ERNEST HEMINGWAY: A LIFE STORY by Carlos Baker Scribner’s, $10.00
Shortly after its publication I remember discussing A Farewell to Arms with a famous obstetrician. “How did you like it?" I asked. “Great,” he said, “I thought it was great. But I couldn’t bear to read about Catherine Barkley’s death. It was too near the real thing.”
That criticism by one professional of another expresses what many of my generation felt about Ernest Hemingway: he did bring us so dangerously close to the real thing. Pete Wellington, who bossed him as a young reporter on the Kansas City Star, said that Ernest “wanted always to go where the action was,” and a year later while convalescing from his serious wounds in Italy, Hemingway made a statement, in a letter to his father, which could be called his working credo: “It does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling to be wounded,”he wrote. “There are no heroes in this war. . . . All the heroes are dead. . . . Dying is a very simple thing. I’ve looked at death and really 1 know. If I should have died, it would have been . . . quite the easiest thing I ever did. . . . And how much better to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old and illusions shattered.”In a way that accounts for his bravado and the tall tales he loved to invent about himself. It also accounts for the strength and authority of his writing.
There were three Hemingways for the biographer to consider: Ernest as he was, Ernest as he wanted people to think he was, and, less personal, Ernest as the author of some of the finest writing in this century. Carlos Baker, a professor of English at Princeton, has concentrated on the first two in his vital, unsparing, and absorbing book Ernest Hemingway: A Fife Story. The panorama of the career is familiar; what are not familiar are the intimacies of this combative spirit, the recital of which, once begun, will possess the reader until it is finished.
To show Hemingway’s development through the sixty years which he lived with such gusto, the biographer has interwoven the things he said, often impetuously and sometimes not true, with those passages from his letters which tend to be less impulsive and more accurate. Mr. Baker is a shrewd judge of Hemingway’s actions; when he tries to judge the writing lie is clumsy; the insight he provides is in the selection of material, and he draws the line more surely than Mr. Hotchner did between what is real and what is brag.
The early struggle in Paris is most appealing, when Ernest was living on the tiny inheritance of his first wife, Hadley, plus the little lie earned from the Toronto Star, and when his friendships with Ezra Pound (“He’s teaching me to write, and I’m teaching him to box”), Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and the Archibald MacLeishes were uncontaminated. This period is studded with memorable remarks: “All you have to do,” he kept reminding himself, “is to write one true sentence,” and the six which he wrote and rewrote and finally copied in his blue notebook headed Paris 1922 are, as Baker says, a brilliant distillation of what he had seen in five months in the Latin Quarter, Disillusion with Mussolini’s Italy came quickly: “I’ve buried Italy and why dig it up while there is a chance it still stinks”; a night on the town is invariably followed by “gastric remorse”; and it is Hemingway the perfectionist who admits that he always had to ease off on making love when he was working hard because the two things were run by the same motor. His love for Spain, for the sea, and for trout streams, his passionate determination to be with the American infantry in the liberation of Europe, were among his nobilities. Elis compulsion to compete with everyone and the fact that he was a bad loser are less praiseworthy. His loyalty to his father is counterbalanced by the streak of cruelty with which he turned and rent friend after friend.
There are some inadvertent lapses in details, as is to be expected in a work of this scope. None of us in the ambulance service took seriously the honorary rank of “Sub-lieutenant,” as Ernest is said to have done; his alleged “conversion” to Catholicism in 1918 was merely a pretext for his marriage to Paidine, as Ada MacLeish rightly perceived; Harry Crosby, whose death Ernest deplored, killed himself not in Paris but in New York; in 1929 the sale of All Quiet on the Western Front was five times that of A Farewell to Arms: and for the At Ian tie’s centennial issue, Ernest wrote not one short story, but two. But these are trivia. Ezra Pound once drew Hadley aside with this advice: “Never try to change Hem,” he said. “Most wives try to change their husbands.”Mr. Baker has followed those words scrupulously. This is the true Hemingway; here are the sources from which he worked, his loves and his enmities, the friends who felt abused in what he wrote and the inner few like Pound, Hadley, Mary, and Gary Cooper who saw him more truly and put up with the indignities because of what they loved. The concluding passage when Hemingway has lost his strength and self-control is a Samson-picture written with pity and dignity.
THE FIRE-DWELLERS, by Margaret Laurence Knopf, $5.95
A Canadian writer born in Manitoba in 1926, Margaret Laurence went with her civil engineer husband to live first in Somaliland and then in Ghana, and the best of her early books, The Tomorrow-Tamer, was a notable collection of short stories of West Africa at that difficult time of transition when the white authority was moving out and the natives were left with the task of administration. Her more recent books have been placed in the vicinity of Vancouver: in A Jest of God (from which came the movie Rachel, Rachel) she told of the thawing out of a lonely spinster, and now in the sequel, The Fire-Dwellers, she tells the story of Rachel’s sister, Stacey MacAindra, who at thirty nine is an overworked, nettlesome housewife, the mother of four, bound by long loyalty to her suspicious and uncommunicative husband, a traveling salesman. There are all the elements here for a dreary setup, and what saves it from being so is Stacey’s indomitable wrath.
The sexy prettiness which she had at nineteen when she ran away from her feuding parents has all but vanished. She is sensitively aware of her big hips and her tired clothes, and even more troubled by her inability, in her pell-mell day, to get through to her children: Katie, the eldest daughter, who has her mother’s prettiness and rebelliousness; Ian, who persecutes his younger brother, Duncan; and Jen, who at two is still speechless and who Stacey suspects is retarded. With Mac she has lost confidence; he is on the road so much that what they seem to share most readily is their mutual snappish fatigue. Stacey’s weapons are her forthright tongue and her intelligence that cuts through sham. She can be scathing with herself, and when warmed up with gin and tonic, murderously indiscreet—which never fails to embarrass her husband. She is hungry for love, she knows how tenuous is their security, and during her daily exposure to television her gorge rises at the destruction in Vietnam. “I said to Jake one evening two three years ago that I had this feeling like the fall of Rome. . . .”But for all her self-dissatisfaction and exasperation she never gives up trying. She has a quick temper, and her anger is something to watch.
Miss Laurence writes in the continuous present, and Stacey s state of mind is revealed in a swift-flowing stream of dialogue, reaction, reproach, and nostalgia. Her feud with Mac has its lighter moments in an amusing satire of his salesmanship; her abduction by Buckle, the foulmouthed truck driver, is a real chiller; and the fling she has with young Luke Venturi when her husband’s suspicions have driven her in a fury from her home is an adventure worthy of her steel. Miss Laurence is the best fiction writer in the Dominion and one of the best in the hemisphere.
OPEN HORIZONS, by Sigurd F. Olson Knopf, $5.95
If we appointed a Dean of Forests as the British appoint a Poet Laureate, the choice would fall on Sigurd F. Olson, president of the Wilderness Society, past president of the National Parks Association, and valued consultant to several Secretaries of the Interior. He has been exposed to the Northern wilderness since his boyhood in Wisconsin, and today is the beloved authority on the lake country of Quetico-Superlor.
Open Horizons, his new volume, is, like his first and best-read book, The Singing Wilderness, a paean to the all-engulfing silence of wilderness, to the glory of the stars, and to the sheer delight of making one’s way by canoe and portage through new and unmapped country. There is a lively characterization of the older guides who taught him how to handle an ax, how to cook, paddle, and travel light. They were men of all breeds. French-Canadians and Crees predominantly, and like the Sherpas of the’ Himalayas, capable of carrying with a tumpline a load of up to 450 pounds. When he told a guide in the Hudson Bay country that he had seen a Cree licit 500 pounds, the guide said, “I can carry that too, and the Indian on top.”
In addition, Olson seems to have a sixth sense, a kind of clairvoyance which has stamped certain scenes indelibly in his memory, and one in particular when as a guide he had lost a boy on a canoe trip through dense wilderness, and no amount of searching or trailing had produced a clue. “The youngster would starve, he recalled, “if we did not find him. ... I remember vividly the end of the long search when everyone had given up hope how I sat on a windfall wondering what to do. I had covered the country for miles around, crossed and recrossed it time anti again, trying to figure out what the boy might have done in his wanderings. I prayed then, long and silently.” At that point a calm came over him, what he calls the “acceptance of a power beyond me”; he made a fresh start, and within three miles over hogs and rugged hills, found the boy sitting on the bank of a beaver flowage. “I was not surprised,” he said. “I looked at him for a long time, and the Pipes were playing softly as they always do when a man has listened to their music and followed it to its source.”
Mr. Olson’s awareness, his rejuvenation when in the woods, his belittlement of all hazards, insects included, testify to his dedication.