Saturday 23 February 2019

Hemingway: man of masks and evasions

Biography: The Man Who Wasn't There: A Life of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Bradford, IB Tauris, €17.95

In 1944 Hemingway was in France covering World War II as a correspondent
In 1944 Hemingway was in France covering World War II as a correspondent

PAUL Perry

What, one wonders, is there left to discover of Ernest Hemingway or his writing? One imagines it has all been said. But such an assumption would be erroneous. In a new revisionist biography by Richard Bradford, we learn, from his astute analysis of previously unpublished letters from the Hemingway archive that there is indeed a good deal more to know about this 'scrapper intellectual', and 'role player'.

It's not just that Hemingway exaggerated his involvement in World War I, or that his work as a journalist is sometimes marred by 'unaccountable gossip and rumour'; it's more serious than that. Hemingway is revealed as 'a man of masks and evasions', his 'brand' of anti-Semitism is noted, as are his continual mendacious, and gratuitous distortions of the truth.

Critic Wyndham Lewis reports as to how Gertrude Stein made a 'clown' of Hemingway by teaching him her baby-talk. Hemingway used it sparingly, and moved on, rather than developing a style which became an unconscious blend of his journalese, and tough-man pose. In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of this compellingly written biography is that we learn how Hemingway had no poetics of his own.

The iceberg theory (a theory of omission Hemingway expounded in his non-fiction book on bullfighting Death in the Afternoon which advocates the omission of important narrative information in order to create a greater emotional truth, or, in his own words, something 'truer than true') is dismissed, and there's no discussion of his 'one true sentence' which comes from A Moveable Feast - other than to say the book is an outrageous retrospective hatchet job of his milieu which, by all other accounts, helped nurture the young Hemingway.

It's Bradford's contention that Hemingway's style evolved 'via a series of accidents', and the ensuing aesthetic mendacity is wrapped tightly up with the author's fragility. A fragility which lashes out with outrageousness and vindictiveness, and is captured by Hemingway's response to Toklas's autobiography, for example, and its rather unflattering portrait of him. When Hemingway sends a telegram to Stein's rue des Fleurs, his words are 'a bitch is a bitch is a bitch'. There's worse. In fact, there's much worse in the papers Bradford has researched.

Hemingway's second wife emerges as a stalker, and marriage wrecker, while Martha Gellhorn, his third wife, stands firm as independent, and determined, a writer with integrity, and a finite patience for Hemingway. However, as his alcoholism grew so did his wilful derangement of reality.

Contemporary parlance would suggest Hemingway's masculinity was a toxic one, and though Bradford makes no such claims, it is difficult not to read this biography as a precursor to the fake news era of Trumpian bombast. A biography like this, much like the life which it investigates, questions the nature of truth, biography, and the writing enterprise itself. Biography becomes a construct, and in Hemingway's case, fact and fiction are interchangeable, and tragically for him indistinguishable.

Frank O'Connor quite famously said, in his seminal study of the short story The Lonely Voice, that Hemingway was a writer with a technique in search of a subject. Bradford turns this argument on its head. Hemingway was a writer with a subject, but his technique relied on a distortion of fact, and the perpetuation of mythmaking and projected selfhoods.

The unevenness of much of Hemingway's work is recognised, and irrefutable. In fact, some of Hemingway's aesthetic choices are highlighted for what they are, namely ludicrous, and his political motivations seem suspect, despite the fact that it's hard to not read the antics and heroics of his time in World War II as a mixture of courage, hubris, and sheer madness.

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