Thursday 22 March 2018

The Old Man and his boat

Theo Dorgan

Poet and sailor Theo Dorgan on the yacht that Ernest Hemingway loved

Most people in the English-speaking world will have read something by Ernest Hemingway, and so most people will be aware that perhaps his greatest obsession was to present himself to an admiring public as what used to be called, without irony, a man's man.

Hemingway, in his books and in his life, swaggered through a world of big-game hunting, deep-sea fishing and war; he always had to be the biggest, toughest man in the room, the hunter to outrank all hunters, the supreme catcher of fish -- and God's gift to women.

Such, at any rate, is the myth he sought to create, and far too many of his biographers have gone along with the old rogue. The truth is, as always, more complex than the myth -- Hemingway like most tough guys had a soft centre, even a fatal tendency towards the sentimental.

This side of him, too, has been the focus of some biographies, though many of these have taken a somewhat vindictive pleasure in undercutting his macho pretensions.

Paul Hendrickson's new book comes at old Papa from an unexpected angle and succeeds, I think, in offering us a rounded picture of a gifted, conflicted man who was, he argues, only ever truly at peace with himself when out on his boat.

The boat was called 'Pilar'; she was a 38-foot motor yacht, modified to Hemingway's specifications for one purpose only: the killing of large quantities of game fish.

There are those who would claim that Hemingway invented big-game fishing, especially the pursuit of giant marlin. Certainly he was obsessed with catching, and being seen to catch, being known to have caught, the biggest and toughest specimens of this hard-fighting fish.

Marlin run in the driving waters where the Gulf Stream flows between Florida and Cuba, and Hemingway came to know those waters as well as, maybe even better than, anyone else. Indeed, on Hendrickson's evidence here, Papa had something like a mystical affinity with that particular piece of the sea.

On 'Pilar', it seems, with a drink in one hand and the wheel in the other, or strapped into the fighting chair with a big fish on the line and his arms popping out of their sockets, the great man became The Great Man.

Hendrickson has read the logbooks and charts, sailed the waters, tracked down and spoken to men and women who sailed on 'Pilar', for work or pleasure. He has interviewed Hemingway's sad brother, his tragic cross-dressing doctor son, incidental acquaintances and enduring admirers.

He has, it seems, read all the books, by Hemingway and about Hemingway, and one of the quiet joys of his own remarkable book is watching him build up his humane and clear-eyed picture of a writer who was part man, part monster.

Always it comes back to the boat, how Hemingway was on the boat, what he felt for the boat, how he lived and pursued his dreams out there on the waters where the sun was pitiless and where he could, after his fashion, bear to live with himself. 'Pilar' was his refuge and his strength, the arena where he tested himself, his sons and his friends, the dancing unsteady platform for his obsessions with manliness, fame, death and reputation.

On 'Pilar' he battled storms, internal and external; on 'Pilar' he ferried himself between home and its responsibilities and Havana with its permissions and freedoms; on 'Pilar' he proved himself brave and generous -- and often enough bitter, vindictive and vicious.

Hendrickson is a large-hearted but honest judge. He tracks Hemingway's rise and fall, from the height of his fame and his powers in 1934 to his paranoia, disintegration and suicide in 1961. Always he goes the extra mile. He takes nothing on face value, pushing himself and the reader always beyond banal and facile judgments.

'Pilar' is rotting away in Havana now, though there are some hopes that it may be restored.

Hemingway's reputation continues to rise and fall, in accordance with the normal cycle of literary reputations, in accordance, too, with changing notions of masculinity.

Hendrickson's luminous and merciful book goes a long way towards completing our picture of a tortured man, his larger-than-life virtues and his mean and ugly inescapable vices.

The image that remains with me, however, is of a raging bewildered Hemingway, tommy-gunning the sharks that have robbed him of a prize fish, the spent shells glittering in the sun, littering the afterdeck of the boat that meant life itself to him.

Theo Dorgan's most recent book, Time on the Ocean is an account of his winter journey under sail from Cape Horn to Cape Town

2012 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of Hemingway's famous short novel The Old Man and the Sea

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