Consultation No. 4 – With Papa Hemingway

 

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With some trepidation I knocked at Ernest Hemingway’s door and waited. And waited. Had I waited much longer I would have left, knowing his short fuse with reporters and lesser writers. With research we had found that the rap on Papa was that he was incredibly knowledgeable on a wide number of subjects, that he might regale me with some longwinded thing about fishing. And if he’d been drinking he was Henry VIII incarnate. All of our misgivings proved of no consequence, though; he’d been writing and, of course, not drinking.

He walked on the veranda, a glass of vermouth and crushed ice in his hand, a Panama hat perched back, and actually a bit earthy with his native aroma. He’d been fishing, as it turned out, and cleaning fish with a couple of his favorite crewmen. We shook hands, he smiled, and after a few icebreakers, our brief interview began.Throughout our brief time there, we found him cheerful, engaging, and helpful to this blogger. Until I mentioned passionless writing.

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GF – We’re doing a series on modern novelists writing without passion, and –

EH – Passion? Writing without passion? Jesus, man, how is that even possible?

GF – We’re in an era that’s been dubbed postmodern. And in this era, you see, technique rules.

EH – No shit! And is there some school these writers go to to learn this?

GF – Yes. There are hundreds of writing programs out there now, and technique is the main thing they’re taught.

EH – My god. I was being ironical in asking that.

GF – Well, sir, that’s the writing life these days, and –

EH – People buy this claptrap? And don’t say sir to me. I’m not a politician or a banker. Everybody here calls me Papa.

GF – In dwindling numbers, yes. But if we could return to the subject of passion…

EH – Papa. Say it.

GF – All right. Papa. (At this point a young woman appeared, whispered something, and left. He quickly informed me that a journalist from Cuba was waiting and asked if we could cut the talk short.) Can you give me, quickly then, your views on passion in the novel.

EH – Damn right I will! Send these kids to war, and if not war, send them into the seediest parts of any town and make them live there for a year, two years, as long as it takes for them to get it through their highly educated heads that that’s where passion is. On the battlefield! In the ghettos! In fact, how the hell do they have any stories without seeing how man treats his fellow man? Christ, what do you have out there, a bunch of Scott Fitzgeralds?

GF – The last few minutes of his response were profanity-laced, little of which would have contributed to passion in writing. I didn’t tell him I speak a little Spanish, and as I left, he was ranting to the Cuban journalist about the nincompoop that had informed him that writers in his era were putting out passionless writing. And people were buying it!

 

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An Intimate Picture Of A Most Public Hemingway

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The Hemingway Patrols – Ernest Hemingway and His Hunt for U-Boats, by Terry Mort

The missus, ever on the lookout for book about Papa for me, found this one and surprised me with it. It shouldn’t surprise readers of my posts that Hemingway has influenced me as a writer. He lived a legendary life that’s still full of Papa’s bullshit stories, mischaracterizations, and false claims, and books such as this one work to sort truth from, well, fiction, where Hemingway is concerned.

The book was published by Scribner, and I suspect they either recruited Mort to write this book, of they were excited that he wanted to write it and no doubt gave him access to people and papers that only Scribner would have. But to the book.

 

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Hemingway was part of a civilian volunteer force in the early 1940s that patrolled for German submarines. There’s very little hard information available about his patrols; he kept a poor ship’s log and he saw no subs. Too, the FBI kept a watchful eye on him because of his anti-fascist stance (which the little creep, J. Edgar Hoover, interpreted as pro-communist). So the approach Mort took here was to delve into Hemingway’s personal life and his writing during these years.

Hemingway was married to the attractive and combustible Martha Gellhorn at this time, and their marriage was less than ideal – they were both strong personalities and they competed as writers. Mort, a former Navy man, gives a lot of details about German subs operating in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico – how dangerous they were, how difficult to detect and attack. And, of course, parallel, surface ship experiences of Hemingway’s found their way into this book. Hemingway did search faithfully, did receive Navy help, and made much literary hay of these failed searches in Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea.

It’s a fine, well researched book, the prose a bit uneven at times, but if you’re interested in the Hemingway era at all, you’ll find that Mort has done yeoman’s work in sifting intimate facts from Papa-induced legends regarding the WWII years of Hemingway’s life.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

 

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Rehashing The Way It Was

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

 

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image via miamiherald.com 

If you were alive and reading the daily paper in 1972, you already know the gist of this story. If not, here it is, in brief:

President Richard Nixon was running for his second term, and a group of cronies, aides, former CIA spooks, and fellow-traveling politicos were involved in a burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate, a Washington complex of offices, shops, and apartments. What were they after? The story varies, but they were hoping for something to embarrass George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president, possibly something aligning the Democrats with Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba.

The burglars were caught, and some of those on the firing line went to jail. Due to the efforts of the Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, heads rolled upward until Nixon himself resigned from office.

What Mallon has done here is to fictionalize the personal lives of the ones closest to the Watergate drama, i.e., the burglars and others implicated. His accomplishment is in indicating how life for these people went on, more or less as usual, even as the scandal disrupted their lives, often permnently. The tone here goes something like this: “What’s the big deal? It was an escapade, a prank of the political sort, and now the Democrats are using it to ravage the Nixon Administration.”

Mallon’s story is witty at times (although not nearly as comedic as the press releases would have you believe). Nixon seems more resilient than the press portrayed him at the time; thus he becomes a slightly sympathetic character in Mallon’s hands. The women hovering about Nixon’s life during this time – his wife Pat, his secretary, Rose Woods, and Alice Longworth, an irascible scion of the Roosevelt family, seem to exert the strongest influence on the Watergate drama, but it’s the stereotypical ‘50s-‘60s sort of feminine influence.

Mallon’s challenge here – and the area in which he isn’t completely successful – is in finding the story’s characterizing center. At times Nixon sits at the center of Mallon’s storm, at other times, other of the participants. This is of course the way the story played out, but Mallon has written it in a journalistic form that left me asking, “Whose story was it, really?”

 Still, it’s an astute look at a pivotal moment on U.S. political history, and for that reason, it’s worth the read.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

 

 

Below, None of it Matters

Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson

 

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image via csmonitor.com

“You know you love the sea and would not be anywhere else…She is just there and the wind moves her and the current moves her and they fight on her surface but down below none of it matters.”

That’s a segment from Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, repeated in this book on pages 457 and 458, and it sums up Hendrickson’s view of the great American writer. The author’s project here, built somewhat waveringly about his boat, Pilar, is to depict, not the superficial man – the writer, the fisher, big game hunter, drinker, and womanizer, but the man few have written about, the man few knew.

The more important parts of this book draw on letters to and from friends and family. They show a Hemingway who could be generous to a fault, as with the “maestro,"Arnold Morse Samuelson, who showed up destitute at Hemingway’s door in Key West – just to meet his writing hero. Hemingway not only tutored Morse, but kept him around for a year to experience life at sea.

Then there was Hemingway’s family, particularly his youngest son, Gregory, or Gigi, as Papa called him. Gigi was talented – adept at so many things that mattered to and that mirrored Papa – but a troubled soul. Gigi was a cross dresser who, near the end of his life, sought and received a sex change operation. He was also a bright, articulate, friendly, well-read person, a doctor.

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author image via libraryjournal.com

Hendrickson posits that beneath Papa’s ultra-male exterior resided, not a latent homosexual as some, from Zelda Fitzgerald to Hemingway’s posthumous chroniclers, have proclaimed, but a complex person, perhaps an androgynous person, living out many subterranean facets of his makeup through his writing.

Until Gigi’s behavior became apparent to Papa, that is.

Gigi is portrayed here as those submerged aspects of Papa manifested. The son is confronting his own personality conflicts at the time Hemingway is writing the book eventually published under the title, The Garden of Eden. Hendrickson surmises that the gender-swapping aspects of his protagonist’s ménage à trois were Hemingway’s attempt at trying to understand Gigi. Since Hemingway was one of the first American writers to fictionalize personal life in such depth, Hendrickson may not be far off the mark.

The writing here is elegant, the research deep and well thought out. As I wrote earlier, the story wanders in and out of many lives, all hovering about the presence of Pilar.  It would be crude to criticize Hendrickson’s work here in a structural sense; it’s not meant to be that sort of work, but a deep, caring investigation of the man many love to hate, the person who made the most significant impact on the art of modern writing.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars