Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What I've Been Reading: Hemingway's Boat - Everything He Loved and Lost 1934-61

 I find it somewhat shocking to note that I haven't read a book by or about Hemingway in twenty years. For one thing, I'm staggered to find myself old enough to have not read any Hemingway for such a period of time. So it goes. I'm on my way to being an old man in search of the sea.

Hemingway is definitely one of those writers you should read when you're young, so I'm glad I got that much right at least. He's also tough one to go back to. The style is so easily absorbed that re-reading Hemingway sometimes gives you the sense of reading parody, even when it's the good stuff. I feel similarly about re-reading Garcia Marquez - no matter how much I was in thrall to Love in the Time of Cholera the first time around, the prose style is so rich and distinctive that I have a hard time going back for seconds and thirds.

Credit Paul Hendrickson's book, then, with inspiring me to take Hemingway down from the shelf once more. 'Hemingway's Boat' is by no means a perfect book - the title isn't fully justified by the content, for one thing - but it's frequently beautiful and touching, a highly idiosyncratic look at an extraordinary man, at the devastating ripple effects of the Hemingway mythology, and also, at the very real curse of mental illness visited upon the Hemingway family.

It's a beautifully written and deeply felt book. It's the work of an investigative journalist for sure - the research goes deep, so much so that there's almost a sense of the reporter becoming overly enamored of all that he turns up. We're taken on lengthy, chapter long detours with seemingly minor eye-witnesses, for example, but the book's beauty is in part a result of its meandering path. It isn't intended as a full-on biography.

Much of the book's first half is taken up with the first couple of summers Hemingway spent on his boat, Pilar - meaning, half the book takes place 1934-6. The last quarter of the book takes up the story of Hemingway's progeny - most notably Gregory, who led a pitiable, tortured life, dying at age 70 in a Florida jail (he'd been arrested for flaunting his almost nude transgendered body along the side of a state highway).

A good deal is made here, as well as in numerous biographies, of Hemingway's personality and talent  being swallowed and distorted by fame. It's inarguable, of course, that this is the case, and yet it occurs to me that for a man who was hungry for fame and adulation, he certainly didn't inhabit the usual avenues in pursuit of such false glories. He never lived in New York or Los Angeles, for example. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with three less likely outposts of fame and glory than the three places he called home in the second half of his life - Key West (Florida), Havana (Cuba), and Ketchum (Idaho).

So, what's my favourite Hemingway, you ask?

I think A Farewell To Arms is his greatest achievement as a novelist, the moment when innovation and refinement came most perfectly together.

And I loved For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The Sun Also Rises? I know it's most people's favourite, but it isn't mine. I like it fine, as Ernest might say, but to my mind it's neither his best, nor the most enjoyable.

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