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A Double Life, Half Told


by Malcolm Cowley

ISLANDS IN THE STREAM
by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner's, $10.00

WHEN Ernest Hemingway came back from the wars for the last time, in March, 1945, he was the most famous writer in the world, and he had chosen -- or the public had chosen for him -- the most difficult problem he could bring himself to face. He must write a novel about World War II that should be bigger in every way than For Whom the Bell Tolls. For this he had more than enough material, all gathered at firsthand. There were obstacles to the writing, however, of which the public had no conception.

In the beginning the worst obstacle was both physical and mental. Hemingway was always taking risks, always getting knocked on the head, and during the war he had suffered two serious concussions. One of these, in a London blackout, also involved a scalp wound that had to be closed with fifty-seven stitches. Back in Cuba, Hemingway complained to his physician, Dr. José Luis Herrera, about the aftereffects: "terrible headaches, slowness of thought and speech, loss of verbal memory, a tendency to write syllables backwards, sporadic ringing of the ears, and partial impairment of hearing." Herrera said, according to Hemingway's biographer Carlos Baker, that the liquor Ernest had drunk in France and in Belgium was the worst possible treatment for subdural hematoma. He advised gradual retraining of the injured brain, with limited intellectual activity each day.

For some months Hemingway severely restricted his drinking. He devised a literary program for himself to get back into the swing of writing, first with personal letters, then with more and more complicated fictions.

Gradually the symptoms disappeared, but they were replaced in the course of time by other obstacles to producing a big novel. One of these was his still growing fame, which crowded The finca Vigía with editors, interviewers, assorted notabilities, and jolly drinking companions. Another was his restless vitality, which drove him farther and farther afield on expeditions that consumed his time and exposed him to the danger of new accidents. The two airplane crashes in East Africa, early in 1954, not only revived his old symptoms, with complications such as double vision, but gave him internal injuries from which he never quite recovered. On his return to the Finca, however, he reestablished the discipline of writing every morning.

One is astonished to learn how much patient work he accomplished in spite of those obstacles and others. Besides the two novels he published after the war, and besides a quantity of smaller pieces, some unprinted, there are also five book-length manuscripts that he left behind him. The shortest of these was A Moveable Feast, which was more or less ready for publication and appeared in due time. Three others -- The Garden of Eden, a novel about a strange honeymoon in the south of France; The Dangerous Summer, about Hemingway's travels with a famous matador; and a half-factual, half-fictional account of the disastrous safari -- were in such an inchoate state that they may never appear. In The Garden of Eden, however, are two extraordinary stories that I hope can be printed separately. The longest and by all means the best of the manuscripts was the one that Hemingway's friends, without having read it, used to call "the sea novel" and that now appears as Islands in the Stream.

The manuscript has a complicated history. While following the American armies in France, and sometimes going before them, Hemingway had conceived of writing a trilogy about the war, with one volume each devoted to sea, air, and land. The sea novel was to come first, but it would seem -- Ernest was secretive about what he was writing -- that he didn't start work on it until late in 1947; then he continued at intervals until 1952. Gradually his conception of the book changed; instead of his writing it as a continuous novel, it was to be a collection of three long stories -- or perhaps four; there was a time when he thought that The Old Man and the Sea, written in January and February, 1951, might serve as a coda to the book. But wisely he decided to publish it as a separate volume, and then, after further revision of the other three stories, he declared that they were finished and put them into a bank vault in Havana.

They weren't quite finished, however, except as separate stories; if they were to appear as sections of the same novel, some few adjustments would have to be made. Ernest's widow and his publisher, Mary Hemingway and Charles Scribner, finally undertook the task of preparing the book for the printer. Having read most of the original manuscript, I can say with conviction that their decisions have been wise ones: first to publish the stories together; then to make some omissions, the longest of which is an interlude in Florida, good enough in itself, that would have made the book less unified; and finally, to make no other changes except in Ernest's erratic spelling and punctuation. One is delighted to have the book in its present form.

As everyone knows by now, Islands in the Stream consists of three episodes in the life of Thomas Hudson, a famous (one gathers) painter with three sons by two marriages, both of which have ended in divorce. In the first and longest episode, Hudson is living alone on the island of Bimini and looking forward to a visit from the sons, who are his closest tie with life. The visit is idyllic, but soon after it ends Hudson is notified by wireless that the two younger sons and their mother have died in a motor accident. The second episode takes place in Havana during the second winter after Pearl Harbor. Hudson has armed his fishing boat as a decoy for German submarines, but the northwest gales have forced him to spend a week ashore. Now he learns that his oldest son has also been killed, flying a Spitfire. He is briefly reconciled with the boy's mother, whom he still adores, but they quarrel again, and Hudson is ordered back to sea. "Get it straight," he says to himself in Hemingway language. "Your boy you lose. Love you lose. Honor has been gone for a long time. Duty you do." In the final episode, which takes place the following summer, Hudson and his nondescript crew are pursuing the well-armed survivors of a bombed U-boat. The Germans have landed at a fishing village, have slaughtered the inhabitants, and then have sailed westward along the coast in two harmless-looking turtle boats. With a prescience that he shares with other Hemingway heroes, Hudson is sure that he will be the first to die when his crew catches up with them, but still he stands on the bridge, a fair target, and does his duty to the end.

Islands in the Stream is thus an induction to the war novel that Hemingway had planned to write. Except in length, it is not one of his major works, but it is consistently interesting and contains some admirable scenes. There is, for example, Hudson's colloquy with Mr. Bobby, the bartender on Bimini who tells him how to paint an immense picture of the Last Judgment. There is young David Hudson's day-long fight with a giant broadbill. There is Hudson's cat Boise, lording over the big drafty house near Havana, and there is Hudson drinking at the bar of the Floridita with Honest Lil, the dean and deaconess of all the Havana whores. The sea chase of the final episode should be the best sequence of all, and in fact it demands comparison with the dynamiting of the bridge in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but it loses by the demand of Hudson's glum sense of duty, and his implicit death wish seems pale when placed beside Robert Jordan's tangle of fierce emotions.

The weakness of the book might be that here, as in other works of his later period, Hemingway was unable to make effective use of his subconscious mind. He had always depended on and often said that a good half of his work was done in the subconscious: "Things have to happen there before they happen on paper." In his early period that use of the subconscious enabled him to produce apparently simple works that have an amazing resonance. He descended to a level of feeling, call it primitive or prehistoric, at which natural objects become symbols without ceasing to be solidly real, and events become archetypes of human experience. As for the Hemingway hero, whether his name was Frederic Henry or Jake Barnes or Robert Jordan, he became the hero of ancient myths. That is, he was marked for admiration and envy, he was cast out by his people (in A Farewell to Arms), he wandered impotent through the wasteland (in The Sun Also Rises), he found guides and precursors, then finally he rejoined his people (in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and died after leading them in a brilliant exploit.

But what would Hemingway do after the hero was dead? How would he resurrect him and present his latest career, once again in a mythical pattern? Those were questions that puzzled me for many years, and only once did they receive a satisfying answer. Of course that was in The Old Man and the Sea, where the subconscious once again came to his help and enabled him to write a story with the simplicity and resonance of his early work -- with too much simplicity, I thought at first, but the resonance was mysteriously present. Santiago, it seemed to me, was a new archetype, the hero as a hapless but unbroken old man.

Thomas Hudson is not a hero of myth. He is based on Hemingway himself, as most of the other heroes are (except Santiago and Harry Morgan), but in fact he represents only one side of the author: I mean the mask or persona that Hemingway adopted in his relations with the world. Thus, he is brave, competent, wise in a fatherly fashion, and able to hold his liquor -- as Hemingway truly was in life -- but those qualities in the author were mingled with others that make him an endless study. Hudson gives hardly a hint of having deeper qualities except for a feeling of despair, regarding which the author brings forward a drastic explanation: it was caused, he gives us to understand, by the death of Hudson's three sons. But the reader is likely to feel that the despair is of longer standing, based as it seems to be on the same feeling in the author, and that the sons have served as a blood sacrifice to the exigencies of fiction.

That is the weaker side of Islands in the Stream, but one must add that it is a bold, often funny, always swashbuckling book that only Hemingway could have written. It gives one a new respect for the efforts of his later years. Handicapped as he was by injuries and admirers, he continued almost to the end a double life, playing the great man in public -- and playing the part superbly -- then standing alone at his worktable, humble and persistent, while he tried to summon back his early powers. At the very end he found that he had been too deeply wounded to write even a single sentence after standing there all day. Nevertheless, that private, disciplined, puzzled, and finally despairing self of his now seems more appealing than his brilliant persona. It has a different sort of greatness, in some ways resembling that of his own Santiago.


Copyright © 1970 by Malcolm Cowley. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1970; A Double Life, Half Told - 70.12; Volume 226, No. 6; page 105-108.