Papa on a boat

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

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On board S/Y Bushido

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain and the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees...

I once quoted the exact passage in these here pages and called it writing at its best, and a very nice Oxford don wrote me a very nice letter telling me I was full of crap. This was more than 15 years ago.

Now the poor little Greek boy is not about to get into a literary argument with Oxford dons, but when was the last time one of them boxed tough guys, bedded beautiful women, and bothered to blow his head off when the talent had flown, as the great Papa Hemingway did? Exiting on time is very important for a writer, and Papa did the right thing. The fact that his father and uncle had also chosen the easy way out is immaterial. (As did his niece Margaux.) Papa was the first literary pop star, and the midgets have never forgiven him for it. A Farewell to Arms, from which I’m quoting, is arguably his best. Here he is again in chapter XXI:

In September the first cool nights came, then the days were cool and the leaves on the trees in the park began to turn colour and we knew the summer was gone.

Talk about economy of expression and individual style. Still, critics always complained of the effect of the Hemingway legend on his work and style. What was the poor man supposed to do? Live a uxorious life in a crappy small town and write about a travelling salesman’s loveless marriage?

Papa never bothered to explain the leopard in his great short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. This was not only his masterpiece, but also his summing-up at mid-life and mid-career. He disliked explainers, so the leopard’s frozen carcass was clear evidence as far as he was concerned. Harry, a writer, and Helen, his rich wife, had come to Africa to escape the easy life of their friends. It’s Papa regretting that he no longer had time to write the things he wanted to write, and Harry Walden, dying of gangrene in his African tent, summed up the author’s perceived failures. Hemingway had dissipated a lot by the time he wrote ‘Snows’. The critics were after him, so he had the hyenas circling Harry’s tent. Poor hyenas. What did they ever do to be compared to critics?

One of his biographers, James Mellow, wrote that ‘there had been too much drink, too many wives, too much company of the rich and idle, the dumb and the fawning ...too much Papa...’ All true, I’m afraid, but mixing with the wrong people comes in handy. Here’s the opening of my favourite, The Sun Also Rises:

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton...

The rich and idle do treat people as inferiors and Hemingstein, as he liked to call himself, picked it up presto. He turns Cohn — in real life Harold Loeb, a very rich American banker — into an armed romantic, ready to damage anyone in the false belief that fighting means virility. Well, I always thought it did, until I got old. Mind you, Hemingway treats Cohn badly in the book. Cohn likes the idea of a mistress more than he does his actual mistress, as he likes the prestige of being a writer, though he’s a lousy one. Papa sure knew human nature, and knew it early on.

The sense of place, of course, was Hemingway’s great strength. No one, not even the great Scott Fitzgerald, could approach him in describing a place while keeping the background unobtrusive. Feelings were Scott’s strength, sense of place and description were Papa’s. Yet when (in A Moveable Feast) he wrote about Mr Bumby’s red cheeks — ‘like an Arlberg boy’ — while his wife Hadley held his son and waited for him to disembark from the Alpine train after his dirty weekend in Paris with Pauline, the reader can sense the guilt he feels even before he swears never to cheat again. He was also good when at sea. In fact, he won the Nobel for The Old Man and the Sea, by far his weakest novel, as far as I’m concerned.

The relationship between a boat and her owner is a tricky one. The nearest comparison has to be that of a man and his mistress. Here’s Papa on a boat: ‘She was going to be difficult from the start. Born to challenge a man. I put up her sails and she began to moan, but she was fast and I felt good, and then she shuttered, and began to fly. And I felt clean, and true, and swore I’d never leave her. But then I did.’

Well, if you believe the last one is Papa’s, you’ll believe anything, but after three weeks on a boat even a Greek thinks he’s Hemingway.