Hemingway tracked to his lair

William Scammell on the decline of the writer who once believed he would outrank Shakespeare
Click to follow
During the Spanish civil war, Stephen Spender met up one day with "a black-haired, bushy-moustached, hairy-handed giant who ... seemed to be acting the part of a Hemingway hero". It turned out to be the man himself, "come to discover whether he had lost his nerve under (modern) conditions of warfare". Spender is delighted when the "aesthetic Hemingway" peeps out from under the "husky" one to praise La Chartreuse de Parme. "He warmed to the theme of Stendhal and soon I realised that he had that kind of literary sensibility which the professional critic, or the don, nearly always lacks. He saw literature not just as "good writing" but as the unceasing inter-relationship of the words on the page with the life within and beyond them - the battle, the landscape, the love affair. For him writing was a kind of wrestling ... as a huntsman with his spear." When Spender mentions Shakespeare, though, Hem gets annoyed - "Don't you realise I don't read books?" - and changes the subject to boxing.

It's a piquant moment, the delicate, bisexual lyric poet bumping into the rough tough cream puff whose laconic and manly prose launched a thousand teenagers on their literary careers. Writing as a species of hunting isn't far removed from the Henry Williamson/Ted Hughes school of nature lovers, yet in Hemingway the metaphor has a queer smell from the outset, one that ends up reeking of self-love, sentimentality, and misogyny. "Long time ago good. Now no good." That deathless piece of Injun - or Tarzan - speak, from the story "Fathers and Sons", should be added to "grace under pressure" as the sum of the Hemingway philosophy. The pressure in question was always physical danger, on the battlefield, in the bullring, out on safari, or fishing for monsters of the deep. Moral, psychological, domestic and sexual pressures were best left at home with the womenfolk.

That's unfair to his best stories, perhaps, but true to the trajectory of his life. Saul Bellow pointed out in his first novel, Dangling Man, that the American tough guy was a direct descendant of the British gentleman, all wrapped up in certain codes of demeanour, knowhow, and understatement. Scott Fitzgerald, who was both attracted to and scornful of the type, managed to swim out into deeper waters.

Hemingway: The Final Years is the concluding volume of Michael Reynolds's picaresque, four-part biography. It pays homage to that territory Hemingway was always lighting out for and even echoes that famous style, which netted certain emotions very well but got into a bit of a tangle when it came to complicated ones about fathers, mothers and children. In effect, Reynolds picks up Hemingway's literary shotguns and tries to track him to his own lair. The results are readable enough, but somewhat two-dimensional.

It appears that Hemingway was on occasion a genuinely brave man, but that in the tellings and retellings he exaggerated and mythicised his exploits to ludicrous proportions. The prose that was meant to be all muscle and speed, with its own cow-catcher or bullshit detector bolted on to the front of the engine, declined into a sort of bad faith, lumbering down the page in search of that "fourth and fifth dimension" he embarrassingly promises to pursue in Green Hills of Africa (1935).

"No one who met Hemingway ever forgot him. He was the strange attractor around whose light all manner of men and women circled: movie stars, millionaires, cooks, crooks, bartenders, writers, soldiers. Forty-one years old and at his physical peak, he was not the most handsome man in the room, but he was the most magnetic; a sometimes shy man who listened intently, enjoyed good stories and spoke carefully ... He studied terrain the way some men study the stock market." This is Ernest in New York in 1940. For Whom the Bell Tolls was imminent, an enormous critical and commercial success. His first wife and son were in Chicago, his second and two more sons were in Key West, he himself had been living in Cuba for 18 months with Martha Gellhorn. Reynolds says he "moved with the seasons", like the migratory birds he loved to hunt: "spring through summer there was marlin fishing in the Gulf Stream; in the fall, bird hunts in the West; then warm winters at the Finca", his large house in Cuba, staffed by a small army of servants and hangers-on.

He took a trip to China with Gellhorn, then armed his fishing boat, the Pilar, and hunted unsuccessfully for German U-boats during the war. Eventually he followed Gellhorn to England where he fell in love with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, flew with the RAF, and took part in the Normandy landings, working now as a war correspondent. Soon he was following the American army up through France, journalist, soldier, drinker, hell-raiser, happy as Larry except when caught in a vicious infantry battle later, in Germany, that decimated the troops. "He was only a reporter, same as us," said William Randolph Hearst Jnr, "but he thought he was the Second Coming, and acted like it."

Hem liberated Paris - scene of his coming of age, with Gertrude Stein, Pound and Ford Madox Ford as his tutors - with his Free French companions, holed up at the Ritz, and was joined by Mary. It was a re-run of his affair with Martha eight years earlier in Madrid. "He was back in a grand hotel, in a war-ravaged capital city, sleeping with a lovely young woman while married to someone else. Not only was Mary sexually creative, she was also ... and even better, a woman who had not heard all his stories of being poor in Paris. They lived existentially: 'This is it,' he told her, 'our one and only life'."

Later he was carpeted for violating the rules of war correspondents, having virtually made himself a colonel in the maquis. He wriggled out of that one but was furious that what he was most proud of, his conduct "under pressure", had been attacked by the "phonies" and politicos who ran the war. Brass-hats were the enemy ever after, the FBI was "Nazi", and he died convinced that the Internal Revenue Service was out to strip him of every last cent. He didn't think much of psychiatrists either. Referred to one with possible "combat fatigue", after the tough German campaign, Hemingway "exploded" when it was suggested to him that "courage and cowardliness were false values with which people kidded themselves ... He flushed deep red and pounded on the table ... The (psychiatrist) was an ignoramus, an uneducated fool, a pervert, an enemy spy." For the moment he was John Wayne incarnate, and it's difficult at this late civilian stage, when we fight antiseptic wars from the air, to sort out the redneck from the writer who wanted to wring literature's neck and get back to basics with Huck Finn.

"Nobody has ever been anywhere that hasn't been with Infantry," he said later, safely back in Cuba and working furiously on several books at once. Mary is made love to 55 times in a month, he notes with satisfaction, but he soon began to treat her as badly as all the other wives, niggling about housekeeping money and humiliating her in public. "He wants them like Indian girls - completely obedient and sexually loose," Mary wrote. "This is like being a high-priced whore."

For Hem it was another war that had to be won. He never got over memories of his "bitch" of a mother, whom he held responsible for his father's suicide, and often threatened to follow the same route himself. Writing was a war too, or a boxing match. He tells Faulkner in a letter that they had both "beaten" Flaubert, the "honoured master", a notion almost as fatuous as John O'Hara's claim that Ernest was the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare. As for death, that was repeatedly characterised as "an old whore" or a "beautiful harlot" - a juxtaposition of sex and death that fails to make any sense at all, except as the daftest of signifiers in Hemingway's macho discourse.

Love popped up again in the shape of 18-year-old Adriana Ivancich, a beautiful young Venetian 30 years his junior. Fame tripled its attentions too with the publication of The Old Man and the Sea (originally part of a much longer trilogy about the war), which made him seriously rich and finally secured both the Pulitzer and the Nobel prize in 1954. It was published entire in Life magazine, then as a book, and translated into 26 languages, a smash hit wherever it went. This financed even more lavish expeditions to Africa and Spain, where he held court as a bullfight aficionado and wrote up the rivalry between the two leading matadors of the day. (In those days you had to be "existential" by hook or by crook. Epicene Ken Tynan divided his affections between Brecht, bullfighting and baiting the bourgeoisie.)

Notoriously, Hemingway liked his women boyish, with short bobbed hair, preferably blonde. There's a weird document in Mary's journal, written by Ernest, about their sex life together, "something quite new and outside all tribal law": "She has always wanted to be a boy and thinks as a boy without ever losing any feminity. If you should become confused on this you should retire. She loves me to be her girls, which I love to be ... In return she makes me awards and at night we do every sort of thing which pleases her and pleases me ... On the night of December 19th we worked these things out and I have never been happier."

This coy, confusing and confessional declaration (who on earth is the "you" addressed in the second sentence? Posterity?) was "signed and dated" by them both, and reproduced in Mary's memoir. What's lunatic about it is not the hints about bisexuality (carefully disavowed: "Mary has never had one lesbian impulse ... I have never cared for any man") but the compulsion to set down his predilections in testamentary prose, presumably in order that we should gain a further insight into his capacious soul. Women, it seems, could now be elevated from bitch, whore and madonna into honorary boys. Perhaps the whole thing was penned by "Mr Scrooby", Hemingway's poet name for the member he carried into war and peace.

Yet this same oaf, who thought that Across the River and into the Trees would "put Shakespeare on his butt", saved Mary's life when she was bleeding to death from an ectopic pregnancy, walked away uncomplaining from two air crashes, and committed many acts of kindness. In the last 10 years he piled up thousands of pages of the unfinishable big book, set down his tricksy memoir A Moveable Feast (in which Mr Scrooby triumphs once again, this time over Scott Fitzgerald), challenged Senator McCarthy to a boxing match, lived on a barrage of drugs and booze that would have felled Burroughs in a fortnight, hastened in and out of Castro's Cuba, applauding the revolution yet fearful of it, travelled frantically, and fell prey to suicidal depressions. Neither Mary's long-suffering devotion nor the Mayo Clinic and ECT could shift his "black-ass" moods. The Bay of Pigs disaster was the final straw, threatening him with the loss of his house and friends in Cuba, his books, paintings, fishing boat and manuscripts. After one or two foiled attempts he shot himself, just as his father had done, on 2 July 1961.

The irony of a lifelong hunter turning the shotgun on himself is too large and too painful to miss. Reynolds wants to call it a Greek tragedy but it's at least as much Hollywood as Homer. Hemingway could never make up his mind whether he was Achilles, Odysseus or Paris, or all three at once. The Final Years doesn't spare us his many failings, yet seems half in love with the macho image Papa created for himself, "existential to the bone, breakfasting with death as a tablemate", etc. Perhaps those babyish locutions he was so fond of, together with the Injun-speak and the translationese, those semi-comic bits of Spanish and Masai, indicate that he was trapped in a childish warp, rather than the child-like wonder of the Romantics, or Huck's piercing simplicities.

Like Byron and Scott, he loomed larger in life than he does in death. The early stories still shine brightly, though not perhaps as brightly as Chekhov and Joyce and Babel. The search for a kind of extra- or non- literary authenticity goes on too, from Wolfe and Herr to Carver, Kelman, Welsh. Writing the body takes forms Hemingway couldn't have dreamed of. Long time ago good. Now, what with feminism and deconstruction, Mr Scrooby would definitely sigh: No good.

'Hemingway: The Final Years' by Michael Reynolds is published by Norton at pounds 19.95