Dedicated Hemingway readers might question the need for a linear childhood-to-suicide biography. He’s Jake Barnes and Nick Adams, he’s ‘The Hemingway’ character in every short story and surely he’s the Ernest of A Moveable Feast, isn’t he?
Verna Kale’s Ernest Hemingway suggests caution when reading his Paris memoir as a source of biographical information. The memoir and other Hemingway works published posthumously “represent a liminal space between the life and the art.” Hemingway himself writes in the Preface of A Moveable Feast that it can be read as fiction, if the reader prefers.
Indeed, all of Hemingway’s fiction (include Movebale Feast, if you like) is a blend of reportage and invention, recollection and omission. This is an intricate part of the art he labored over. Kale describes his writing and success like this:
Hemingway borrows from real people and real experiences as a starting point, but the structure of the stories and the detail chosen, omitted and manipulated are carefully crafted fiction. That neither Hemingway’s greatest fans nor his harshest critics can absolve him of having simply set his own life into prose is a testament to his success in creating emotional truths too real to be disbelieved, a success that nevertheless needled the writer who lamented: ‘The point is I want them all to sound as though they really happened. Then when I succeed those poor dumb pricks say they are all just skillful reporting.’
The relation between Hemingway’s life and his writing constitutes much of Kale’s biography. The biographically true starting points are identified with the aid of letters and other historical documents. The most illuminating and critical aspects of Ernest Hemingway are made when Kale shows where the real people and the characters diverge.
Catherine Barkley from A Farewell to Arms and Ag from In Our Time are modeled after Agnes von Kurowsky. She was a Red Cross nurse, she cared for Hemingway when he was wounded in Italy during the first World War, they had a romantic relationship and she broke up with him in a letter. All of these details form the basis of his Catherine and Ag characters. The “candid sexual content” present in In Our Time is (very likely) fiction, as this is based on the word of someone who knew them both. The identifiably fictional content now shows the work to be an exploration of the erotic qualities present in the nurse-patient relationship rather than a thinly veiled ‘fictional’ story of sexual prowess.
The “awfully simple operation” considered by the couple enjoying a fine time in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ does not indicate a souring relationship between Hemingway and his future second-wife Pauline, to whom the manuscript is dedicated, nor does it appear to mirror any true event. The debate surrounding a potential abortion and the couple’s decision to forgo the operation can be read as a “testament to the wholeness and vitality of the Hemingway union.” Kale goes on to say that the ability for a single story to be interpreted in different ways demonstrates “mastery of his craft”,
Hemingway’s journalism and war correspondences are treated similarly to his fiction. “Hemingway’s D-Day account,” Kale writes, “is at once a fine piece of experiential reporting and an unabashedly self-centred approach to one of the most important events in American history.” This is not to say his reporting was untrue or flippant, it’s just braggadocios. The entire World War II section and Hemingway’s exploits as a journalist are quite funny and make him rather endearing. This is all thanks to Kale’s rendering of those scenes.
It’s an impressive feat, considering the set-up to Hemingway’s front-line adventures is his taking a job at Collier’s magazine just to spite third-wife and fellow writer Martha Gellhorn. (Anyone interested in viewing a docu-drama of their relationship should see HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, an OK in spots movie starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen’s John Wayne impression.)
The blend of autobiography and fiction is only one through-line connecting the entirety of Ernest Hemingway. Kale explores his interest in death and suicide, the development of his innovative and now much imitated style, and the creation of the famous Hemingway persona.
Showing the overlap and divergence between Hemingway and his fiction makes Kale’s Ernest Hemingway an invaluable source for Hemingway fans and students, and a formidable counter argument to those who erroneously believe the Hemingway oeuvre is memoir masquerading as fiction.
There’s a footnote by Jonathan Franzen in The Kraus Project comparing Hemingway to Heinrich Heine, a poet and journalist pilloried by Karl Kraus in ‘Heine and the Consequences’. Franzen writes, in parentheses, “(would [Hemingway] have had anything to say if he’d been forced to stay at home?)”, in an unanswerable rhetorical question.
Franzen continues, sans parentheses, “Kraus’s critique of Heine’s writing — that it was fundamentally hack journalism, dressed up in an innovative and easily copied style — could apply to a lot of Hemingway’s work as well.”
Kale’s biography takes particular issue with these sorts of postmortems. There’s no doubt Parisian cafes, bullfights, the Spanish Civil War and the World Wars influenced his writing greatly. We know, however, that Hemingway’s stories have emotional and artistic goals bestowed by the man and not necessarily by the circumstances of his travels. Suggesting Hemingway’s work is autobiography duplicitously designed as fiction to aggrandize the author doesn’t take the creative and literary talent into full consideration.