The Final Years
by Michael Reynolds,
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|Fall From Eden
by Nicholas Slobo
From a vast array of lengthy interviews, personal letters, newspaper articles, historical information, and published memoirs, Michael Reynolds has created an accurate and honest portrait of the final twenty years of Ernest Hemingway’s life. In the last of his five-volume biography, Reynolds maintains a critical but sensitive perspective as he intertwines comprehensive details of Hemingway’s literary career with his contradictory personal and public lives. Occasionally, he includes brief but incisive commentaries on the writer’s complex and slowly deteriorating psyche. The result is a tragic picture of the man who, as Reynolds notes, “transforms himself following his ambition, succeeds beyond his dreams, and finally burns out trying to be true to the person he has become”.
In the first part of the biography, “The Fortunes of War”, which covers the years from 1940 to 1944, Reynolds opens with the successful release of For Whom the Bell Tolls and the disintegration of Hemingway’s relationship with third wife Martha Gellhorn. He chronicles how, when apart, they would write each other passionately but, while together, they would fight loudly. Reynolds begins to expose patterns of extremism in Hemingway’s treatment of the women in his life, and the visible signs of manic depression in his public decorum but private rage. He also points to the passing of Hemingway’s generation of literary and personal friends—a constant theme throughout the biography.
Reynolds then focuses on Hemingway’s involvement in World War II. He details Hemingway’s conversion of his fishing boat, the Pilar, into a patrol ship, his position as Collier’s front-line correspondent, his relationship with American journalist Mary Walsh, and later, his joining the 22nd Infantry Regiment in France. Occasionally, Reynolds bogs down part two of the biography with a few too many details about the historical aspects of America’s involvement in the war. Nonetheless, he provides valuable insights into Hemingway’s character, explaining, for example, Hemingway’s penchant for risk-taking: “Part of Hemingway wanted to be the warrior he imagined himself as a young boy.... Part of him was half in love with an honorable death, not one that he sought.... Yet another part of him simply no longer cared if he lived or died.”
“A Fall From Grace” chronicles Hemingway’s prolific literary output between 1945 and 1952 (even though it would be almost a decade before he published his next book) and his roller-coaster relationship with Mary at the Finca, Hemingway’s Cuban estate. One strikingly related scene demonstrates Hemingway’s impressive ability to respond to emergencies when he saves Mary’s life after her fallopian tube bursts during their vacation.
Reynolds frequently explores Hemingway’s misgivings about writing his memoirs. On the one hand, Hemingway views a biography of a living writer to be like a mortuary; on the other hand, he relishes the limelight and provides friends and scholars with a large amount of mostly inaccurate and often misleading or contradictory accounts of his life. As Reynolds observes about Hemingway’s life itself, including his marriage commitments and ongoing flirtations, “Hemingway had it both ways. He liked having it both ways.”
Reynolds also details Ernest and Mary’s trip to Italy and Hemingway’s revisiting (and recreating) of his past. Hemingway can now stay at the most expensive hotel in Venice, a dramatic change from his youth when he avoided such opulent surroundings. In Italy, Hemingway begins a lengthy and embarrassing public flirtation with eighteen-year-old Adriana Ivancich while working on what will become Across the River and Into the Trees. He feels this novel is his masterpiece but, as Reynolds reports, its reception was, at best, mixed. By this point in their difficult relationship, Mary now understands Hemingway’s pattern, as Reynolds explains, of falling in love with great passion, but quickly wanting his wife to provide order and discipline for the household, and then resenting the mother-figure that the wife becomes.
“End Game” (from 1952 to 1961) shifts from describing the frequent low points and moments of loss in the preceding years to reporting on the praise for The Old Man and the Sea. Reynolds explains how Hemingway dramatically changes his public person: he deliberately and defiantly refuses to indulge himself in the public eye this time, determined to let the book make it on its own. While focusing on Hemingway’s increasingly severe health problems, Reynolds also charts the author’s incredibly prolific writing.
While plotting Ernest and Mary’s travels, Reynolds describes their two unfortunate crashes while on their African safari, and notes how Hemingway visibly deteriorates after the accidents. Throughout this final part of the biography, he illustrates how Hemingway’s consumption of a pharmaceutical cocktail (for both physical and psychological problems) and alcohol further contributes to his bodily and mental decline. With The Garden of Eden almost completed, Hemingway leaves for Ketchum, Idaho at the advent of the Cuban Revolution. He continues to write at a furious pace, but his emotional outbursts become intolerable, prompting an exasperated Mary to want to leave. During another trip to Spain, he writes an unprintable, crude introductory essay to his short stories, and he exhibits coarse behaviour during the elaborate birthday celebration that Mary organized for him.
Reynolds shows his strongest, most powerful writing when he describes Hemingway’s final days. He explains that “Hemingway was a man pursued, a writer unable to outrun his demons”. While Scribner’s is excited about his Paris book (later published as A Moveable Feast), Mary is extremely concerned about Hemingway’s erratic mood shifts and paranoid behavior. Reynolds describes Hemingway’s emotionally disastrous trip to Spain, and then his return to Ketchum. He deteriorates to the point that Mary, on two separate occasions, rushes him to the Mayo Clinic where he undergoes controversial electroshock treatments. Reynolds concludes his biography with Hemingway’s taking of his own life, convinced as he was that he would not be able to return to Cuba, the Finca, the Pilar, his paintings, and his three book-length manuscripts.
Reynolds’ detailed and precise biography flows like a novel. In the previous four biographies, Reynolds has been described as “sympathetic” to Hemingway. While dealing with both the most productive and contentious years of Hemingway’s life, his presentation, in actuality, is more a compassionate than biased or unduly favourable reading of the man. His exacting and lucid reading of Hemingway’s final years leaves us looking—perhaps hoping—for a sixth volume addressing the aftermath of his death and the posthumous publications.
Nicholas Sloboda teaches Contemporary American Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.