Tuesday, 26 June 2012


That Ernest Hemingway was a brute, there can be no doubt. That he is an acclaimed 20th Century writer, there is also no doubt. That he wrote stories, novels, journalism and letters; that he fished for trout in mountain streams and for giant blue marlin in the Gulf Stream; that he cruised and sailed the seas off Key West (24 degrees North, 81 degrees West) and Cuba (21 degrees North, 77 degrees West); that he shot beautiful animals, whored, drank and philandered, also is beyond doubt.

That such a behemoth – a Biblical term, probably a hippopotamus, ironically -  strode the 20th Century, leaving great writing, human pain and ecological damage behind him in the Caribbean, America, Europe and East Africa, leaves the reader wondering where to place the appropriate regard: which is more important; the life or the works of the artist?
Hendrickson's book does not directly answer the question, as it takes the reader through a Hemingway century that is bloody, adventurous, off-putting and enthralling.

Why would anyone spend time with such a man? Or read his works?

Hendrickson uses the writer's boat, Pilar, as the focus for a new telling of Hemingway's life that, for at least three quarters of the book, is stirring, engaging and illuminating. The photographs are terrific. On page 201, Hemingway is pictured on a dock on the islet of Bimini (25 degrees North, 79 degrees West) with his three sons and a catch of awesome marlin, wondrous creatures that render the humans petty and mean, hauled from the sea to become ephemeral trophies and food waste.

The boat lore, the angling lore and the detailed Americana, experienced at home and abroad, are excellent. The building of Pilar at The Wheeler yard in Cropsey, Brooklyn (20 degrees North, 73 degrees West) is lovingly described in fine sentences. From page 63:

Whether you're in the framing or planking stage of boat construction, you're essentially trying to follow the natural inclination of an organic material, something that has its own grain, its unique anatomy.

This sentence could describe Hendrickson's take on Hemingway's life, as the writer bamboozles his way through the 20th Century with pen, gun and rod flailing, often at the same time. What 'natural inclination' is the writer wrestling with?

The book is less successful, though always immensely readable, in the final quarter when the focus is on Greg/Gigi/Sylvia, one of Hemingway's sons, who underwent a sex-change. S/he was a fine doctor, a transvestite, a writer, and a bother to her/his family and friends, the police and the public. 

Hendrickson edges towards a conclusion that the son's life echoes the father's in its harrowing self-combat with sexual identity, in particular with masculinity, in a century flooded in torrents of blood-letting.

Hemingway's advice to the other Paris-based (48 degrees North, 2 degrees East) American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who favoured booze over guns in his 'acting out' phases, is moot.

Write the best sentence you can and write it as straight as you can.

Writing and living the story of your life, straight and otherwise, is not pain free, in particular for the people around so brazen a character as Ernest Hemingway, who fictionalised his life for his art and mythologised his life for celebrity.

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls 
It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola 
Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola 

The life or the works then? Not either/or. Rather and/both. As presented tellingly in Hendrickson's welcome book.

Hemingway's Boat: book; Paul Hendrickson; The Bodley Head; 2012
A Moveable Feast: book; Ernest Hemingway; Arrow; 1994
Lola: song; Ray Davies; The Kinks; 1970

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