Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story - Carlos Baker

Few people in this world will spend a full year reading a single book. It happened to me, who happens to run a blog primarily devoted to literature. It will never happen again.

To be sure, there were extenuating circumstances. But I recall that bright day in June of 2010 when I chanced upon this volume in a basket of books in my parent’s bedroom. It stood out to me like a beacon. It was a long book, but I had just finished Ada, which ran about 600 pages and made for extremely difficult reading. Soon I would be starting law school, and I would not be able to read anything besides my casebooks (so I thought). I thought I could finish it before I left for school, roughly two months away. I read the back, and the first line from the introduction: “He used to say that he wanted no biography written while he was alive, and preferably for a hundred years after he was dead.” (vii) It was immediately apparent that it must be my final book before law school. I had read many books which I thought might teach me how to write a stunning first novel (Less Than Zero, The Sun Also Rises, This Side of Paradise, The Catcher in the Rye) and I had read books by John Gardner or Stephen King or Anne Lamott or James Wood or Francine Prose on how to write good books and I had read a book of letters between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald but I had never read a biography on a writer I admired that might indicate a manner in which to live to best accomplish the task that I had set as my life’s purpose and mission: to write books that would outlast my own life, that would be a record of the life I had lived, that would elucidate my stance on the bits of human existence that were most worth remembering.

I took the book and went outside into my backyard. No one else was home, or would be for days, so I stripped to my underwear and sunbathed and read the first 50 pages. No one saw me, or if they did they said nothing, and I did not care. Here for a brief instant life was good. I had the day off work. I could fill my body with intoxicating chemicals and no one would know. I had settled down to learn from the example of a master.

The months rolled by and Friday, August 13th came, and I moved into my new apartment in Brooklyn. I had made it 250 pages through the book. I was obliged to put it down and read The Buffalo Creek Disaster. I did not read any more for a long time. Over Christmas Break, I began reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was a very good book, and I was flying through it, and was preparing to write a review for Flying Houses when it was unfortunately stolen along with my messenger bag and iPod and digital camera and D & G glasses from a bar in Chelsea, on or around January 8, 2011.

I returned to this volume at points nearing the end of Spring Semester. My life between August 2010 and May 2011 was extremely painful and has been written about on this blog before, and will likely be written about again. I was finally able to return to this book in earnest near the end of May, before borrowing what will be the next review on this blog, Blindness. Still, I rarely read in Brooklyn, consumed by an internship and feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, time always slipping away without a thing to show for it. I have finally finished today, July 6, 2011, on Nantucket island, and will now state that this book is difficult reading.

One would not expect a biography to be a difficult read, but this is a very minutely detailed book. There are not many reviews of this book on Amazon but the few there admit it to be great. And true, one cannot complain that Baker leaves any stone unturned. This is a remarkably comprehensive account of Hemingway’s life. However, for me, it was too comprehensive, and those looking to tackle it should be forewarned of several distinguishing features.

First, there is almost no dialogue. Now, true, any biography attempting to portray a life realistically should not include much dialogue. A person’s words, spoken aloud in daily life, often go unrecorded and it is dangerous to try to imitate the way the subject may have spoken. Of the 564 pages in this book perhaps three or four pages (or less) consist of dialogue in quotations.
At first this may seem a petty complaint, but I do not think I have ever read a book with such little dialogue. And it leads to me reflect upon a comment a writing teacher of mine once said: “Dialogue is a reward for the reader.” Dialogue is like candy. Dialogue may be difficult to write, but is almost always easy to read. Pages consisting of dialogue in quotations will be flipped through noticeably faster than those of thick, dense, descriptive paragraphs. Law students reading casebooks may experience a similar feeling when reading cases that quote extensively from the record. These are often a relief. A little break. A reward. Here is the main dialogue I remember from the book:
“Buck, I just called to tell you I got that thing.”
“That thing? What thing?”
“That Swedish thing. You know.”
“You mean the Nobel Prize?”
“Yeah,” said Ernest. “You’re the first one I called.”
“God-damned wonderful,” Lanham said. “Congratulations.”
“I should have had the damn thing long ago,” said Ernest. “I’m thinking of telling them to shove it.”
“Don’t be a jackass. You can’t do that.”
“Well, maybe not,” said Ernest. “There’s thirty-five thousand dollars. You and I can have a hell of a lot of fun with thirty-five thousand dollars. The big thing I called about, Buck, is I want you to come down here and handle me. Everybody’s going to be banging on the door of the Finca. Buck, how about it?” (527)

“Buck” is Buck Lanham, a general in the U.S. Army stationed in France, Belgium, and Germany during World War II. He figures prominently in this book. The biography is actually dedicated to Buck Lanham and Dorothy Baker (the author’s wife). Buck Lanham becomes a close friend to Ernest, and later to Carlos Baker. Lanham must have provided the majority of first-person accounting on Ernest over the last seventeen years of his life or so. They met when Ernest was a war correspondent in Europe between 1943 and 1944.

My earlier point about dialogue should not be misconstrued. My comment referred to “blocked” dialogue. And that excerpt above may be the only such example in the book. But there is plenty of dialogue contained within the dense, descriptive paragraphs of the book. However, they are mostly phrases, or single sentences. Like one line of Ernest’s that he liked to say after his experiences in World War II: “How do you like it now, gentlemen?” This he said to his mother after threatening to cut her off when she was a poor old woman living in River Forest, IL in the late 1940’s. He had a very bad relationship with his mother because he believed she drove his father to suicide.

If the lack of “blocked” dialogue is a complaint, then my other complaint involves the subject matter of this book. True, there is plenty about Ernest’s writing, and his love and disdain for other writers, but the book is decidedly focused on the events in his life that inspired his writing. Consequently, there is an incredible amount of material of his time serving as a correspondent for the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The sections of the book about his time served as an ambulance driver during World War I are, for some reason, less tedious, perhaps if (or because) one has read A Farewell to Arms. There is almost nothing I remember about the Spanish Civil War from this book. But the stories from World War II are frankly ridiculous. Notably, there is one part where he sees a general crouched down behind a rock with his men, and he tells Buck Lanham, who is worried he will have to replace him, that the man is going to die because he has a stink of death about him. A day or two later the general does die, and Lanham asks how he could possibly know that was going to happen. Ernest replies that it is something one picks up while serving in a war.

There are other episodes where he narrowly escapes death about a dozen or so times, and it is incredible to observe such behavior where there does not seem to be any real hope of gain except for the thrill of being in a dangerous situation. Later he is questioned by the Inspector General when they suspect him of acting outside the scope of his duties as a war correspondent, in violation of the Geneva Convention. He lies, he commits perjury, and he is ashamed, because he actually does command troops. It is sort of hilarious that yes, he does have war experience, but he is basically just this writer that loves danger, and he is a big man with a big beard, and people automatically assume he is some kind of general, and he speaks with authority, and they listen to him.

There is much about his life near Havana, Cuba, and his fishing boat, the Pilar. In another hilarious episode, he learns about German submarines surfacing and demanding provisions from fishing boats in the area. He decides to assemble a ragtag group of eight individuals and calls the scheme Friendless, after the name of one of his cats. They get a bunch of grenades and plan to throw them into a German submarine when the enemy party might emerge on deck in an attempt to raid their fishing boat. They patrol the area, but they never get the opportunity to actually attack the Nazis.

There is much about hunting, and fishing. And there is much about the friendships he makes along the way, but few of the names will be previously familiar to readers of this book. If one wanted to make a movie of Hemingway’s life, this would be the place to start. However, it is clear from this book that he would absolutely hate the prospect of such a film. There are episodes involving all of the films that are adapted from his works, and it is only the film of his short story “The Killers” that he finds comes close to his written product.

The above material, if one is very interested in hunting, or fishing, or first-person accounts of wartime adventures, will be quite enjoyable. However, I must take issue with Baker’s writing style during these sections. True, he does seem to write with authority on the subject matter, but it can often be confusing for the lay reader without such experience—or worse yet, boring. But this is how Hemingway really lived: he wrote, he travelled, he admired the courage of those on the front lines of war and spent as much time with them as he could, he hunted and fished extensively, and he liked to surround himself with friends to drink and carry out such activities.

While he may come off as egotistical at times, what comes across more is his ability to listen to others and his thirst for hearing their real experiences. I have often marveled at Nabokov’s linguistic capabilities, and while Hemingway did not write in his second language, he also spoke French, Spanish, and some Italian. Rather than college at Oberlin or the University of Illinois, he immediately starts as a journalist in Kansas City, and readers in 2011 with too much money spent on education and too few practical skills actually learned will bemoan their existence. His knowledge of the arts and sciences is not diminished by lack of such education. He does not learn by studying (except when it comes to literature), but by doing.

Baker is at his best when discussing the literary aspects of Hemingway’s life. And I do not think it is just because I am so partial to him, but any paragraph that mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald is instantly quotable. It is true that there are too many quotations I could include here, but there are few other subjects I would want my review to contain. Here, after Baker mentions that Hemingway had been reading Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks) and Turgenev (Fathers and Children) near the end of 1925, is one of the many episodes in which he holds court with visitors from a sickbed:

“From the fastness of his featherbed, Ernest discoursed at length to Fitzgerald on the importance of subject in fiction. War, said he, was the best subject of all. It offered maximum material combined with maximum action. Everything was speeded up and the writer who had participated in a war gained such a mass of experience as he would normally have to wait a lifetime to get. Dos Passos, for one, had been made by the Kaiser’s War, having gone to it twice and grown up in between. This was one reason why his Three Soldiers was such a swell book. Other good subjects, according to Ernest, were love, money, avarice, murder, and impotence. The Sun Also Rises, which he must now work all winter to revise, engaged none of these except the second and the last, but his hopes for the book were high. As soon as he recovered from his respiratory infection, he would take up the task of revision and typing.” (161)

Several of these episodes would be contained in A Moveable Feast, which is the last book that Hemingway works on, besides a lengthy article on bullfights that he observed on his last trip to Spain around 1959 or 1960. A Moveable Feast is treated as a series of “sketches” but if one has not read it, and would like to read about Hemingway, it is the real place to start. Much of their friendship took place after the writing of The Great Gatsby and before the publication of Tender is the Night:

“In spite of his own writing difficulties, Ernest played Dutch uncle to Fitzgerald, repeatedly urging him to get forward with Tender is the Night. The only thing to do with a novel, said he, was to finish it. Scott’s mood of depression was nothing but the Artist’s Reward. Summer was anyhow a discouraging time to work: only in the fall, when the feeling of death came on, did you find ‘the boys’ putting pen to paper. The good parts of a novel might be something a writer was lucky enough to overhear or they might be the wreckage of his whole damned life. The artist should not worry over the loss of his early bloom. People were not peaches. Like guns and saddles, they were all the better for becoming slightly worn. When a bloomless writer got his flashes of the old juice, he knew enough to get results with them. As always with Fitzgerald, Ernest managed to sound like a grizzled veteran of fifty rather than a comparative youngster of thirty whose second novel was not yet published.” (204)

Their friendship, however, is not always nice and friendly. In fact they have something of a falling out:

“As for Scott, he felt that only two events could possibly redeem him: either Zelda must die or Scott must develop a stomach disorder severe enough to make him stop drinking. Why did he refuse to grow up? Why was he drunk whenever Ernest saw him? His ‘damned bloody romanticism’ and his ‘cheap Irish love of defeat’ were becoming tiresome. Ernest, on the other hand, said that he had a damned good time all the time. When he was able to work, he never felt low. He took great pleasure in living for 340 days out of every 365. He was always conscious, he said, of living not one life but two. One was that of a writer who got his reward after his death, and to hell with what he got now. The other was that of a man who got everything now, and to hell with what came to him after death. Fame was anyway a strange phenomenon. A man might become immortal with ten lines of poetry or a hundred pages of prose. Or not, no matter how much he wrote, if he never had what it took. In his lifetime, a writer was judged by the sum total and average of his work. After he died, only the best mattered. He was convinced that human beings were probably ‘intended’ to suffer. But his experience had shown him that a man could get used to anything as long as he refused to worry about bad luck before it happened.” (238-239)

When Tender is the Night is published, Hemingway first rejects it, finding that it is basically a portrait of Fitzgerald’s life on the French Riviera, without any understanding of the psychological complexities of the characters he had picked out from real life. But his opinion would change:
“At first he had understated the book’s virtues and overemphasized its shortcomings. Scott obviously had talent to burn, said Ernest, but he had ‘cheated too damned much in this one.’ His problem was that he had stopped listening long ago, except to answers to his own questions. This was what dried a writer up. The minute he started listening again, he would sprout like dry grass after a sozzling rain. He must also learn to forget his personal tragedy. Everyone was bitched from the start, anyhow, and it was clear enough that Scott had to be hurt like hell before he could write seriously. It was his obligation to use the damned hurt in his writing, not to cheat with it. Neither he nor Ernest was a tragic character: they were only writers who must write. Most good writers, including James Joyce, were rummies. But good writers could always make comebacks. Scott was twice as good right this minute as he had been at the time of The Great Gatsby. ‘Go on and write,’ said Ernest.” (262) Fitzgerald then replies with an enthusiastic letter about how much he looks up to Hemingway and even needs to stop reading his books for fear that he will influence him too much.

Their friendship continues along pleasantly enough until Fitzgerald published “The Crack-Up” in Esquire in 1936. “Ernest was shocked. Scott, he felt, seemed almost to be taking pride in the shamelessness of his defeat. Why in God’s name couldn’t he understand that writers went through that kind of emptiness many times?” (283) Then there comes a decisive moment. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway made a practice out of carving their characters from real life, but one story goes too far, and is worth a long excerpt:

“The story [“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”] also reached out to involve Fitzgerald. The dying writer was made to remember ‘poor Scott Fitzgerald’ and ‘his romantic awe’ of that ‘special glamorous race’ who had money. When Scott had discovered that they were not so glamorous as he had supposed, the realization ‘wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.’ Ernest was determined not to follow Fitzgerald into the wreckage of a crack-up. As he had long ago told him, wreckage was made to be used by writers, even if it was the wreckage of one’s whole damned life. If the rich were indeed the enemy, Ernest would use them as such in his fiction.
“Ill and depressed among the green mountains of North Carolina, Fitzgerald was angered to see his name used in Ernest’s story. He got off a curt note on the stationery of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville.
Dear Ernest: Please lay off me in print. If I choose to write de profundis sometimes it doesn’t mean I want friends praying aloud over my corpse. No doubt you meant it kindly, but it cost me a night’s sleep. And when you incorporate it [the story] in a book would you mind cutting my name? It’s a fine story—one of your best—even though ‘Poor Scott Fitzgerald, etc.’ rather spoiled it for me. Ever your friend, Scott.
[P.S.] Riches have never fascinated me, unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction.
“Ernest presently wrote Perkins that Scott’s reaction was damned curious coming from a man who had spent all winter writing ‘those awful things about himself’ in Esquire. His reply to Scott himself said ominously that for five years now he had not written a line about anyone he knew because he had felt so sorry for them. But all that was past. He was going to stop being a gentleman and go back to being a novelist, using whatever material he damned well chose.” (290)

They correspond a couple other times with less rancor, but this is pretty much the extent of “gossip” contained in this book. Hemingway later reflects that Tender is the Night is probably Fitzgerald’s masterpiece around the time of the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s death. Other literary figures, such as Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, J.D. Salinger, and Tennessee Williams appear in varying degrees, usually treading lightly so as not to upset Hemingway, who may justifiably be deemed a prickly personality—that is, if the slightest hint of a criticism emerged in an article or lecture. The exception is for Italian historian and art critic Bernard Berenson, who was in his 80s when he befriended Hemingway—Berenson never does wrong in his eyes. Famous movie stars such as Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich become close friends of his, as does Ingrid Bergman (but not her husband) and his attitude towards Spencer Tracy, who would play Santiago in the film adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea, is ambivalent.

In general the book is long and slow, but it is detailed. And it has always been something of a hobby of mine to stop by the same places where Hemingway has been in the past. While in Paris in 2003, I went to the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse and wrote a paper about how it had changed over the last seventy-five years. I have only been to Oak Park, IL proper a few times but have not driven by the house of his youth. He did not have very strong feelings for New York: “The homeward voyage was both stormy and dull. He gazed with surly distaste at the skyline of New York—the damned ‘chickenshit cement canyon town’ which he had left so exuberantly four months earlier.” (482) But he stayed at a friend’s house at 116 E. 64th St. in 1956 and at 1 E. 62nd St. in 1959. Notably for my present circumstances, he stayed at 45 Pearl Street in Nantucket in 1910 and sang at the First Congregational Church in a choir with his mother. I ran by the First Congregational Church yesterday en route to Cliff Rd. and hope to pass by 45 Pearl Street before I leave here the day after tomorrow.

His influence continues unabated fifty years after his death. While on vacation here, one of my sisters brought a biography of J.D. Salinger which came out this year. I found the coincidence remarkable. Here we are, both English majors (to a certain extent), both on vacation, one in law school and one considering going, one with an Ernest Hemingway biography and the other with a J.D. Salinger biography. I pointed out the one paragraph (on page 420, which only passes “the test” previously described here if one considers Salinger’s prose a narcotic) that describes their meeting in Paris in 1944 and asked whether she would show me the corresponding section in her book, which she did not. I wanted to have a debate about which writer would better stand the test of time as an American literary hero. It is tough, but I think Hemingway wins out. Another sister brought The Paris Wife, which my mother then read, which is a fictionalized account of his years in Paris, the title a reference to his first wife (out of four) Hadley, with her as the novel’s protagonist. So many coincidences show that he has permeated a great many fashions underlying the fabric of daily American life, down to the men in their middle-to-old age who have white hair and full beards, who bear an unmistakable resemblance. There are not many others who can be said to inhabit a state of appearance.

This book took me a very long time to read, and perhaps I found it slow and disappointing because it does not read like one of Hemingway’s books, where the prose has a tendency to fly off the page in often beautiful and original ways. Like Salinger after him, his literary style became the status quo, and remains a serious influence to this day. The final section of the book, the last fifty pages or so, went a good deal faster for me. His mind begins to deteriorate, and his weight drops to 175 pounds. The ending is somewhat sad, and also darkly funny when on the last night of his life he acts like everything is totally fine, and he wakes up early, and though his wife Mary has locked away the guns, he knows where the keys are kept. He goes about his death in a very matter-of-fact way. Of course he died too young and he might have produced several more great books yet, but he lived more than twenty years longer than Fitzgerald and surely left his mark on the world. If suicide is universally regarded as an immoral act, he at least may have had the excuse that it ran in his family, and that he could not help it if it were in his genes. He had two stays at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN during the last couple years of his life to tend to his psychiatric condition with shock treatments and other medication, which seemed to have a positive short-term effect, but obviously not long-term.

I have surprisingly never reviewed one of Hemingway’s books on Flying Houses but The Sun Also Rises is a masterpiece. I read The Old Man and the Sea as an 8th grader, required for school, and probably did not appreciate it enough at the time. It deserves a second look. I read A Farewell to Arms in high school as another required book, but I enjoyed it very much. It also deserves a second look. I have read A Moveable Feast two or three times and it is highly entertaining, oftentimes hilarious. I have not read For Whom the Bell Tolls and this will hopefully be reviewed sometime here in the not too distant future. But for now, I have been consumed deeply enough by Hemingway and will move onto a new book with renewed vigor and a goal to never take this long to read a book again.