THIS IS a self-reviewed book. "Hemingway himself was disgusted with the whole affair," James Michener reports in the fearless introduction.
After handing in 120,000 words to Life magazine for a 10,000-word assignment on the 1959 Spanish bullfight season, Hemingway "realized belatedly that he had made a mistake in doubling back in the first place and in writing so copiously in the second," the introduction continues.
(Life ran 70,000 words cut from that manuscript in 1960; the present volume, separately edited, is 45,000 words.)
Caught between his literary debt and his literary ethics, Michener is only obeying the old Hemingway credo of courage and art in the midst of tragedy. Talk about grace under pressure! Michener keeps a faultless posture of unflinching respect beside the angry rush of Hemingway's doomed and misdirected force.
"My own judgement, then and now," he writes, "was that Hemingway was unwise to have attempted this return to his youth; that he tried to hang far too much on the slender, esoteric thread of one series of bullfights; but that he produced a manuscript that revealed a great deal about a major figure of American literature. It is a record worth having."
But while we Hemingway fans can be counted by the generation, for whom, besides such absolute die-hards as Carlos Baker and A.E. Hotchner, is this record intended? The old master has neglected to supply diversion here for the general-interest reader, and his new editor has cut the purely taurine material that would be of interest to the English-speaking afici,on that Hemingway himself developed.
What is left is only a record, and a partial one, of Hemingway's late-life loss of critical, as well as personal, perspective. Alternately portraying himself as star and groupie, he forfeits his hard-earned reputation as a taurine critic for the sake of a bias -- in favor of a new friend against an old one -- as unpleasant socially as it was unjustified artistically.
After a first-sight decision that Antonio Ordonez was a greater bullfighter than Luis Miguel "Domingu,in," Hemingway traveled the circuit in Ord,onez's entourage, calling each bullfight for Ord,onez. Neither his premise nor his declaration of proof was shared by critical opinion, and he attempts to justify it only with such unsubstantiated statements as "There was only one trouble for me. ("Domingu,in's") style did not move me at all."
The tragedy is what this book attempts to undo.
Hemingway points out here that he had written about the feria at Pamplona "once and for keeps" in The Sun Also Rises. Yet he does it over, no longer as a place where an individual can test his mettle, but as one where he can show off his celebrityhood.
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway had accomplished three nearly-impossible tasks:
He made bullfighting accessible to many Anglo-Saxons, patiently dispelling the concept that it was intended as a (hideously unfair) sporting contest, and explaining the attraction of man-as- artist who both respects and seeks to dominate an embodiment of nature's force, in the spirit that one might try to conquer a mountain or the sea.
He crammed in enough virtuoso writing, wit, literary tips, philosophical musings, and tourist information to interest those to whom tauromachy would never be palatable.
By demanding purity, classicism, and restraint, he gradually earned some grudging respect from the Spanish taurine world. (Although Spanish bullfight criticism is notoriously corrupt and kitsch-ridden, and Spaniards are given to bemoaning the declining standards of native audiences, the idea still prevails that the one essential ingredient for understanding tauromachy is Spanish blood. Having it in the veins, that is -- not seeing it on the sand.)
The present work offers no such compensations. The knowledgeable reader, who might have been interested to know what Hemingway had to say about the other bullfighters he saw that summer, outside the bias of his phony contest, has been deliberately neglected.
The reader who is interested in bullfighting primarily as a demonstration of incredibly controlled behavior is given only one example, and that is inadvertently supplied. Not in the bullring, but in the hospital, we see "Dominguin," in the midst of physical suffering, exhibit an apparently effortless dignity and grace toward his former friend now turned so relentlessly against him.
Clumsy editing has deprived the new reader of understanding the subject matter. Hemingway's frequent descriptions of Ordonez's famous stance over dying bulls is not supplemented with a photograph. And although two glossaries have been provided -- a new one by Michener at the beginning, and an abridged version of the Death in the Afternoon one at the end -- some terms are covered in both, while basic ones have been omitted.
One of the missing entries from the old glossary is badly needed to complete the self-review. It is Hemingway's famous definition of the term Que lastima:
"What a shame. Expression uttered when you have heard that a friend has been badly gored, or has contracted a venereal disease, or has married a whore, or has had something happen to his wife or children, or when a good bull comes out for a poor bullfighter or a poor bull comes out for a good bullfighter."