By Ray Schultz
Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, and many people believed he had lost it as a writer by that time. First, there had been his 1950 novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. It was savaged by critics as self-parody; only Tennessee Williams thought it was among his poetic best.
Hemingway recovered in 1952 with The Old Man and the Sea, a short novel published to universal acclaim; it won him a Pulitzer and helped him snare the Nobel Prize for Literature. I especially love the scenes in which the boy brings food and coffee to the old man. But a certain revisionism soon crept in. Some critics deplored what they saw as the heavy handed symbolism of the old man carrying the mast of his boat, like Christ carrying his cross. I never bought that academic line. But it was the last book published in Hemingway’s lifetime, and readers wondered what he had been doing.
What he had been doing was working. In 1964, three years after his death, his widow Mary published A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his youthful days in Paris. I first read it at age 19, while working in a Navy photo lab. Here’s how it opens:
Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.
Imagine opening a book with the word “then,” a word Jonathan Franzen says a writer should never use. But who needs Franzen’s advice? A Moveable Feast contained some of the best prose Hemingway ever wrote, on a level with that of his short stories. I read on, enjoying paragraphs like this one, in which he enters a cafe:
It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the tack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it, and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.
Thirty or 40 years before the movie, that section transported me to the fantasy world depicted in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Obviously, it did the same for Allen and millions of other people.
Then there was this little scene about hunger, which Hemingway believed heightened his perception of the Cezanne paintings in the Louvre. Hemingway had just visited Shakespeare’s bookstore, where he all but admitted he was broke, and was handed a letter from a German publisher, containing 600 francs, a nice piece of change in those days.
Hemingway is angry at himself: You God-damn complainer. You dirty phone saint and martyr, I said to myself. You quit journalism of your own accord.
But now he has money. So, he writes, Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry. Eating is wonderful too and do you know where you are going to eat right now?
Lipp’s is where you are going to eat and drink too.
It was a quick walk to Lipp’s and every place I passed that my stomach noticed as quickly as my eyes or my nose made the walk an added pleasure. There were few people in the brassiere and when I sat down on a bench against the wall with the mirror in back and a table in front and the waiter asked if I wanted beer I asked for a distingue, the big glass mug that held a liter, and for potato salad.
The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a’ I’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a I’huile were gone I ordered another serving and a cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.
I share these quotes merely to give you a sample of Hemingway’s writing—I offer no critical commentary. But admit it: Wouldn’t you want to be there?
But let’s get down to cases. This book also has its detractors. Gore Vidal, a writer I admire very much, hated “the spontaneity of his cruelty. The way he treated Fitzgerald, described in A Moveable Feast. The way he condescended to Ford Maddox Ford, one of the best novelists in our language.”
Vidal was right about the cruelty, and he would have known–look at some of the portraits in his own memoir Palimpsest . But those chapters were so funny. And both Ford and Fitzgerald were fair game- they were world-renowned authors. Consider this exchange between Hemingway and Ford Maddox Ford as they drink at an outdoor table. Ford had just “cut” a man he identified as the writer Belloc. “Did you see me cut him?” he asks in a boastful way. Young Hemingway challenges him about it.
“A gentleman,” Ford explained, “will always cut a cad.”
I took a quick drink of brandy.
“Would he cut a bounder?” I asked.
“It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder.”
“Then you can only cut someone you have known on terms of equality?” I pursued.
“How would you ever meet a cad?”
“You might not know it, or the fellow could have become a cad.”
“What is a cad?” I asked. “Isn’t he someone that one has to thrash within an inch of his life?”
“Not necessarily,” Ford said.
“Is Ezra (Pound) a gentleman?”
“Or course not,” Ford said. “He’s an American”
Oh, how delicious.
And Fitzgerald? I revere him as an author, but the man had his tics, and Hemingway captured them. Take this scene, in which the two are traveling in Fitzgerald’s car, which has no roof, from Lyon to Paris, and are drenched in the rain, drinking wine all the way. Fitzgerald is convinced he has caught a fatal congestion, and they check into a hotel, and are dressed in their pajamas in the room while their clothes are being dried. Hemingway is reading a crime serial in a French newspaper.
On this evening in the hotel I was delighted that he was being so calm. I had mixed the lemonade and whisky and given it to him with two aspirins and he had swallowed the aspirins without protest and with admirable calm and was sipping his drink. His eyes were open now and were looking far away. I was reading the crime in the inside of the paper and was quite happy, too happy it seemed.
“You’re a cold one, aren’t you?” Scott asked and looking a him I saw that I had been wrong in my prescription, if not in my diagnosis and that the whisky was working against us.
“How do you mean, Scott?”
“You can sit there and read that dirty French rag of a paper and it doesn’t mean a thing to you that I am dying.”
“Do you want me to call a doctor?”
“No. I don’t want a dirty French provincial doctor.”
“What do you want?”
“I want my temperature taken. Then I want my clothes dried and for us to get on an express train for Paris and to go to the American hospital at Neuilly.”
That doesn’t happen. Fitzgerald who had just published The Great Gatsby, is finally persuaded by Hemingway that he is well (“I’ve always had remarkable recuperative powers”), and they get dressed and go down for dinner, where Scott passes out.
I’m sorry, but I still laugh when I read it.
By today’s standards, one may quibble with the portrait of Gertrude Stein: Hemingway wrote that he broke with her after walking in on an intimate scene between Stein and her partner. It’s a distasteful, stereotypical anecdote, if you will, but I believe there had to be more to it. There was growing professional tension between Stein and Hemingway. And Stein had plenty of nasty things to say about Hemingway, both his writing and masculinity, long before he wrote that account.
Hemingway also ridiculed an apparently gay writer who sat down with him, uninvited, while he was writing in a café. Well, nobody said Hemingway was a saint. Later, if you believe Kenneth Tynan, Hemingway had a friendly encounter with Tennessee Williams at a bar in Key West; they exchanged the names of doctors.
But back to A Moveable Feast. How did the physically declining writer achieve that level of prose? Biographers report that in 1956, when stopping at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Hemingway was told that a trunk had been found that he’d stored there in 1927. To his delight, it contained his notebooks from that time.
Did Hemingway merely rearrange anecdotes written 30 years earlier that he discovered in the notebooks? Or did he truly write A Moveable Feast? in the 1950s based on information in the notebooks? That’s not clear, but I hope it’s the latter. Either way, he was preparing the book for publication, as he was The Dangerous Summer, on a bullfighting rivalry. Sitting there unpublished, not quite ready in his view, were three full-length books: Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, and True At First Light (later repackaged as Under Kilimanjaro).
What had he been doing, indeed.
So yes, I’m a Hemingway fan. Do I also worship the macho man who reveled in what H.L. Mencken called “the armed pursuit of the lower fauna?” No, I compartmentalize that, just as I plan to compartmentalize the news, just out, that Hemingway signed on as a Soviet spy in the 1940s, although he never gave them anything. One must forgive him. just as one forgives John Dos Passos and James Gould Cozzens for being conservatives—it’s the work that’s important. Even Picasso was a Communist for a time. But who thinks about that when viewing his paintings?
Forget all the Life magazine hoopla. To see what kind of man Hemingway was, one must turn to Nelson Algren. In 1955, five years after he won the first National Book Award for his novel, The Man With The Golden Arm, Algren was in crisis. He was losing his beach house in Gary, Indiana, his passport had been seized because of his support for the Rosenbergs, his brief marriage (his second to the same woman) had ended, he regularly lost money gambling and his confidence as a writer had been shaken. Passing through Miami, he took a steamer to Havana; you didn’t need a passport to go to Cuba then. He called the Hemingways, and Mary Hemingway invited him out to their farm, Finca Vigia. Hemingway had been an early booster of Algren’s work, but they had never met. So Algren visited Hemingway, who was bed-ridden from injuries sustained in his 1953 plane crashes in Africa. To Algren, Hemingway looked more intellectual than he’d imagined. Algren, who had seen Disney’s The African Lion in Miami, insisted on showing the great hunter how big cats stalked prey. They talked about boxing, and Hemingway invited Algren for Christmas dinner the next day. Algren’s biographer, Bettina Drew, notes that Christmas at the Hemingways’ was just where he belonged…knowing he was accepted and respected for his writing, for what he was. The party was significant for Nelson because of the emotional affinity, far deeper than words, stirred by Hemingway.
Algren spent time alone with Hemingway prior to the dinner. Then, he reported, “Hemingway got out of bed painfully. He was fully dressed. There were guests waiting.” Algren recorded this scene in a remarkable 1965 book, titled Notes From A Sea diary: Hemingway All the Way, in which he wrote about his time as a passenger on a tramp steamer in the Pacific, in the form of a diary, and combined that with reflections on Hemingway and a counter attack against Hemingway’s critics. Here’s what he had to say about Hemingway and his guests:
He sat among them gravely serious. He carried an air of tranquility. He didn’t throw a punch at anybody. He didn’t stagger. He didn’t brag. He listened, perceived, and he liked having company. What he brought to a table of many guests was the feeling that everyone understood one another. I remember hearing Spanish spoken, and French, and of understanding not a word of what was said: and of knowing, when I spoke English, that some of the guests didn’t understand me. But because of Hemingway’s presence everything seemed understood.
His beautiful and moving writing aside, that’s how I think of Ernest Hemingway.