||Deader Than The Lion, Perhaps...
by Ted Whittaker
If it’s Hemingway, there must be slaughter. He’s about that. And the heroes of his books must wallow in it. Women? Secondary, at best; no hope of equality, of domestic getting-along. Other people, especially those not blessed to be literate speakers of a European language? All right, he’ll allow them a moment beneath the sun—all men are brothers, under fire. But behind his egalitarian rhetoric, Papa was a colonial apologist and a great retailer of lies about himself and others, never forget.
I have set down without caricature a common contemporary judgment of Hemingway. I question this verdict, but don’t deny it utterly.
True At First Light is a fictional memoir of Ernest Hemingway’s second safari. He and Mary, his fourth wife, spent the winter of 1953-54 in Kenya during the Mau Mau scare. He chronicled these months in the bush—living in tents and shooting to eat and to control rogue predators on behalf of the white colonial administration and the natives—a year after the events.
Hemingway knew the values of truth and lies and the ways in which they served his art. Forestalling carpers, he remarks to Miss Mary, “...all a writer of fiction is really is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men... My excuse is that I make the truth as I invent it truer than it would be... If I write in the first person, stating it is fiction, critics now will still try to prove these things never happened to me. It is as silly as trying to prove Defoe was not Robinson Crusoe so therefore it is a bad book.”
The story opens with Hemingway’s being left in charge of his own safari, with the added responsibility of a government job: Acting Game Warden. He must guard and provision his Kamba-staffed camp (Kamba being the tribe of hunter-warriors he admires) against possible Mau Mau attacks, bush-doctor his sick neighbours, blow away raiding baboons and great cats reported to have gone “bad” (eaten cattle and other livestock), and in general behave just a little like a conscientious civil servant during the twilight of the current imperium. Hemingway carries his responsibility with panache and great good humour.
Chief among the perks is the opportunity for him to tutor his wife on lion killing. She wants to do one in, for several reasons, and a marauder in the area needs erasure. Mary pots him eventually. Celebrations ensue and Ernest and Mary await their safari Christmas (“the birthday of the baby Jesus,” as it is usually termed in conversation with the camp employees) in love and serenity.
Of course there’s much more going on. Hemingway takes a Kamba mistress, in whose “insolence” he revels (to the subdued nervousness of Mary). Debba is much more sympathetically portrayed than are most other women in Hemingway’s fiction. “Real-life” observers of Hemingway’s affair considered her “camp trash”. It was also recorded, by white informants not spooked by the Hemingways’ green, six-legged, canvas bathtub, that she was dirty. Ernest’s many descriptions of her, however, are unfailingly gallant.
When you consider all that Hemingway stuffed into his sixty-one years, you can safely call this an old man’s book. Written by and about a middle-aged soldier (Hemingway participated in five wars) and hunter, it is a summa of the pleasures and follies of that life. Hemingway was a throwback, at times displaced in a peaceful world. He lived most zestfully in extreme situations (though like any writer he needed quiet to work and read). In Africa, he tried in part to go native and might have been pleased to have been able to go all the way over.
He lays out the killer’s creed, to which both he and Mary ascribed, not without a little self-conscious, deadpan humour of a dark hue: “...everyone who has ever eaten meat must know that someone has killed it and since Mary, having engaged in killing, wanted to kill without inflicting suffering, it was necessary for her to learn and to practice. Those who never catch fish, not even a tin of sardines, and who will stop their cars if there are locusts on the road, and have never eaten even meat broth should not condemn those who kill to eat and to whom the meat belonged to before the white men stole their country.”
A prominent and much-parodied feature of Hemingway’s style is its incessant and minute description, always understated, always quiet, of the things of this world and of physical processes. Ruminating upon the soul, Hemingway almost totally disavows metaphysics when Mary kills the lion: when the lion is killed, he’s dead, un point c’est tout. If the lion had killed Hemingway or his wife or their mates, “would our souls have flown off somewhere? I could not believe it and I thought that we would all just have been dead, deader than the lion perhaps, and no one was worrying about this soul.”
This hunter’s physical aesthetic, this dwelling by contrast upon what is concrete, ascribing prime importance mainly to what barrages the senses, perfectly informs a style in which perceptions of objects unadorned, true as at first light, are strung together as often as not without the hesitations of punctuation any more prissy than a comma or a period and linked or disjoined at most only by those dear loves and solaces “and” and “but” and “or” or by nothing at all.
Behold the death of the lion. “He was running now heavy and desperate but beginning to look small in the sights and almost certain to make the far cover when I had him in the sights again, small now and going away fast, and swung gently ahead and lifting over him and squeezed as I passed him and no dirt rose and I saw him slide forward, his front feet plowing, and his great head was down before we heard the thunk of the bullet.”
The text serves up other delights and surprises, too, in authorial asides and reveries and that slide sometimes into conversations. The urbane reader, distracted by the outlandish details and imperatives of safari life, can forget that Hemingway—even if he is to be considered as a hypersexed, booze-fuelled, quasi-criminal, lunatic sadist and not also as an anachronistic noble savage who writes like an angel—knew and walked with some of the finest artists of this interesting century. He was their peer. When he remarks familiarly upon Lawrence, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Picasso, even Simenon, Berenson and Dietrich, Thurber and John O’Hara, attention is paid.
So another true picture of Hemingway, given here (the disciplined empiricist, the great sensualist), is the self-portrait as hunter taking a load off. He stretches like a big old cat, doesn’t move unless he has to, is more than content to sit, drink, reflect, reminisce, muse. In a sheeting rain he relaxes: “Everything had been taken out of my control and I welcomed, as always, the lack of responsiblity and the splendid inactivity with no obligation to kill, pursue, protect, intrigue, defend or participate and I welcomed the chance to read.”
The best way to take the measure of the protagonist of True At First Light, then, is to gauge him as a striver, in both action and contemplation, after simplicity (how American). What Hemingway cobbles together from a corraled African tribe and from killing animals cleanly for food is not to be despised or even dismissed too soon: “...people don’t realize what the country and the animals are like where it is the world of the animals and they have predators. People who have never known predators don’t know what you are talking about. Nor people that never had to kill their meat nor if they don’t know the tribes and what is natural and normal...I’ll try and write it so it can be understood. But you have to say so many things that most people will not understand nor conceive of doing.”
Ted Whittaker is a book reviewer and editor; he lives in Toronto and contributes frequently to Books in Canada.
Portrait of Hemingway (Random House, 107 pages, $14.95 paper, ISBN: 0375754385), Lillian Ross’ much-recycled New Yorker profile from 1950, will do nothing, even today, to change any reader’s mind about America’s best novelist of the first half of this century.
When it was first published, people became riled about it, amazingly. Hemingway was a great anarchic bear at the best of times; this was one of them. Ross caught him for a couple of days in Manhattan in 1949. He and his wife Mary were passing through on their way from their Cuban home to Italy. Ross boswellizes while Hemingway does all the touristy things smart people with money do in New York: spread out in a hotel, get room service, drink, get a friend to drop by (in his case, Marlene Dietrich, a big fan), go out to eat, shop for clothes, see another old friend, slope through the Met and schmooze about El Greco, head back to the hotel, and do a little business talky-talk (here with Charles Scribner, his editor).
Where’s the harm in any of this? asks Ross in two more revelatory essays—a preface and an afterword—that fill out this booklet. She’s right; there is none. It makes for lovely gossip, the sort of eminently clippable copy the New Yorker has taken to the bank for decades. Hemingway and his wife talk betimes a cut-back English, the kind of pidgin that old-movie Indians used to get stuck with. When used to describe the effect on some unsuspecting fellow plane passenger Hemingway has muscled into reading the manuscript of Across the River and Into the Trees on the way up from Cuba, it’s hilarious:
“He liked book, I think,” he added, giving Myers a little shake and beaming down at him.
“Whew,” said Myers.
“Book too much for him,” Hemingway said. “Book start slow, then increase in pace till it becomes impossible to stand. I bring emotion up to where you can’t stand it, then we level off, so we won’t have to provide oxygen tents for the readers. Book is like engine. We have to slack off gradually.”
“Whew,” said Myers.
Hemingway’s friends found him mightily attractive, despite his nuttiness and exhausting competitiveness. Ross doesn’t think he killed himself intentionally. (We’ll let that one pass.) One more thing to remember about this brief glimpse of Papa is not merely that it so closely catches greatness on the fly, but that its author was probably twenty-two when she met the forty-eight-year-old Hemingway, that he and she respected each other all their lives long, that they began a splendid epistolary friendship, and that Hemingway defended her several times to others who decried her picture of him: “...how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never been to bed and no money has changed hands?”
Picturing Hemingway: A Writer In His Time (Frederick Voss, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery/Yale University Press, 160 pages, $35 cloth, ISBN: 0300079265) is a biography of Ernest Hemingway in pictures that marks the 100th anniversary of his birth and that also parallels the exhibit mounted during this past summer and fall at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Curator Frederick Voss presents less and more than a catalogue raisonné of Hemingway images. Less in that there are both unimportant and important photographs missing from this handsome book. More in that, in addition to the story in pictures—with essay and captions annotating the collected photographs, book dustjackets, magazine covers, drawings, and paintings of Hemingway and of his friends, rivals, and wives—A Writer In His Time includes yet another straight-up biographical account of its subject, this one by Michael Reynolds, the most indefatigable of Hemingway’s chroniclers.
New to me—and, I guess, to many other Hemingway fans who haven’t visited the Hemingway archive at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston—are the rarely seen Peirce, Blomshield, and Becker portraits of the author as a young man, and the Covarrubias, Peirce, and Davis caricatures (this last from the National Portrait Gallery), drawn not much later, but certainly by the time Hemingway’s preoccupation with war and blood sports had crystallized his persona.
You miss some, too. Left from this gathering are three photos that I wanted to look at again. First, there’s the technically poor bedside shot of Hemingway during or just after World War I, supine and with his head bandaged. The other well-known photo of Hemingway with his head wrapped up is here; it’s from Paris, taken outside Sylvia Beach’s bookstore in 1928; a glass skylight fell on him. Then, there’s the hunters-at-rest shot in the outdoors, with Hemingway and one of his young sons reclining together on sloping ground on a cold day. Lastly, the John Bryson semi-candid (described by Voss, oddly enough, at considerable length) of Hemingway joyfully kicking a beer can on a deserted country road in Idaho, not long before he blew the top of his head off.
I saw this photograph around the time it was first printed in public, nearly forty years ago, and regret greatly that it has not been republished here, as a leavening counterpoint to Karsh’s old-man-and-a-turtleneck (Voss doesn’t mention Karsh’s nationality, he merely says he’s “Armenian-born”), Bryson’s haunting final portrait, and Leigh Miller’s black-sky long shot of the tiny graveside assembly at the flat, bald cemetery fronting the foothills in Ketchum.