Brilliant and obnoxious, self-centered and charming, brutal and yet oddly vulnerable, Ernest Hemingway reminds one of a cousin the rest of the family wish mightily to forget—and who, nevertheless, refuses to be dismissed. What’s worse, of course, is our own somewhat guilty fascination with this kin. Repelled though we are by his prejudice and cruelty, and by the self-indulgence (and near self-parody) of much of his later work, we periodically rediscover the spare explosiveness of his early stories, stories that place him as an heir to Conrad and precursor of Beckett.
Fascinating, too, is the persona of the public Hemingway, though here the fascination has something to it of the snake. Sometimes the public drama surrounding this creature is farce, sometimes, and ultimately, it is tragedy. One of the great strengths of Michael Reynolds’ new biography (the second volume of a series, following The Young Hemingway, 1986), is its demonstration of how carefully Hemingway’s persona was crafted—as much a deliberate work of fiction as any of the stories. Too often, readers and biographers have gone wrong by trusting that the fiction shed direct light on the life—or the life on the fiction—when one was, in fact, as “made up” as the other. As Reynolds argues: “With Hemingway there is no such thing as nonfiction; there are simply degrees of fiction, some events more fictional than others.”
Hemingway was constantly rattling off tales about himself: that he’d fought with Italian troops in the Great War; come from an impoverished background; was all but an orphan; periodically earned his living as a sparring partner; toured Spain “with a caudrilla of bull fighters” to learn the skills and mysteries of that calling so that he could write truthfully. None of it was true. But it was perhaps Hemingway’s greatest skill to write with such authority, such immediacy and “truth,” that the reader could not doubt that he, Hemingway, had been witness to the scene, or that Nick Adams, among others, revealed something close to gospel about the writer’s life. “Direct experience, he discovered” (and Reynolds argues), “was not necessarily the most reliable source of information for a writer: the actor could not observe himself in action, did not have time to analyze his reactions. But the careful observer, the one with an eye steady and detached could imagine what the experience felt like. He mastered that art early in his journalism, and it carried over into his fiction.”
Reynolds is himself powerfully aware that biography is yet another form of fiction, a shaping of evidence, intuition, and testimony according to patterns and interests that are the biographer’s own.
Getting it right is not easy, not in painting or writing or reconstructing the past. We know so much about that month in Rapallo. . . . What we don’t know is the sequence, the timing that changes the story. . . . We don’t know when Hadley’s pregnancy made itself certain to her; we don’t know when she told Ernest. Multiple scenarios suggest themselves, all of them plausible fictions. . . .
It’s so easy to fall in love with one’s own fictions. Hemingway’s Rapallo story was not written in Rapallo and to substitute his later story for that February’s reality is to use his fiction to create further fictions of our own. . . .
One result of this self-consciousness about the biographer’s art is a certain unabashedness in creating a narrative of his own. If he will refrain (to a degree) from asserting more than he can know about Hemingway’s deepest thoughts and motives, he can surely evoke the world and even the family and friends around him. Other recent biographers have adopted the same strategy, notably Edmund Morris in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; notable not only because of its influence on Reynolds but because, according to Reynolds, Hemingway’s imagination was forever shaped as a boy by both the heroic ideals and the living persona generated by Roosevelt.
Much of Reynold’s effort—and much of the pleasure to be gained in reading his book—is in the rich portrait of the historical, geographical, and literary stage on which Ernest Hemingway would perform. In The Young Hemingway that stage was largely Oak Park, Illinois, and Lake Walloon, Michigan. More inspiring of raw envy are the scenes in Hemingway: The Paris Years not only of Paris itself in the early 1920’s, but of skiing in Switzerland, hiking in Italy, plunging into fiestas and even, in rather comic fashion, bullfighting in Spain.
Another mark, for better and worse, of contemporary biography is Reynold’s hesitation to launch off on psychoanalytical or heavily theoretical readings of Hemingway’s character. Instead, he offers straightforward, commonsensical, and at times simplistic ones. Oak Park, for example, though it never appears directly in Hemingway’s fiction, so thoroughly shaped his imagination as a boy that it informed everything he wrote. Even where he appears most experimental in form and subject, Hemingway’s underlying values, Reynolds argues, reflect the steadfastly conservative mores of Oak Park. He laments the world lost by the “lost generation.”
Similarly, Reynolds argues that while Hemingway identified with his father—and came to suffer, like him, from bouts of severe depression—and blamed his strong-willed mother for emasculating his father, it was his mother, Grace, he more closely resembled in will and creativity.
Grace Hemingway, a large woman driven to perform as musician, singer and painter, was the genetic source of her son’s creativity and a disturbing presence in his early Oak Park years. She championed women’s rights, marched for the vote and was constantly in the public eye or ear. No one who knew her ever forgot her sometimes eccentric but always commanding presence, for she filled whatever stage was available. Grace Hemingway may have been the “all-American bitch,” as Ernest later called her, but he was undoubtedly her son.
Hemingway’s relationship in Paris with Gertrude Stein, then, appears as something more than an artistic internship, a replacement of the mother he’d cut himself off from with a woman, like Grace, “imperious, headstrong, talented, and over-weight.”
Inevitably, of course, Reynolds must attempt to convey an impression of Hemingway’s own thoughts or reactions. One unfortunate strategy is to adopt a Hemingwayesque style. Too often this collapses into unintentional parody: “There were days when he wanted to be a painter. In the late spring on the Rhone delta being a painter would have been fine with the light exploding in the early mist and the sun fine in the afternoon.” Such echoes, not of Hemingway so much as of mid-century imitators and creative writing students, sour Reynolds’ narrative, which is otherwise beautifully written.
A larger question is whether Hemingway deserves or is served by—whether we are served by—yet another biography. Is public fascination with the man reason enough for the industry to continue, or has something new been added? Is Reynolds’ book something more than a good read? (And a good read it is.)
Reynolds does clarify, does bring new facts to bear, does sort out old ones. But the central value of Hemingway: The Paris Years may well be to illustrate time and again that Hemingway is not to be trusted when it comes to the facts of his own life, nor, indeed, is his fiction to be “trusted” as a sure guide to that life. His fiction surely reflects his life, his imagination, his desires, but its truth is the truth of fiction.
Yet precisely because Reynolds is so aware of the limitations on the biographer, who also works largely in the realm of fiction, the Hemingway who appears here is more pallid than his surroundings. For all the vivid settings, for all the compelling personages, Ernest Hemingway himself remains something of a shadow, as if a bright light immediately behind the central figure left a dark hole at the heart of the picture. The sins for which he has been damned in recent decades also recede: if Reynolds doesn’t forgive them, he does pass over them in good stead. Hemingway emerges as neither the heroic colossus of his own desire, nor the misogynistic and anti-Semitic monster of more recent criticism, but a secretive and driven man, at times careless of others, but never careless about his calling.