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Review: Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson


PAPA'S TALE: This is a very
measured and thoughtful,
sometimes lyrical, book that
adds considerably to the
story of the life of the
dedicated, perfectionist
Ernest Hemingway, pictured
right in Cuba

PAPA'S TALE: This is a very measured and thoughtful, sometimes lyrical, book that adds considerably to the story of the life of the dedicated, perfectionist Ernest Hemingway, pictured right in Cuba

PAPA'S TALE: This is a very measured and thoughtful, sometimes lyrical, book that adds considerably to the story of the life of the dedicated, perfectionist Ernest Hemingway, pictured right in Cuba

ON A JULY morning in 1961 the most famous writer in America rose just before seven o'clock, went downstairs in his house in Ketchum, Idaho, picked up his double-barrel Boss shotgun, fetched shells from the basement and, after locking the door behind him, walked to the front foyer.

There he loaded the gun, rested the butt on the floor, leaned down and placed his forehead against the steel barrels, tripped the triggers and blew away his entire cranial vault.

Ernest Hemingway, who liked to be called Papa, was just 19 days short of his 62nd birthday. He had undergone periods of psychiatric treatment, including shock therapy, in the Mayo Clinic; apart from the diagnosed depression, he was prematurely old (he looks closer to 80 than 60 in photographs of the period), delusional, slurring his words and prone to weeping fits over his inability to write.

Suicide ran through the Hemingway family like a plague. Hemingway's father, a doctor and a puritanical martinet who used to beat his children for trivial offences, had shot himself with a pistol in 1928; Ernest's only brother, Leicester was to shoot himself in 1982; at least one of his sisters took her own life (there's some doubt about the cause of death in a second sister). And much later, Margaux Hemingway, actress and model, daughter of Ernest's oldest son Jack, ended her life with an overdose of drugs at the age of 42.

There is almost certainly no writer in America who has had more books devoted to his colourful life and career than Ernest Miller Hemingway. The first biography, published in 1969, was an exhaustive but non-controversial study by Carlos Baker. There have since been a number of stout biographies, some offering more or less hostile views, one, by Michael Reynolds, running to five volumes -- probably the one most respected by the aficionados.

Two sons, one grandson, at least one sister and his brother, Leicester, wrote books about Papa, as well as his fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh.

In a six-page bibliography in Hemingway's Boat, Paul Hendrickson lists at least 10 full biographies as well as numerous academic or memoir-type publications. (The reviewer, prowling around his shelves, can find a mere eight or nine books on the endlessly fascinating Papa.)

So why is Paul Hendrickson, a former Washington Post writer, giving us yet another book on this complex figure who spent much of his life presenting a largely fallacious version of himself to the world? And is it any good? Has Hendrickson brought anything new to the already overladen table?

Well, if we're tired of all the simplistic portrayals of Hemingway as a noisy, boorish figure who loved to kill animals and boasted that he could get in the ring with Flaubert or Turgenev; if we're weary of all the macho stuff (that he largely brought on himself); if we're unwilling to accept the notion that he was nothing more than a vulgar publicity-seeker, yes, happily, there is a new perspective here.

We get Ernest Hemingway the dedicated, perfectionist writer who sank to the depths of anguish as his gift faded away. We see Papa, the expansive and generous host who empathised with many kinds of people (though he fell out with every other writer he ever met), and whose (probable) last piece of writing was a profoundly sympathetic and eloquent letter to the dying nine-year-old son of a friend. And that was not untypical of him, we learn. The sister of another boy who died young, a son of bons vivants Gerard and Sara Murphy, recalled seeing Hemingway swiftly leaving the boy's sick-room and standing leaning against the wall outside, weeping.

The central symbol of this likeable book is, as the title indicates, Hemingway's boat, the Pilar, representing not only Papa's love of the sea and of big game fishing, but also his capacity for joie de vivre, a vital part of his turbulent spirit for most of his life, lost only in the last desperate decade.

It could be argued (though Hendrickson doesn't specifically suggest this) that Hemingway was mentally unstable from about the age of 50 -- partly the result of two plane crashes, in one of which he suffered brain trauma.

It was from that point that the extreme overreactions to people and events seemed to begin. His wife, Mary, bore some of it: in a mindless rage he smashed her typewriter on the floor and once spat in her face at a dinner party.

During their later days in his beloved Cuba, he also took to bringing home a teenage prostitute -- Xenophobia, he affectionately called her -- when Mary was away.

Apart from Hendrickson's largely successful mission to show the human side of his subject, his portrayals of minor players in the shifting Hemingway drama are revealing. The young brother, Leicester -- not much more than a footnote in other biographies -- emerges as a colourful and amiable eccentric.

And the chapters on Hemingway's youngest son, Gregory, a driven, unstable figure, frequently in trouble over his compulsive cross-dressing and drunken public scenes, make sad reading.

Eventually -- after four marriages -- he had sex- change surgery and died in a women's prison. In the midst of a chaotic life, Gregory managed to practise, sporadically but with dedication, as a medical doctor. (His third wife was Irishwoman Valerie Danby-Smith, who published a memoir, Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways, in 2004.)

This is a measured and thoughtful, sometimes lyrical book that adds considerably to the Papa story. And whatever the literary revisionists say about the novels, when it comes to short stories Hemingway could indeed climb into the ring with giants like Chekhov and Maupassant.

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