In 1961, when he was 62, Ernest Hemingway shot himself. Almost half a century later, this bombastic, vainglorious, paranoid man, whose writing captured the minds not only of his own generation but of all subsequent ones, still exercises a powerful attraction for biographers. Though no one has yet written a better account of Hemingway’s unhappy and driven life than Carlos Baker, whose 700-page volume appeared in the late 1960s, scholars, historians, journalists and biographers continue to tease out little known aspects of it, chipping at fragments of the past, rearranging them into new patterns and mosaics.
In The Breaking Point, Stephen Koch has turned to the Spanish civil war, following Hemingway, Dos Passos and dozens of other Americans and Europeans drawn to the loyalist side and moving around Spain as Franco gradually tightened his hold on the country. Hemingway and Dos Passos had first met in Italy in 1918, when they were both evacuating casualties from a field hospital at the front. They met again in Paris in 1922, when Paris was the place young Americans went to read James Joyce and Ezra Pound and to watch the Ballets Russes. By now Dos Passos had become famous with a novel called Three Soldiers, while Hemingway was still struggling to find his writing voice. When Hemingway’s wife Hadley had her son, Bumby, Dos Passos went round to give the baby his bath. Dos Passos was three years older than Hemingway: they were excited by each other’s prose and they were friends. Another friend — particularly of Dos Passos’s — was José Robles, a Spaniard who had become a professor at Johns Hopkins.
After the civil war broke out, Robles stayed in Spain to work on the Republican side. Sometime towards the end of March 1937 he was arrested by ‘extra-legal’ police and executed, having first been tortured. By now, Hemingway and Dos Passos were no longer such good friends, and Hemingway, who heard the news first, broke it to Dos Passos with calculated cruelty. Robles, he said, had been justly executed as a fascist.
The story of Robles’s murder remains a mystery. It is probable that he was shot because he knew too much about the relationship between the Spanish war ministry and the Kremlin and was considered too indiscreet and too uncommitted to the cause. Many people, on both sides, were executed for such things; as the chief of police in Madrid told Dos Passos, they were living in terrible times, and ‘to overcome them we must be terrible ourselves’. What Koch does is to use Robles’s killing to write about the activities of the communists in Spain, and particularly those sent by Stalin. The Kremlin’s hand in the Spanish civil war has been amply documented: Koch adds flesh to the role played by the American communists, and his book is at its best when describing the edgy animosity that split apart the Left in America at the time, and the vindictiveness against figures like Dos Passos who refused to ignore communist atrocities. If there is a hero in this somewhat hectic book, it is surely Dos Passos.
The Breaking Point, however, raises another important question: how far is it right for biographers to write about subjects they so patently dislike? Hemingway is portrayed as bullying, narcissistic, foul- tempered, slovenly and miserly. Because Koch’s language tends to the colloquial and the emphatic, Hemingway ‘glowers’, ‘gapes’, ‘roars’ and ‘shouts’. Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s new lover in Spain and later his third wife, is painted with the same brush: she ‘sulks’, ‘sneers’ and is at all times ‘frozen-faced and icy’. It is clear that Koch finds them equally repellent. Quite apart from the absurdly black and white portrait of their relationship and Hemingway’s treatment of his friends, the taste left is one of disbelief, not helped by Koch’s forays into the speculative. Driving in a car to Valencia, Hemingway, according to Koch, ‘dozed and dreamed, then snapped awake, only to doze again, dreaming about orange blossoms, about weddings, about flowers, about brides’. (Says who?)
Koch is, of course, perfectly accurate in showing the lengths to which both Hemingway and Gellhorn — and many others — went in order to pretend that the atrocities were all on Franco’s side, and that the Kremlin’s influence was negligible. In this, Gellhorn went further, in that Hemingway at least wrote realistically about the Soviets in his play, The Fifth Column. Gellhorn simply pretended that it wasn’t happening.
Refusal to acknowledge unpalatable facts is also at the heart of a calmer new biography, Hemingway on the China Front. Here the time-span is even shorter, a bare 100 days. Peter Moreira, foreign correspondent for many years in Hong Kong and Korea, has taken a single journey made by Hemingway and Gellhorn in 1941 to China, Burma and Hong Kong, a trip that Hemingway would later laughingly call Gellhorn’s idea of a honeymoon, and that she herself described, with affection, in a wonderful piece of comic writing, Travels with Myself and Another. (It was the only time she ever mentioned Hemingway in print, and even then she refers to him only as UC, unwilling companion.)
Hemingway and Gellhorn married in the autumn of 1940. When Collier’s magazine asked her to look at the Sino-Japanese conflict, she persuaded Hemingway to go with her and together they spent five weeks in Hong Kong, while Hemingway boozed and Gellhorn worked, then visited the battle zone of southern China on horseback and in driving rain, before meeting Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, and Chou En-lai, in Chungking. Neither had been to Asia before. It was indeed one of Gellhorn’s ‘horror’ journeys, both for the miserable discomfort and for the fact that she caught some kind of oozing infection on her hands, but as she made clear in Travels, they also had a lot of fun. Both came back with articles, Hemingway having agreed to write a series of pieces for a New York paper called PM. He had also undertaken to do a bit of spying for the US Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, an activity which, Moreira argues, gave him a definite taste for sleuthing. Later in the war he went looking for German submarines off Cuba.
Moreira is more generous than Koch towards his subjects: Hemingway while in China did indeed drink and boast, but he was also extremely interested in the war and in the politics of Asia and was diligent at gathering material. But, as in Spain, both he and Gellhorn preferred, at least in public, to overlook the brutality and ruthlessness of the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship. In private, Gellhorn would write to an old journalist friend, Allen Grover, ‘You have to be very young, very cynical and very ignorant to enjoy writing journalism these days.’ Criticised later for being so blinkered about both Spain and China, at the time both were clear: ‘all this objectivity shit’, as Gellhorn famously described it, was not something to be proud of. Fine journalists chose their ground and stuck to it; in Spain at least there was no choice, as fascism had to be defeated. For scholars of Hemingway, both Koch and Moreira provide new material to feed on, two more small pieces in the vast jigsaw of modern biography.
Caroline Moorehead is the editor of The Letters of Martha Gellhorn (Chatto, £30).