Conversations with Hemingway (3)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

8:30 AM. 10 years out of your life, eh, Papa?

Fucking right. 10 years out of my writing life, which is my closest, most precious, part. Everything else in my life was sort of relaxing from it, or holding it away.

And from 1940 to 1950 you weren’t able to punish anything but Men At War. (I don’t know why I wrote “punish” instead of “publish.”)

Bearing in mind that writing is one thing and publishing is another. But the real chunk out of my writing life was between the rest period after Bell and the time after the war was over when I could start working again. But so much was changed, lost — that is what Islands was about, irretrievable Loss and what you had to do to deal with it in a manly way, instead of falling into self-pity or despair. A man had to know how to use his despair to build something.

Assuming you could retain faith in the value of building something.

Exactly. Or — if you couldn’t — you had to proceed anyway. What else was there to do? Having fun isn’t fun if you don’t offset it with some meaningful work.

The Q-Boat work was meaningful.

Yes it was, but it wasn’t my work, particularly. I mean, it was work that I was fitted to do, and it was necessary work, but it wasn’t writing. Accumulating raw materials, maybe.

And the work in France?

Well, more than anything, that was the cause of bitterness. I did a good job and couldn’t talk about it. The Army knew I did a good job, and had to pretend I didn’t, had to pretend it didn’t know, had to pretend to investigate, even. And the end result was that I couldn’t even use it in my writings.

What did you think of your war reporting?

It didn’t have much permanent value, and I acquired the knowledge it gave me at too high a price. I didn’t realize at the time, but that concussion in London was too high a price even all by itself.

I found your “First Poem To Mary” very revealing. Maybe more revealing than anything else you put into poetry.

Not quite ready to say “verse,” eh?

Well, it’s good free-form poetry, but what do I know about poetry?

You — knowing me and knowing my life — could read into that poem and see things.

Yes — like you expected to die in that boat, and so did those around you — or was that just romancing?

You go attack a submarine in a 38-foot boat and tell me if you expect to survive. But the war gods smiled on us, and we couldn’t catch the son of a bitch, so we lived.

Pardon a naïve question. If you expected to die if you engaged the sub — why engage it? I mean, what good would it do anybody for you to be killed without doing it any harm?

You couldn’t know that. We had our plans and we had been out there hoping for just a chance. So here was the chance. What should we have done? Play possum? Run? What would that say about us and our way we had been thinking of ourselves? Would you want to live with that memory for the rest of your life? And — maybe it would’ve worked! Probably if it did work, it would be the only time in the war it would. That would be something to remember.

And something to show Martha?

I was already past worrying about impressing Marty. She had her mind made up that I didn’t care about the important things and was just fishing and boozing out there. If we’d come in with a sub, or had a confirmed kill, signed off by CINCLANT, she’d have just said, “the sub must have interrupted the fishing.” She wasn’t going to give me the time of day, as you put it. She’d washed her hands of me, even if she didn’t quite know it. And I was about finished with her, too, and I was a lot closer to knowing it than she was.

Was Wolfie a British agent? I presume you know, now.

He was who he was, and that background assured his loyalty. America and England thought of themselves as having common interests in those days. There wasn’t the strain in him that such a straddle would cause today.

So — yes?

Yes, but not formally. He was willing to keep his friends informed. He wasn’t spying on me, if that’s what you mean (and it is, a bit). He was a good man and a valued friend.

Your portrait of Henry certainly is unclouded, if a little vague.

There were some things I didn’t think I should say. And anyway, fiction isn’t history.

Who is the original of Willie?

Nobody in the singular. I patched together some GIs from France and used a liberal imagination and put in a couple of Marines from the Pacific.


His function was Don Saxon, but he was invented otherwise.

As was Paxtchi, I suppose.

You’re getting on factual thin ice, and you can feel the ice cracking.

I can indeed. Enough for now?

Your choice.

Enough, I think. I’m getting mentally restless.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.