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?
Tuesday 20 July 1999
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
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.
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