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Hemingway's Boat - Paul Hendrickson

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Paperback: 720 pages / Publisher: Vintage / Published: 3 Jan 2013

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      03.05.2013 07:02
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      American author Ernest Hemingway and his life on his boat

      HEMINGWAY AND 'PILAR'

      Despite its size (over 450 pages, excluding appendices and index), this volume is not exactly a full biography of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, it might almost have been subtitled 'The rise and fall'. Its theme is more or less the second half of his life, from 1934, when he returned from an African safari and took delivery of his boat 'Pilar', to his tragic death 27 years later. Hendrickson intends it to be an account of the writer, bringing together the different elements of his life - fishing, friendship, wives and family - and above all, naturally, his writing.

      THE BOOK

      However, this may sound a rather vague premise for a life story - or at any rate the story of the most significant part of his life - and the title is arguably a little misleading. The impression is that 'the boat' somehow enabled him to be more of a free spirit. Throughout the years, his beloved 'Pilar' gave him a sense of independence, and unrestricted access to the oceans, as well as a suitable base for fishing and entertaining friends. We are also treated to 'more than a few purposeful zigzags and loop-arounds and time-bends and flashbacks and flash-forwards and other sorts of departures from the main frame here'.

      All this makes for an engrossing but I thought ultimately rather disconnected read. As one who prefers biographies to follow a more or less chronological path from cradle to grave, I find these constant zigzags and loop-arounds rather break the flow. We learn a certain amount about Hemingway's early life, and also about the sad fate of his cross-dressing and eventually transsexual son Gregory, known in the family as 'Gigi', who died in pathetic circumstances in 2001. But the somewhat haphazard structure suggests that this book is really most suited for those who are familiar with Hemingway's life, rather than as an introduction.

      That being said, the author has done his research very thoroughly. He has certainly conveyed much of the character of the man, the ultimate hard guy of 20th century American literature. The image he presented to the world was that of a supremely confident yet sometimes nauseatingly arrogant man who wrote several rather poor and overlong books as well as great ones, the man who enjoyed and idolised the 'sports' of elephant hunting and bullfighting, passions which would not find many takers in today's rather more humane climate. Perhaps it was significant that, in spite of his tremendous popularity at the time, his two books on the subject, 'Death in the Afternoon' and 'The Green Hills of Africa', were never well received at the time, and I suspect they have even fewer admirers today. It also has to be noted that 'The Old Man and the Sea', one of his shortest novels, is generally regarded as one of the best, and still one of his most popular. More can be less, and less wordy nearly always means better. It certainly did in Hemingway's case, but it was a lesson he rarely heeded.

      There is next to nothing in these pages in the way of literary criticism, although Hendrickson does have something of interest to say on the general reaction to his various books, favourable or otherwise. We also learn much about not just friends and family, but various influential personalities in Hemingway's life as well. When he chose he could be considerate to friends and family, but deeply unpleasant as well. When his publisher sent him an advance copy of a new novel, 'From Here to Eternity', by James Jones, his response was a letter of such bad-tempered, foul-tongued vitriol, reproduced in all its awfulness in the book. It includes remarks along the lines of not having to 'swim through a river of snot to know it is snot', inviting the author to tea, asking him to drain a bucket of said nasal discharge, 'and then suck the puss [sic, unless he really meant a cat] out of a dead n*****'s ear,' and hoping Jones would kill himself in order not to damage the publisher's sales. Nice man. What on earth was he on at the time?

      Inside the tough, hard-bitten and sometimes obnoxious exterior was a tortured soul. After he had been involved in a couple of aeroplane accidents in 1954, resulting in concussion, a fractured skull and ruptured liver, Hemingway was a changed man, and never made a complete physical or mental recovery. For the last six years of his life, it was said, he alternated between 'ever-shortening cycles of euphoric writing and paranoia-ridden depression'. The general verdict among critics and readers was that his books had already exhausted his available material, and he was writing at excessive length - a case of quantity over quality. He aged badly, suffered from delusions, his speech became slurred, and he was admitted to a clinic under an assumed name, ostensibly for high blood pressure.

      The decline in his powers was pitiful. By the summer of 1961, the recipient of a Nobel Prize for literature and one of the most famous writers of his age, only in his early sixties, was barely able to write a coherent sentence. Early one morning his wife heard two loud muffled thumps, like the sound of bureau drawers being pulled out too far and falling on to the floor. She ran to see what had happened, and called the doctor. For some time, the official version given to the world was that he had been cleaning his gun and had had an accident. Only gradually did the truth emerge that he had deliberately shot himself.

      SUMMARY

      It's an interesting and well-written book, but in places a rather rambling one. I found it rather unfocused on the whole. A little editing would have made for a shorter, tighter and much better read - rather like many of his subject's own novels.

      [This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on other review sites]

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