It’s almost impossible to write about Ernest Hemingway. He was such a caricature – a caricature of his own creation, mind you, both as the writer and as “The Writer” – that trying to write about his work or his writing style in any sort of rational, coherent way is, to quote Martin Mull, like “dancing about architecture.” Nothing one can say could be fair – and nothing one could say could be unfair.
Like the rock stars who first appeared near the end of his life and who proliferated in the decade immediately following his how-to for Kurt Cobain on ending life on one’s own terms, Papa, as he was called in the second half of his reign over American letters, was as authentically and in-authentically “The Man” as any guy who secretly wants to be a great artist while publicly scorning being a great artist could ever hope to be.
And, like Cobain, he didn’t count on the vultures who’d feed on the corpse of his work left behind. Or maybe he didn’t care.
Hemingway left behind a number of manuscripts (I use the term somewhat loosely) that have since been “shaped into books” by his descendants, editors at his old publisher Scribners, and scholars dedicated to that always pleasing to the masses pastime, textual criticism. As part of my now infamous reading list for 2013, I chose one of these posthumous texts, what is (please God let this be true but I know better, after all I am an English professor and this is how people in my field earn their bread, dissecting/re-sectioning and “re-considering” works) Hemingway’s “last major work,” the “fictional memoir” True at First Light.
(First, a sidebar: with the exception of A Moveable Feast and, maybe – still not sure I’ve made up my mind yet – this last book, feel free to ignore the posthumous publications. Both Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden are – how shall I say this delicately – ah, let me use the German - scheisse. Remember, Thoreau reminded us that we should spend what time we have for reading on only great books.)
The scholar Carlos Baker, he who supposedly called Hemingway “our greatest 17 year old novelist,” believed, as do others that Hemingway started brilliantly (The Sun Also Rises is nearly unanimously considered his best work) and slowly, gradually declined. If one wants to argue that he “got it back” with For Whom the Bell Tolls, feel free – but it’s too damned long and presages all the self-conscious flaws of Hemingway “the writer” in his posthumous work. And The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway parodying Hemingway: if you want to read a great piece of Hemingway writing on fishing, go read “Big Two-Hearted River.” The pleasure, fear, and courage in the latter feels less contrived and more the product of the character’s experience and not the author’s pen.
True at First Light is a strange book. If one has read a lot of Hemingway (as I have) and sees him as something of a writing style guru (as I do), some of the passages feel like someone parodying the great Ernest:
“When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.” True at First Light
That, to paraphrase the man himself, is not the truest sentence he could have written. Compare it to this:
“Life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.” - A Farewell to Arms
But maybe he couldn’t do it anymore and knew it. By the time he wrote this stuff, in 1954-55 or thereabouts, he was a Nobel Prize winner. He’d had severe head injuries in one of his plane crashes (that probably played a role in his mental deterioration and eventual suicide) – so he blathers on a lot about how he feels at home with the Kamba tribespeople he works with and name checks both other famous writers (Fitzgerald, Orwell, and D.H. Lawrence among others) and celebrities (like Marlene Dietrich, with whom he had an interesting correspondence).
But always, with great writers, even at their worst, there are those moments when they make us remember why we admire, study and imitate them:
“In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect wood-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.” - True at First Light
To continue the previous comparison:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.” - A Farewell to Arms
“The writer” was still the writer. Maybe his celebrity, his injuries, his drinking had made him a lie by noon.
But he was always true at first light.
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