he started to blather about how he’d attended military school, worked as a bronco rider, been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross.

Hemingway’s body, too, was going. The most punishing of his many new injuries came during an African safari in January 1954. As he and Mary swooped over Murchinson Falls, the pilot of their low-flying Cessna tore into telegraph lines. The plane went down, bruising Hemingway’s shoulders and arms. The party was rescued by a twin-engine de Havilland that no sooner became airborne than it, too, crashed. Trapped in the smoking wreck, Hemingway butted his head against the door to wedge it open, tearing his scalp, crushing two vertebrae, damaging his liver, kidneys and lower intestine, and producing his fourth serious concussion in ten years. A year later he was still in pain, his appearance altered – gait unsteady, beard whiter, eyes vacant.

More ailments and diseases followed – eczema, nephritis, hepatitis. Hemingway’s physicians prescribed massive doses of vitamins and a regimen of sinister-sounding drugs. Mostly, he doctored himself daylong with heroic quantities of alcohol. His drink bill for one six-month period in Havana, with almost no visitors at the Finca, included 18 bottles of spirits and 55 cases of wine.

Inevitably, Hemingway’s mental and physical ruin took his writing skill with it. When Across the River and into the Trees appeared, in 1950, he had not published a book in ten years. And the novel turned even some sympathetic reviewers into hangmen. Alfred Kazin reported feeling ‘embarrassment, even pity, that so important a writer can make such a travesty of himself’. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea, and the next year a (greatly deserved) Nobel Prize. But he was being overshadowed by the post-World War Two generation – Mailer, James Jones, the Beats. And he now wrote in spurts, producing long, repetitive manuscripts that would be boiled down by others and published only after his death.

The posthumous works include True at First Light, a safari narrative released this summer to mark the centenary of Hemingway’s birth. The published book is a homunculus of the original, created by his son Patrick out of a manuscript twice as long. Billed as ‘A Fictional Memoir’, it falls roughly into two parts, her-and-his acts of initiation. First, Mary Hemingway learns lion-killing, pursuing a 400-lb beast for three months. After she leaves camp for Nairobi, Papa goes native, learning to hunt with a spear, taste the shoulder-bone of a wounded leopard and court a Wakamba woman. Some of the trademark dialogue reads like a bad joke: ‘It was a beautiful shot, kitten, and a fine stalk. Now shoot him just at the base of the left ear for kindness.’ The macaronics cross Saxon English with Berlitz Swahili: ‘Keiti says you mganga with the lion.’ And the once effective sententiae sound like Poor Richard staring into the bottom of the glass: ‘Everybody does other people harm’; ‘Nothing is as simple as it looks’; ‘Whisky can be as right as it can be wrong.’ In this stitched-up form the work cannot be evaluated. At the least, it records a struggle to regain qualities that its key words name and often repeat: ‘command’, ‘control’, ‘discipline’.

Such writing spurts as produced True at First Light were followed by ‘black ass’ – depression, the drift towards the Big Sleep. With his gathering urge to kill himself went a metastasising paranoia: he would be jailed for non-payment of state taxes; the two men in topcoats at the Shoshone train station were tailing him. Late in 1960, he checked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. By then he had difficulty remembering his name and address. On the door of his room he posted a handlettered sign that began: ‘FORMER WRITER’.

He was discharged in January after receiving ten treatments of electric shock. He returned to Ketchum, Idaho, where he tried to write but couldn’t: ‘black ass to end all black ass’. One morning, Mary found him in the hallway with a shotgun and a suicide note. In April 1961, against his will, friends flew him back to Rochester. During a refuelling stop he started walking towards a whirling propeller. In his first three days at the clinic he had three more sessions of ECT. Seemingly improved, he was released and returned to Ketchum, where, on 2 July, he managed to slip two 12-gauge shells into his shotgun and blow his brains out.

Reynolds’s picture of Hemingway’s meltdown renews a classic question about literary biography: does disillusionment with the writer mutate into aesthetic displeasure, devaluing the work? To me it seems obvious that Hemingway’s long season in hell only confirms what his work proposes: that sharks chew up all us marlin.