Death is not a lifestyle

Hemingway's centenary brings golf tournaments, lookalike contests and furnishing fabrics. Not surprisingly, none of the merchandising reflects his obsessions with danger and death. Why do they have to turn Hem into Santa Claus?

If Ernest Hemingway were present for his 100th birthday party celebrations this weekend, he would probably not be pleased. He will not be there because 38 years ago he took his favourite Boss & Co shotgun, put two shells into it and blew off the back of his head, and he has been a long time in the Idaho dirt. He would never have made it to his centenary, anyway; he loved death too much to escape its grasp for all those years, and when you look at his life - the wars, the aircraft crashes, the domestic accidents - it is hard to believe he even made it to 60.

He had been depressed and unwell for months before his suicide. A life of drink and hard knocks had not done his physiology any good. An exotic cocktail of prescription drugs, including Seconal and Ritalin, had addled his mind. A course of electro-convulsive therapy, then in vogue, had probably not helped. There had been a welter of bad news, including the death of a close friend. And, with the failure of the CIA's Bay of Pigs operation, it had become all but certain that he could never return to Havana, where the manuscripts of his two works in progress were stored - a blow that must have been doubly hard, and may have contributed to his decision to take his own life.

He would probably be surprised to discover, then, that he has just published a new novel, though he might recognise True at First Light as the 800- page manuscript that he left in a safety deposit box in Havana. After his death President John F Kennedy interceded to get permission for his widow, Mary, to bring it back from Cuba. Part of it was published in Sports Illustrated 30 years ago, but it had languished in the Kennedy Library until the writer's son Patrick cleaned it up, cut it back and polished it for publication, a sort of Frankenstein's novel.

The book has stirred huge anger among some of Hem's friends, who see it as grave robbery. For what is probably the last time - everyone gets old - they have rallied to his side once more. Joan Didion in The New Yorker called it "the systematic creation of a marketable product... tending to obscure the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime." His granddaughter Lorian said that while the words were his own, "they fall hollow and are without the grace and purpose and ultimate redemption that might have been brought to this rambling, flawed memory".

But it is probably not the novel that would get Hemingway. At least he wrote it. He did not design the Hemingway furniture range, or the spectacles, fountain pens, or any of the vast range of other consumer durables that are being marketed under his name. He did not write The Hemingway Cookbook. To the best of our knowledge, he never envisaged the Hemingway lookalike competitions that will be under way this weekend in Key West. An auction house is even offering one of his shotguns for sale, which seems a little tasteless in the circumstances.

Hemingway is now an industry, a lifestyle, no longer just a writer. He lives on in Hemingway Inc, a company run by three of his children and sharply disdained by his granddaughter, which licenses a range of products for sale. This is "the business of peddling Hemingway as if he were a QVC home-shopping network item", wrote Lorian in GQ magazine.

Of course, he is hardly the first great writer to be turned into a nice range of gentlemen's casual wear and some desirable household objects. F Scott Fitzgerald, by means of his character Jay Gatsby, was unwittingly responsible for the return of baggy white trousers in the Seventies, just as the popularisers of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited ensured that a whole generation cannot look at a teddy bear or a bow tie without recalling those wistful days of the early Eighties. Literary lifestyles sell, if suitably marketed.

But it is strange in many ways that, if America is to choose a writer to turn into a line of soft furnishings, it should be Hem. It is true, perhaps, that there are few others who could so easily be co-opted to consumerism (Kerouac's Kar Kabin? William Faulkner's Tragically Southern Fried Chicken? The Henry Miller range of... never mind). But he was always suspicious of commercialisation, and rightly so; during his lifetime Buick asked for happy endings for the televised versions of A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and To Have and Have Not (they were refused). Nor was he any proto-Martha Stewart, living as he did in a state of total disarray. Hemingway's writings could hardly be said to dwell on interior design; there is quite a bit of fucking, but not much shopping.

However, Thomasville, the furniture company that has released the Hemingway range, sees him as a brand, not just a writer and a dead human being, and you can see its point. Ketchum, Kilimanjaro, Key West and Havana are easily built into a style - faded colonialism, the outdoor life, the bright splashes of colour of the African bush, French cafe posters and the bullring.

Yet there is one element that seems to be missing from the Hemingway range: thick, pulsing, dark red arterial blood. His books, his life are saturated with gore, which is shed at every possible opportunity. The Unique Selling Proposition of the Hemingway lifestyle, as marketing analysts would call it, might seem to be the promise of early death - not the easiest sell.

His writings are full of the sense of restless, empty celebration that came to many who had survived the First World War. After he escaped being blown up at the age of 18 in Italy, thanatos was his strongest urge. It may have been even more primal than that. Like many in his family he lived with diabetes, a disease that in some sufferers causes a certain disdain for mortality; death is always close. He took the title for his first novel from Ecclesiastes: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose."

His interest is direct and straightforward, ever-present. The art of the torero is "the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour", he wrote in Death in the Afternoon. And, in A Farewell to Arms, he said that "The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially."

Hunting, Hemingway once said, was the act of giving the "gift of death". Michael Reynolds, his biographer, quotes a poem which Hemingway wrote to his wife Mary during the Second World War:

Repeat after me.

Do you take this old whore

Death for thy lawful

Wedded wife?

Repeat after me

I do, I do, I do.

Try turning that into a range of wedding accessories. Hemingway's life and his literature are in some senses a constant attempt to face this insight, which informs both his style and his content, the life lived largely outside America, the search for danger. But all this has been gradually airbrushed away until we are left with little more than Papa the travel writer, the products, the trappings and the trivialities. The whole point of Hemingway's literature is to face up to mortality; after his death, every effort has been made to obscure it.

There is something peculiarly American about this. The Hemingway festivals and celebrations feature a golf tournament, a five-kilometre run and, of course, the lookalike competitions, which oddly enough are won every year by jolly blokes with beards who look more like Santa Claus than Hemingway. Can you imagine the French holding a Jean-Paul Sartre lookalike contest? A Camus kebab cook-off? Producing the Andre Malraux cookbook? Hemingway stands or falls on his literary style; instead, he has been turned into a "character."

"All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you," Hemingway wrote. Yet the great irony of his life has been that he is not permitted to be dead, or to tell that truth; like Elvis and JFK, he has to live on in some indefinable, very American way. The man may be 6ft under the Ketchum burial ground, but the brand survives in a peculiarly modern form of resurrection. In the midst of life, we are in death, Hemingway reminded us; but, as his heirs have discovered, that doesn't have to be a problem.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice