The old man and the sea
BIOGRAPHY: SIOBHÁN KANEreviews Hemingway’s Boat By Paul Hendrickson Bodley Head, 534pp. £20
ERNEST HEMINGWAY remains a subject of fascination, not least for Paul Hendrickson, whose connection deepened around 1987 when he wrote Papa’s Boys, a series of interviews for the Washington Post with Hemingway’s sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory (or “Gigi”, as he was often affectionately known), which ripple their way through this work 25 years later.
Hendrickson deftly maps out the “irresolvable differences” within Hemingway in this rather unusual take on biography, explaining that although Hemingway’s writing is “rooted in geography” and “linear movements”, his life, “like his boat, beat against so many cross- currents” – as Hendrickson’s own exploration does, taking many “departures from the main frame”. In doing so, he surveys a huge amount of information: boat journals, letters – Hemingway wrote several thousand over his lifetime – and interviews with figures routinely seen as footnotes by most major Hemingway biographers.
Hendrickson writes about the way “Papa” used codes, particularly in language. A long-established code suggests he was a great writer, war hero and alpha male, obsessed by shows of physical strength, from bullfighting to boxing, with his self-promulgated mythology creating a Hemingway industry with each revisiting.
This latest revisiting is different, because Hendrickson separates himself from the industry, and uses as an emotional prism the writer’s “sea-kindly” boat, Pilar. Hendrickson ebbs and flows from the period when Hemingway bought the boat, in Brooklyn in 1934, to his ultimate suicide in his “bunker-like house” in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961. The boat is the spiritual centre of the book, and however far Hendrickson strays he always brings us back to her, bobbing on the azure waters.
Because of this, the book becomes more than a study of Hemingway; it is a study of frailty, imagination, humanity, fathers and sons (all kinds) and torment. Hemingway passed his restless torment on to his children, wives, friends, editors, publishers and, sometimes, nature, but, as Hendrickson suggests, those who break people are already broken. However, it is the long reach and complexity of that brokenness that is explored here.
The brokenness echoes through connections that become clearer as the book unfurls in flashback and flash-forward. The connections are often tragic – the suicide of Hemingway’s father, brother and, finally, himself – but sometimes comforting, as with fishing, a passion Hemingway developed when he was a boy, and passed on to his own boys, with Gregory returning to it later, perhaps finding that, as his father wrote in A Moveable Feast, “I could never be lonely along the river.”
Over the course of the book, Gregory (Gigi, Mr Gig, Gloria) emerges as the most evocative of subjects, providing a duality necessary in beginning to understand his father. A gifted athlete, with the “truest writing gift” of the Hemingway children, and a doctor like his paternal grandfather, he was beset by self-loathing, and endured 98 electroshock treatments during a journey from transvestism to transsexualism, through addictions, marriages, divorces and estranged children, before dying of a cardiac arrest, in 2001. The yoke between father and son is drawn sympathetically by Hendrickson, who suggests that Gregory may have acted out elements of what his father felt, referencing his Garden of Eden, Mary Hemingway’s 1953 journal, and Islands in the Stream, Hemingway’s most deeply autobiographical piece of work.
Hemingway was repelled by Gregory’s “horrible mixed up feelings”, and when Gregory was arrested at 19 for going to the cinema in drag, his divorced parents argued relentlessly by phone. Within hours his mother, Pauline Pfeiffer, had collapsed and died, the guilt of which, it could be said, neither Hemingway nor his son recovered from. Yet this binds them, as well as great tenderness, and they are part of the same soul.
Both suffered from insomnia: for Hemingway this was partly a legacy from the first World War, the suffering of a blown-up man,detailed in Big Two-Hearted River, but Gregory was “blown up” in another way, possessed of a “beautiful nervousness”. One of his girlfriends reflected that he was “trying to be two ideas at once”, while his Irish ex-wife, Valerie Danby-Smith (who also had a son with Brendan Behan), wrote that Gregory “suffered more than anyone I have ever known”, his turmoil captured even in the way he sometimes signed off correspondence to his children, “love, transvestite Dad” or “whatsit”.
Hemingway recognised this “beautiful nervousness” because he possessed it himself, and this duality fuels Hendrickson’s book.
Yet Hemingway alienated so many people (including F Scott Fitzgerald), tangling himself up in paranoia, which partly stemmed from his “lifelong quest for sainthood”. Norman Mailer wrote that Hemingway endured a “weight of anxiety . . . which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself”, and Arnold Samuelson wrote in Esquire, after Hemingway’s suicide, that “his last act was the most deliberate of his life. He had never written about his own suffering. He said it all without words in a language any man can understand.”
Yet others’ testimony suggested it was even more complex: the critic Edmund Wilson wrote that Hemingway had a “high sense of honour he was always violating”; for the Fitzgerald biographer Andrew Turnbull, “the mask had become the face”. Gertrude Stein perhaps articulated it best: previously Hemingway’s mentor in Paris, and godparent to his first child, she fell out with him when “his agonising shyness escaped into brutality”.
Yet there are moments of redemptive grace. One of the last letters he wrote before his own death was to a dying child, nine-year-old Fritz Savier. It is buoyant and generous, all the more surprising because Hemingway was, just as Pilar would be years later, “sitting on concrete blocks like some old and gasping browned-out whale”. He was also crippled with worry that his capacity for thinking clearly and writing poetically was slipping away from him. Moving back to the US (New York) accelerated those feelings (“everything in his new life had to change, to foul”), as his sense of dreaming lay where he could be “other”: Paris, Africa, Bimini, Havana, the sea.
“Memory is hunger,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. Hendrickson has achieved the near impossible and increased that hunger. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Papa writes, “No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”, yet Hendrickson gets closer than most, taking the mantle out of the hands of the industry and into the arms of poetry.
Siobhán Kane is a freelance arts journalist and runs the music and literary collective Young Hearts Run Free