The 1920s were Hemingway’s golden age as a man and a writer. In the last half of the decade he published In Our Time (1925), The Sun Also Rises (1926), Men Without Women (1927) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). During this time of brilliant achievement and early fame he was, by all accounts, a charming man and loyal friend. But Death in the Afternoon (1932), his first full-length, non-fiction work, signalled an abrupt decline in his character and work. In this book he began to glorify blood sports, cultivate a self-consciously ‘macho’ image, develop a swaggering and pompous persona, and attack other writers. The radical shift in style and tone, from laconic to loquacious, is immediately apparent if we compare the pure and lucid prose of A Farewell to Arms to the laboured and tedious conversations with the Old Lady in Death in the Afternoon.
D. H. Lawrence, who believed in the therapeutic effect of writing, observed that ‘one sheds one’s sicknesses in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them’. In his early work Hemingway purged his fears and sadness, converting his experience into art; in his later books he shed his sicknesses, but put them on display instead of mastering them. His death-haunted books were a means of expressing his anger with himself and the world, of challenging readers to accept him with all his flaws.
With Death in the Afternoon Hemingway took off his fictional disguise, became a public figure and began to impersonate his own characters. He generated valuable publicity for this brashly self-confident image and attracted a new audience. He not only meant to impress his readers with his talent, skill, courage and heroic achievement, but also to confess his own misdeeds: his guilt, his failure and his corruption. In a recurrent pattern that has not been previously noticed, Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa (1935), ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936), Across the River and into the Trees (1950) and A Moveable Feast (1964) – like spikes on a fever chart – trace the progress of his literary pathology. Not waving but drowning, he clearly sees his own decline, but can do nothing to arrest it. Eventually, the question of his moral and artistic decline becomes the underlying subject of each book. The tone of these works is disturbing, an uneasy blend of self-glorification and ruthless self-laceration. Equally disturbing is the overkill of his assault on literary rivals. More interested in retribution than reflection, he has neither the desire nor the ability to learn from his contemporaries. Yet Hemingway would not be Hemingway without the extraordinary honesty and perception with which he condemns himself. Like the alligator in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘Florida’, Hemingway has five distinct voices: ‘friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning’.
In the most revealing passage in Green Hills of Africa, the white hunter asks, ‘what are the things, the actual, concrete things that harm a writer?’ and Hemingway fatalistically diagnoses his own disease: ‘Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money and ambition’. He wanted the worldly excitement these five things represented, but feared that excess could ruin him. His politics, in fact, were far from extreme. Though he never swallowed the Communist line, nor moved to the right as he got older, he actively supported the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and paid the price for his political engagement. His left-wing activities aroused the suspicions of the FBI, and later on, in the 1950s, his suspicion that federal agents were following him contributed to his mental breakdown. Even paranoids have real enemies.
A serial monogamist, Hemingway needed love as much as Fitzgerald needed drink. He never forgave himself for his betrayal of his first wife, Hadley, whom he still loved but found boring. He married his second wife, Pauline, in 1927, enchanted by her elegant clothes and her wealth that bought the big house in Key West, the fishing boat and the African safari. Guilt-ridden, he soon felt corrupted by the easy life money could buy. Drink finally wrecked his liver and damaged his ability to write. Overweening ambition made him see writing as a gladiatorial sport in which he was compelled to denigrate and defeat his rivals, both living and dead. As Gore Vidal, playing the game Hemingway invented, observed, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail’.
Death in the Afternoon is a hybrid of two books. The first is the classic study of bullfighting in English; the second – more personal and interesting, but also more opinionated and irritating – is grafted onto the first to make the bullfight material more palatable to Anglo-Saxon readers. In the opening pages, Hemingway tries to explain the appeal of the corrida: ‘At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses …. I thought [the bullfights] would be simple and barbarous and cruel’. But he insists that, ‘the only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death, now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring’. Connecting the bullfight to fishing and hunting – other masculine arts that require skill, endurance and courage, and relate to the eternal struggle to survive – he maintains that ‘killing cleanly and in a way which gives you aesthetic pleasure and pride has always been one of the greatest enjoyments’. In a statement that anticipates Camus’ The Stranger and The Rebel, he adds that ‘when a man is still in rebellion against death he has pleasure in taking to himself one of the Godlike attributes: that of giving it’. Hemingway equates killing bulls in the ring with killing the enemy in war. Both give men, while risking their own lives, the freedom to inflict death.
In his longest non-fiction book Hemingway speaks as an expert to novices. He is pedantic and enthusiastic, dogmatic and provocative; obsessed by homosexuals, prostitutes and venereal disease, by cowardice, suicide and death. He discusses various obscure matadors, both cowardly and brave, but readers cannot tell the difference and have to accept Hemingway’s ex cathedra pronouncements. To break up the encyclopaedic narrative with some diverting dialogue, he introduces the Old Lady – one of his most unfortunate inventions. Since she is interested in and even likes the bullfight, he hopes his equally naïve readers will agree with her. This aged and incongruous character allows him to display his new persona and engage in some self-mockery. When telling her about the admirable Maera, Hemingway identifies with the bullfighter and seems to describe his own character: ‘He was generous, humorous, proud, bitter, foul-mouthed and a great drinker’. He also exposes his own braggadocio when discussing Ignacio Sanchez Mejías (the subject of a fine elegy by García Lorca): ‘he laid his bravery on as with a trowel. It was as though he were constantly showing you the quantity of hair on his chest’. (Max Eastman pounced on Hemingway’s machismo in ‘Bull in the Afternoon’, a vitriolic review of this book that provoked a fist fight when Hemingway met him by chance in Scribner’s offices.) In a third revealing passage about himself, Hemingway admits that he is biased, opinionated and self-deceiving: ‘rarely will you meet a more prejudiced man nor one who tells himself he keeps his mind more open’.
Hemingway allows the Old Lady to defy him and expose his own faults. When he admits with mock humility that his comparison to Whittier’s sentimental ‘Snowbound’ is quite mistaken, she punctures his heroic image by bluntly stating, ‘I like you less and less the more I know you’. She condemns him for criticising matadors ‘very meanly’ and admits that she sometimes tires of his talk. On page 190, he suddenly tires of her. She has served her purpose and is comically dismissed: ‘What about the Old Lady? She’s gone. We threw her out of the book, finally. A little late you say. Yes, perhaps a little late’.
Writing non-fiction seemed to bring out Hemingway’s tendency to pontificate. Ranging over the literary landscape, Hemingway refers to his friendships with Gertrude Stein and the turf writer Evan Shipman; quotes Shakespeare, Marvell, Longfellow and Matthew Arnold; and offers faint praise for the naturalists Gilbert White and W. H. Hudson. But, for the first time in a major work, he also assaults his contemporaries and rivals. He dislikes Virginia Woolf’s feminism, Waldo Frank’s bedside mysticism, Dashiell Hammett’s bloodthirsty murders, William Faulkner’s logorrheic outpourings and sensational content. In ‘Foreheads Villainous Low’ (1931), Aldous Huxley had accused him of feigning stupidity. Hemingway ignores this charge, but counterattacks by calling Huxley dishonest. He accuses him of putting ‘his own intellectual musings, which might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel’. Hemingway’s attacks on other writers also demolish the literary genres he despises and clear the way for his own work. He felt Huxley’s talky, intellectual novels were unreal and out of date.
Hemingway’s attacks on ‘fairies’ in a book that glorifies the slaughter of animals for sport has damaged his reputation today, but his opinions are as vivid as they are intolerant. He castigates not only Ronald Firbank, and Jean Cocteau and his lover Raymond Radiguet, but also – in a savage passage – ‘the prissy exhibitionistic, aunt-like, withered old maid moral arrogance of a Gide; the lazy, conceited debauchery of a Wilde, who betrayed a generation; the nasty, sentimental pawing of humanity of a Whitman and all the mincing gentry’. Hemingway dislikes Gide’s defence of homosexuality in Corydon. He is angry on behalf of the 1890s generation who adored Wilde’s reckless wit and believed in him as a writer. And he scores a hit against Whitman’s fervent but often creepy embracing of humanity. But this passage reveals more about Hemingway than about men who then were outcasts and are now considered brave defenders of sexual freedom. Like all excessively macho men, he felt threatened by homosexuals, who seemed to deny their own manhood and undermine his own insecure masculinity. It is highly ironic that he often exalts his friend and travelling companion Sidney Franklin, the Jewish-American bullfighter, without ever realising that he was also a secret homosexual.
Green Hills of Africa, like Death in the Afternoon, is about killing animals and risking death, about the competitive struggle for superiority and the put-down of rivals in sport and art. Since big game hunting in Africa does not lend itself to romance, Hemingway playfully challenges his audience by refusing to cater to their tastes. He says that ‘any one not finding sufficient love interest is at liberty, while reading it, to insert whatever love interest he or she may have at the time’. If they don’t have any love interest, they will have to do without it.
As in the Spanish book, Hemingway both exalts and condemns himself. The African natives (his paid servants) adore his manly virtues. They are astonished that the sharp-eyed ‘bwana’ can aim accurately when others cannot even see and (though he says it himself) ‘could shoot a rifle on game as well as any son of a bitch that ever lived’. The English white hunter Philip Percival (called Pop) was Pauline’s ‘ideal of how a man should be, brave, gentle, comic, never losing his temper, never bragging, never complaining’. Hemingway, by contrast, not afraid to expose the worst side of his character, seems pleased to flaunt his belligerent tone and egoistic behaviour. Pauline begs him, in vain, to ‘try to act like a human being’. But he finds it impossible to suppress his bad temper, competitive instinct and poisonous envy, which spoil the hunt.
It is a short step from describing his bad behaviour to discussing his fear of literary failure. Hemingway connects his personal shortcomings on safari and his artistic failings, the betrayal of ideal standards of behaviour and the corruption of his talent. In another acute, self-reflective diagnosis, he moves from his own example to a generalisation about writers in America. He explains that ‘something happens to our good writers at a certain age’. We destroy them economically and critically: ‘Our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishments, their wives, and so on, and they write slop’. Death in the Afternoon had been hammered by the reviewers, ‘the lice who crawl on literature’. He has tried to ignore their poisonous remarks and now mentions other victims: ‘at present we have two good writers [Sherwood Anderson and Scott Fitzgerald] who cannot write because they have lost confidence through reading critics’. He concludes by connecting art, as he has connected bullfighting and hunting, to virility: ‘So now they cannot write at all. The critics have made them impotent’.
Though authors are born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upwards, Hemingway (like the critics) intensifies their woes by offering a few compliments and then attacking his literary rivals. He fondly remembers Joyce, Pound and Dos Passos as drinking companions; praises the heroic Russians: Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the artistically refined Frenchmen: Stendhal and Flaubert, and the ‘good’ American writers: James, Crane and Twain. His strangely stilted praise of the vernacular style – ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn …. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since’ – is both inaccurate and absurd. It both dismisses Poe and the writers of the American Renaissance, and ignores the genteel tradition and novel of manners that runs from James and Wharton, through Fitzgerald, to Marquand and O’Hara. Among living writers, he praises Kipling and Mann’s Buddenbrooks; and puts in a good word for two mediocre non-starters: the American novelist Winston Churchill and the ‘splendid’ German Joachim Ringelnatz. Though it is easier to see what Hemingway dislikes than what he admires, Green Hills of Africa suggests (between his savage comments) that he values discipline and talent; the experience of war and ability to recreate battle scenes; a good story and colloquial style; vivid details and memorable descriptions of landscapes and seasons.
After these grudging tributes, Hemingway comes out swinging, defines what literature should be and claims superiority for his own style and practice. In Death in the Afternoon he had rephrased Pound’s aesthetic belief by elegantly stating, ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over’. In Green Hills of Africa he condemns Poe’s fine writing, Melville’s windy rhetoric and Thoreau’s mannered style. Though nourished by several mentors in Paris, he insists that writers should work alone. The incestuous groupies – Emerson, Hawthorne and Whittier (he of the sentimental ‘Snowbound’) – are ‘all angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle’. Sinclair Lewis (who favoured another sort of bottle) is nothing; Heinrich Mann no good; Valéry and Rilke both intolerable snobs.
Gertrude Stein, who had introduced Hemingway to the corrida, scaped whipping in Death in the Afternoon. But in 1933 his former tutor published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and hit a raw nerve by calling him a coward. Now he returned the favour by characterising Stein as ‘jealous and malicious … with all that talent gone to malice and nonsense and self-praise’. Reversing their roles, Hemingway claimed he had not only helped to publish her work, but also taught her how to write dialogue: ‘She could never forgive learning that and she was afraid people would notice it, where she’d learned it, so she had to attack me’.
In Green Hills of Africa, despite the luxurious paraphernalia of a modern safari, Hemingway exalted big-game hunting as the heroic struggle to survive. Justifying the killing, he illogically claimed that he had suffered, in war and in violent accidents, the same wounds and pain he inflicted on dangerous animals: ‘I did nothing that had not been done to me. I had been shot and I had been crippled and gotten away. I expected, always, to be killed by one thing or another’. But the future suicide also seemed to enjoy revealing the pain of self-inflicted wounds. In these two non-fiction books Hemingway held forth in what he knew was a challenging, provocative way, giving us the benefit of his expertise as he pronounced on courage, sexuality and literature. At the same time he revealed, even gloried in, the worst aspects of his character.
By contrast, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, the richest trophy of his safari and Hemingway’s boldest and most searing self-exposure, transformed his African experience into art. By the time he wrote this story, he had turned against Pauline, whose rich uncle had paid $25,000 for the safari and who had featured in Green Hills of Africa as the (mostly) worshipful camp-follower, P. O. M. (Poor Old Mama). Collapsing the distinction between the narrator and the character, Hemingway, in the voice of Harry, the dying hero, denies he ever loved Pauline and idealises Hadley as the true love he destroyed. Harry asks, ‘It was strange, wasn’t it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one?’ Though Harry’s wife, echoing Ruth 1:16, faithfully says, ‘I went wherever you wanted to go and I’ve done what you wanted to do’, he calls her a ‘rich bitch’ and blames her for his own corruption.
Harry has sold out for money, betrayed his ideals and wasted his talent. Filled with self-hatred, he realises too late that ‘he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well …. He would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all’. Struggling to see the truth about himself, Harry is torn between blaming his wife for his own deterioration and accepting responsibility for it. He first calls his wife ‘this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent’. Then, in a realistic anatomy of his own malaise, he contradicts himself: ‘Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery’. Harry reflects that ‘he had never quarrelled much with this woman, while with the women that he loved he had quarrelled so much they had finally, always, with the corrosion of quarrelling, killed what they had together. He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out’.
Scott Fitzgerald, who had just published the self-abasing and confessional ‘Crack-Up’ articles (1936) – only two years after Tender is the Night – was then in a state of radical collapse. Yet, like the critics he loathed, Hemingway continued to undermine Fitzgerald’s self-confidence. Following the mean-spirited pattern of Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa, not content to condemn his own snobbery and seduction by the rich, he also projects his own faults onto his vulnerable friend and victim. Alluding to Fitzgerald’s story ‘The Rich Boy’, Harry ‘remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of [the rich] and how he had started a story once that began, “The rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him’. In fact, Hemingway did not put down Fitzgerald with the wisecrack about the rich. He was himself put down in a sharp exchange with the Irish writer Mary Colum.
At the end of the African story the ravenous hyenas smell Harry’s rot and circle his camp. Though the water flows in his dream of being rescued, he dies near the wasteland of the dry water hole. But there is another ironic twist to this story. The brilliant flashbacks reveal that the threat of death has concentrated Harry’s mind, that he did have a great and genuine talent, and that he could have fulfilled his promise and ensured his salvation if he had only been able to record – as Hemingway did – the vivid memories that show him at the very height of his creative powers.
In Across the River and into the Trees, as in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, Hemingway closely identifies with another bitter, failed hero. Like Harry, Richard Cantwell suffers from a fatal disease; he dies of a heart attack at the end of the novel. But Cantwell (who talks pretentiously, as his name suggests) is a mouthpiece for Hemingway’s obsessions, opinions and regrets. A professional soldier, who has been demoted from general to colonel, he suggests the sharp decline in Hemingway’s literary reputation and demotion from the highest rank in literature. Through Cantwell, Hemingway attacks his literary rivals and previous wife (after he had divorced Martha Gellhorn and married Mary Welsh), combines bitterness with self-pity, blames others for his own faults and offers a scathing analysis of his profoundly flawed character.
We are supposed to admire Cantwell, who has some impressive qualities. He has served bravely in two world wars, and has been unjustly victimised by his military superiors. Though often concussed and seriously wounded, he is still quite tough and not afraid of death. He has an expert knowledge of many aspects of life, from wine to weapons, and is devoted to the young Italian woman, Renata, who adores him. Though she is a native of Venice and he is a sophisticated insider (well-liked in the city and admired by the servants, as Hemingway was by the Africans), they haunt the most popular tourist spots: Harry’s Bar on the Calle Valaresso, Florian’s Café in Piazza San Marco and the posh restaurant in the Gritti Palace Hotel on the Canale Grande. (It is worth noting that Hemingway makes eight references to hanging, and that in March 1983 Adriana Ivancich, the model for Renata, hanged herself from a tree on her farm.)
Cantwell embodies Hemingway’s midlife fantasies. He slips into the ‘Papa’ mode, calls Renata ‘Daughter’ and frequently repeats certain trivial phrases, like ‘complete with handles’ (as on a coffin). But the major flaws of his character are glaringly obvious. Though he loves men who (like bullfighters) have fought and been wounded, he is more worried about his demotion than about his slain soldiers. By his own account, he is a know-it-all, a shit, a mean son of a bitch, a stupid and brusque, brutal and beat-up bastard. Wildly truculent, always eager for a fight, he can be ruthless, and loves his enemies more than his friends. Worst of all, Cantwell, obsessed with his misfortunes in war, can be tiresome, even phony. Like Hemingway with the Old Lady, he constantly lectures Renata, who falls asleep during one of his tirades. Cantwell could say, with Dylan Thomas, ‘somebody’s boring me and I think it’s me’.
In one of his most insightful moments, Cantwell calls himself ‘an unjust bitter criticiser’ and confesses, ‘I have failed and I speak badly of all who have succeeded’. He exposes another unpleasant aspect of his character by persistently attacking not only the eminent military and political leaders of World War II, but also(when defending his turf) authors associated with Venice: GabrieleD’Annunzio and Sinclair Lewis. Condemning the overinflated narcissism and political ideology of that talented, brave and half-crazed Italian soldier, he calls D’Annunzio: ‘writer, poet, national hero, phraser of the dialectic of Fascism, macabre egotist, aviator, commander, or rider, in the first of the fast torpedo attack boats, Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry without knowing how to command a company, nor a platoon properly, the great, lovely writer of Notturno whom we respect, and jerk’.
Hemingway’s nasty, exaggerated attack on Sinclair Lewis weakens the novel. He had been feuding with Lewis, on and off, since 1922, and the older writer had repaid his attacks with generosity and a few satiric barbs. He felt Lewis (still alive in 1950) was guilty not only of pustulating skin cancer and a radium-burned complexion, but also of winning the Nobel Prize in 1930, of helping Hemingway (always dangerous), and of foreshadowing his own alcoholism and literary decline. Fixated on Lewis’ physical repulsiveness, which (like a neo-Platonist) he interprets as the outward sign of his moral defects, the handsome Hemingway provides a savage description of his deeply pitted compatriot and denigrates him five more times after that: ‘He had a strange face like an over-enlarged, disappointed weasel or ferret. It looked as pock-marked and as blemished as the mountains of the moon …. It looked like Goebbels’ face, if Herr Goebbels had ever been in a plane that burned, and not been able to bail out before the fire reached him …. [He] seemed to have no connection with the human race … He looks like a [man] …. who has been run one half way through a meat chopper and then boiled, slightly, in oil’. Though Lewis’ dermatological problems have nothing to do with his character or work, Hemingway’s overkill reduces him to a mass of scars and craters, to a leper compelled to expose his sores.
Hemingway fearlessly and foolishly, unwittingly and obsessively reveals his own envy, bitterness and deterioration. Constantly picking at his sores, he never quite realises, as he states in Green Hills of Africa, that ‘every damned thing is your own fault if you’re any good’. In great stories like ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ he created a character, a version of his inner self, who embodies tragic failure. But with Cantwell in the Venetian novel, he disturbingly mixes self-praise and self- disparagement.
This curious blend of self-aggrandisement and self-abasement continued in another sphere, when Hemingway submitted to a two-day interview with Lillian Ross. During their interview he played the fool and was taken for one. Ross repaid his generosity by taking his behaviour at face value, and presenting the boring braggart as the real Hemingway. In the New Yorker of 13 May 1950, four months before the appearance of Across the River and into the Trees, Ross published the satiric portrait that dealt a devastating blow to his legend and prepared readers for the intolerable autobiographical hero in his novel. In her disingenuous preface to the hardcover edition, published right after Hemingway’s violent death in July 1961, Ross (whom Hemingway had liked and trusted) claimed that she had written down only what she had seen and heard, had not intended to ridicule or attack him, and was a sympathetic, affectionate and admiring observer.
Hemingway said he spoke a ‘joke language’ with his ‘Kraut’ friend Marlene Dietrich, who called him Papa and he called Daughter, though he was only two years older than her. But Ross took his actions and words seriously when he punched himself in the stomach, repeated the meaningless phrase, ‘How do you like it now, gentlemen?’ and puffed up Across the River in self-exalting Indian talk: ‘Book start slow, then increase in pace till it becomes impossible to stand. I bring emotion up to where you can’t stand it, then we level off, so we won’t have to provide oxygen tents for readers’. In fact, though he didn’t realise it, the opposite is true. The best part of the novel, the first chapter on shooting ducks in the Venetian lagoon, describes the natural world of men without women. But when Cantwell meets Renata, the novel becomes quite static and goes downhill all the way.
Fixated, as he always was, on rival authors, Hemingway (who particularly admired the account of the battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma) allowed that he had learned about writing from Stendhal as well as from Maupassant, Dumas and Daudet – though it is doubtful that the last two taught him anything. Instead of seriously discussing what major French authors meant to him, he clowned around by describing them in fragmented sentences and absurd baseball metaphors: ‘Mr. Flaubert, who always threw them perfectly straight, hard, high, and inside. Then Mr. Baudelaire, that I learned my knuckle ball from, and Mr. Rimbaud, who never threw a fast ball in his life. Mr. Gide and Mr. Valéry I couldn’t learn from. I think Mr. Valéry was too smart for me’.
He also permitted Ross to portray him as an arrogant fool by bringing the Slavic fighters into the arena and describing them in gladiatorial metaphors: ‘I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal [the battle scenes in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls], and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better’ – though this ridiculous statement clearly proves that he was getting worse. As Norman Mailer observed of Hemingway’s competitive instinct in his imitation-Hemingway Advertisements for Myself, his ‘irrepressible tantrum [is] that he is the champion writer of this time, and of all time, and that if anyone can pin Tolstoy, it is Ernest H.’
In his last major work, A Moveable Feast (published posthumously in 1964), Hemingway circles back to his early years in Paris, before he succumbed to the corruption and decline he both predicted and portrayed in his previous works. In his return to the age of innocence, to his pristine youth before his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, he characterises himself as poor, modest, eager, idealistic and just hitting his stride as a writer. He enjoys the simple pleasures of life, and simplistically equates poverty with purity, wealth with wickedness.
When describing his early reading, Hemingway pays tribute to the heavyweight sluggers: Stendhal, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. He exalts Ezra Pound, who gave him valuable help and advice, as ‘a great poet and a gentle and generous man’, but is caustic about his other contemporaries. (After Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in 1954, he safely praised an aging art critic and two second-rate writers – Bernard Berenson, Carl Sandburg and Isak Dinesen – who were not serious contenders.) Hemingway admits that ‘in those days [as well as later on] I had a very bad, quick temper’, which often flares up in his memoir. His anger fuels a series of brutal and venomous, but obviously exaggerated and highly entertaining ad hominem counterattacks. He licks old wounds and settles old scores with Stein, Huxley and Wyndham Lewis, who had unwisely provoked retaliation from a formidable adversary. But all these quarrels took place in the 1930s, after the first symptoms of Hemingway’s decline. He retroactively transposed them to the previous decade to maintain the unity of the book, and enjoy some long-delayed retaliation.
Hemingway tries a new ploy in A Moveable Feast by putting his own condemnations into the mouth of Gertrude Stein. In a series of papal pronouncements, she calls Huxley a ‘dead man’, and dismisses D. H. Lawrence’s novels as pathetic, preposterous and impossible to read. She despises Jean Cocteau as a drug addict and vicious corrupter of youth, but claims there is nothing disgusting about the activities of lesbians like Alice Toklas and herself. But Hemingway soon condemns Stein for the very viciousness she denies. In Death in the Afternoon he had told the story of a journalist-friend who overheard a homosexual begging and crying about an intolerable perversion, ‘“I didn’t know it was that. Oh, I didn’t know it was that. I won’t! I won’t!’ followed by … a despairing scream’. Hemingway himself is similarly horrified in his memoir. Feigning sexual naïveté and effectively imitating Stein’s repetitive style, he overhears Toklas suggestively and repulsively ‘speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever. Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading, and begging, saying, “Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.” … It was bad to hear and the answers were worse’.
Hemingway himself first praises Katherine Mansfield, who died in 1923, as a ‘great short-story writer’. But he immediately undermines this praise by stating that compared to her master, Anton Chekhov, her work seemed like the ‘artificial tales of a young old maid’. In fact, Mansfield, far from being an old maid, had a recklessly adventurous sex life that had fascinated the repressed Virginia Woolf.
Hemingway reserves his heaviest artillery for three major authors: Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and Scott Fitzgerald. But (as with Sinclair Lewis) he criticises their appearance and character rather than their works. The more he recognised his own decline, the more he lashed out at other writers. He portrays the genial Ford as pedantic, rude, affected, snobbish and mendacious. And he describes the physically unattractive writer – who was overweight and had been gassed while fighting in the war – with intense but unexplained personal vitriol. He calls him an ‘up-ended hogshead … a heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence’, whom he found repulsive and tried unsuccessfully to avoid.
Wyndham Lewis, who had skewered Hemingway in ‘The Dumb-Ox’ (1934), was duly repaid in A Moveable Feast. As with Ford, he satirises Lewis’ physical appearance, and gives no indication that the man he portrays as a fraudulent bohemian was a brilliant painter and writer. In Lewis’ novel Tarr the anti-hero, Kreisler, rapes a woman. In his memoir, Hemingway describes Lewis as a nasty- looking frog with the eyes of an ‘unsuccessful rapist’. This misleading phrase, which seems worse than being a successful rapist, suggests two levels of sexual frustration: a lack of women to rape and disabling impotence when he finds a suitable victim. But in 1922, when they first met, Lewis was a strikingly handsome man and a great seducer of many rich, beautiful and talented women.
In his memoir Hemingway launched another cruel assault on the once vulnerable and long dead Fitzgerald, which began in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. Though Fitzgerald, like Hemingway, was extraordinarily good-looking, Hemingway emphasises his feminine appearance by declaring that he ‘looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty …. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more’. When the alcoholic failure, who gets easily drunk, reveals his hypochondriac streak, Hemingway likens him to a ‘little dead crusader’ and demeans him by taking his temperature with a huge bathtub thermometer. In Hemingway’s wickedly witty but unconvincing account, Fitzgerald, psychologically castrated by the crazy Zelda, shows Hemingway his penis and naïvely asks if it is too small. Fitzgerald may have felt compelled to humiliate himself, but it is extremely unlikely that he would ever risk Hemingway’s devastating confirmation of Zelda’s cruel accusation. Hemingway attacked these authors because Ford had helped him, Lewis had criticised him and Fitzgerald had foreshadowed his own failure.
Like Cantwell in Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway refuses to take responsibility for his own actions and condemns other people for his faults. He blames Dos Passos, the pilot fish, for leading Gerald and Sara Murphy, the sharks, to Hemingway, their innocent prey. He also blames Pauline (as he had blamed Martha in Across the River) for ruining his marriage to Hadley. He claims, with three subtly progressive adverbs, that he was deceived by Pauline’s treacherous infiltration: ‘an unmarried young woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband’.
But Hemingway was not quite as passive and easily deceived as he pretended to be. In one of his most incisive passages (partly cut from the printed version of A Moveable Feast), he writes that when he returned to Paris after a business trip to New York, he should have caught the first train to Austria, where the faithful Hadley was waiting for him. But Pauline, ‘the girl I was in love with was in Paris then, and where we went and what we did, and the unbelievable wrenching, killing happiness, selfishness and treachery of everything we did gave me such a terrible remorse [that] I did not take the first train, or the second or the third. When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her’. It was winter, they had gone to Austria to ski and the logs were piled up to heat the station. This scene recalls his remorseful reflection in Death in the Afternoon (1932): ‘I would sooner have the pox than to fall in love with another woman loving the one I have’. Hemingway, an idealistic and romantic puritan, usually married the women he slept with. Though he returned to Hadley, he soon left her for Pauline, and Hadley was the only one he asked to forgive him. These guilt-ridden experiences (love affairs, divorces, new marriages) were the very stuff of art and enabled him to relive the cycle of romance and loss that had first inspired him as a writer.
In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein had urged Hemingway to explore and reveal his inner life: ‘What a book … would be the real story of Hemingway, not those he writes but the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway’. Though Stein didn’t realise it, Hemingway would follow her advice for the last thirty years of his life. Though sensitive and concerned with his literary reputation, he repeatedly exposed the dark side of his character and then made himself seem even worse by attacking and blaming others. Strangely compelled to expose his faults and reveal his failures, he wrote his confessions with a brave, self-tormenting honesty. He acknowledged his faults, yet dared his audience to accept him. As Hamlet said of his father, ‘He was a man, take him for all in all,/I shall not look upon his like again’.