TRUE AT FIRST LIGHT
By Ernest Hemingway
Scribner. 320 pp. $26
The Final Years
By Michael Reynolds
Norton. 416 pp. $30
Reviewed by Dawn Trouard
For Hemingway and his fans, July has always been a resonant month. He was born in July, wounded during World War I in July, and even the bulls run in July. This July also marks the 100th anniversary of the author's birth, and so it should come as no surprise that Hemimania abounds.
In honor of his July 21 birthday, Scribner has released True at First Light, his final book -- perhaps -- a fictional memoir and Book of the Month Club Main selection about the writer's 1953-54 African safari. Entries from bookstores hoping to win the Hemingway Centennial Display Contest by featuring at least five Hemingway titles published by Scribner or its subsidiaries must be postmarked no later than July 31.
This past April the Kennedy Library hosted a glitzy Hemingway celebration with Nobel laureates, scholars galore, and all three of the writer's sons. In the New Yorker Joan Didion recently cried foul about the illegitimacy of the entire posthumous production, and Tom Jenks, the editor for Hemingway's last novel -- perhaps -- The Garden of Eden, performed editorial forensics on True at First Light in the May Harper's. Even CBS Morning News's Cuba show has joined the orgy with a tour of Hemingway's home, Finca Vigia, close-ups of the six-toed Hemingway cats, shots of his boat, the Pilar, and interviews with those residents who claim they can still remember Papa.
After July all that will be left is the indignation. The also-rans in the bookstore contest can join those who planned their neighborhood centennial celebration too late and won't be able to book Hemingway biogra
pher Michael Reynolds, whose fifth and -- perhaps -- final volume covering the author's life from 1940 to his shotgun-suicide in 1961 will also be part of July's ecstatic activity.
Even if the thought of a five-volume biography of Hemingway seems an exceedingly bad idea, Reynolds's work is still a daunting achievement. The Final Years, with its maps, photos, index and its relentless interest in the details of a life in its final dissolution, is informative, thorough and mostly judicious. Dealing with the author's long decline, Reynolds is stuck with works like Across the River and Into the Trees. He must avoid wallowing in the materials that have done much to dismantle the legend of the man who, back in the 1920s, wrote those vaunted, true sentences in books like the novel The Sun Also Rises and the story collection In Our Time.
In this final volume, Reynolds picks up Hemingway's career as the author is reviewing the typescript of For Whom the Bell Tolls. What follows -- Hemingway's last divorce, the last marriage, the last infatuations and humiliations of that marriage, the last two plane crashes, the last bullfight tour, the last electroshock treatments and the last vituperations -- isn't pretty. Reynolds portrays an author who was "becoming his fiction." This Hemingway, slipping deeper into paranoia and depression, is unable to resist colluding with the media in the invention of the public Hemingway: more men killed in more wars, bigger novels he can't complete, countless erections. Intermittently consumed by a "manic ardor," Hemingway brags about bedding his fourth wife, Mary, 55 times in the month of May.
Fraud, cruelty and egomania cohabit in a disintegrating psyche. Reynolds documents the accumulated tragedy of the life: "A writer is never free from the necessity of writing something better, different, more interesting than his last book, and each book comes with its own anxieties and difficulties. There is no decorous retirement plan except failure for a writer."
Reynolds's difficult task is to clarify the pressure on Hemingway to surpass his own legend. A literary Elvis, Hemingway imprinted American culture too thoroughly, and so Reynolds must negotiate the overly familiar and the stuff only true fans probably want to hear about. Is there anyone who doesn't know that Hemingway ended his life by firing a shotgun into his mouth? Is there anyone who wants to know that Hemingway's nickname for his penis was Mr. Scrooby? With his liver shot, his system a "pharmacological stew," and the endless carnage of his personal relations, the last years of Hemingway's life appall more than they summon pity. It is hard to imagine an innocent reader coming fresh to Hemingway's life with this final volume, but Reynolds is nonetheless careful to make essential details of the previous books (which include The Young Hemingway and Hemingway: The Paris Years) present with minimum recapitulation.
For instance, Hemingway's hostilities with his mother, a woman he feared would be "booby trapped" at her own funeral, are inserted as needed. Reynolds only occasionally succumbs to the florid (the marriages as battlefields, the grand sweep of world events in a single paragraph). And he is not always above an insider's nod: "But that was in another country of Hemingway's mind, the fictional country where he could control the forces at work." And by the last chapter Reynolds seems unable to escape Hemingway's term for his depressions -- "black ass" moods -- a phrase, accurate or not, invoked too many times in the final pages. Relief, not surprise, follows the two explosions of the shotgun, and Reynolds indulgently opts for a Hollywood finale, as if biographer and readers are present, when Mary Hemingway "wakes to her widowhood, her world, changed, utterly changed." Reynolds stops the life here. There is no follow-up of the funeral, the disposition of property, or the tour of global mourning. It's hard to admit I wanted more, but I did.
Yet it doesn't have to be over. Thanks to Hemingway's son Patrick, we have True at First Light. In this fictional memoir's creepy and sententious introduction, he justifies the results: "Only Hemingway himself could have licked his unfinished draft into the Ursus horribilis it might have been. What I offer in True at First Light is a child's teddy bear." Patrick Hemingway intimates that without his guidance readers unfamiliar with the Mau Mau insurgency and the Kenya backdrop of the events might find the work "hard to follow." As a long-term resident of East Africa and son of Hemingway and wife number two, Pauline Pfeiffer, he can help. He claims sympathy with Mary and her ordeal. He knew wife number three, Martha Gellhorn, and he even has a take on Debba, the African love interest in the story, the "dark-matter opposition" who is to bring fertility, a daughter, an end to the writer's block -- something -- to the Ernie of the memoir. Assuming Patrick is also responsible for the Swahili glossary in the back and the character guide, he is clearly his father's son and cannot resist a pettish tirade under Debba's entry: "A different sort of criticism is now styled political correctness. Art is regarded by these critics as a tool in social engineering . . . "
True at First Light is episodic, weird and fascinating. Lots of animals die -- gerenuk (a strange long-necked gazelle), a leopard, a lion; and, in a maudlin memory, even Old Kite the horse is put down and becomes eagle bait. Readers must contend with the protocols of the shamba (cultivated field) and Hemingway's duties as an honorary game warden, founder of a nonsensical new religion and husband-to-be. There are medical duties, STDs, drink mixing, pillow talk, shopping, a marijuana Christmas tree. There is Ernie's hot gun and carved holster. There is Debba butting him with her cool haircut and the coy fondling of the hot holster. It's Hemingway live -- well, dead -- and undiminished in his power to offend. Homosexual playwrights, Fitzgerald, even Henry James prove fair game. Mary, too short to be a really good hunter, hunts a lion anyway, and we are told repeatedly that the lion must be killed before the birthday of Baby Jesus. There is endless recounting of Mary sleeping and the pair falling asleep like "good kittens." There is more holster foreplay.
Hemingway readers will enjoy the echoes of other works: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, lots of the stories. If one of Hemingway's great strengths has always been the lesson paid for, True is full of instruction: what books to pack on safari, how to hunt lions, procedures to combat insomnia, types of grizzly bear, the etiquette of beer-sharing. Plus Hemingway people know things about storks, worms, snakes, gimlets, tick removal, ear nibbling, the proper shape of a man's butt (flat), the advantages of the "small, hard, well formed breast" over the "pneumatic bliss" favored by Americans -- and did I mention holsters? In True, Hemingway is capable of great restraint and sensitivity. We are spared the lyrics to the dung-beetle hymn Ernie is planning for his new religion. And when the baboon population must be winnowed, for instance, he averts his prose: "In order neither to sadden nor enrage baboon lovers I will give no details."
Hemingway readers everywhere secretly treasure up the silliest Hemingway sentences, and when we are safe with each other we share them. For me, until now, it had been "We smoked skillfully in the dark." But True's "She was sitting with great dignity and she was chewing gum" is now ascendant.
This manuscript was part of the accumulating work of the late 1950s that Hemingway could not complete. Portions appeared in Sports Illustrated; the 850-plus- page African manuscript has been available to scholars at the Kennedy Library. For those who feel betrayed by hybrid, posthumous texts massaged by 70-year-old children of the famous, perhaps there is comfort in at last seeing an upside to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the event that effectively delayed production of this work and stalled its resuscitation for a while.
It will seem to some that I have been unkind. But in truth, I cannot imagine teaching American literature without Hemingway. There are wonderful sentences in True at First Light, intimations of self-deprecation, revelatory moments about what it must have been like not to be able to write anymore. Wanting it to be more of whatever it is or isn't would spoil it. "No hay remedio" ("There's nothing to be done about it") is Hemingway's advice throughout True, and it is good advice. I doubt that this will be the last of Hemingway. Another manuscript, a trunk, a letter, something will be found; the shotgun blasts have barely slowed him down. If this were all we had, it would be a tragedy. But it is not even the least of it.
Dawn Trouard teaches modern American fiction at the University of Central Florida and is the managing editor of the Faulkner Journal.
CAPTION: Ernest Hemingway with a local farmer during a hunting trip in Sun Valley, 1940