Conversations with Hemingway (10)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

8:30 AM. Okay, Papa, here we go again if you’re so inclined.

Coffee in hand, eh? What would you have done if you’d lived before coffee?

I have never known the difference, I presume. Yesterday we set out to talk about your state after the war, but didn’t get that far. So —

I had my only experiences of actual combat in France with Buck Lanham. Spain was different. In Spain, I knew which side I was on, and I was doing what little I could, but mostly I was being there and learning and absorbing. I was observing. In France I was with my own country’s army, and I was living with officers, and I was in terrain vastly more familiar to me than to them, plus I had old friends and friends of friends and people who knew of me from friends of friends — so I was able to be of real service. You know the story; you know how the Army and I had to lie our way out of trouble, and you know more or less how I felt about it. But the bitterness about it — aimed partly at the correspondents who blew the whistle on me and partly at the objective situation — didn’t ruin or overshadow the experience. I was part of the Army, finally, for the only time in my life.

Granted, I wasn’t an organized official part of the Army, but so much the better. I just wish I’d have been able to serve in the same way and get recognition for it. If I hadn’t been over there as a correspondent, but as some sort of adjunct to the Army, the value of what I did would have been obvious enough and there wouldn’t have been any need to conceal it. But that’s crying for the moon. If I hadn’t been there as a correspondent, I couldn’t have gotten there at all. And maybe I wouldn’t have been with a sympathetic commander. And maybe even Buck would have had to be different if he’d technically had me as an official subordinate.

Anyway, I got enough of combat. Didn’t need any more, ever, and was glad to be able to leave with honor without having to stay for the end. I had more time in France than in Spain, actually.

When I came home in 1918, I came home as a wounded veteran (even though I hadn’t been in the Army), but my experience of combat was secondhand, being mainly, almost entirely, the stories I had heard the soldiers tell each other. When I came home in 1945, I came home as apparently unwounded and apparently not a veteran (because I hadn’t been officially a soldier), but my experience of combat was firsthand. You didn’t have to have a rifle in your hand to be involved in combat in the Hurtgen Forest, and if you knew men who got killed, it didn’t matter that you weren’t an infantrymen, if you were there and not hiding in the rear somewhere. And although untreated concussions are not the same as war wounds, they aren’t free, either.

I knew combat. I knew the soldiers and the officers. I understood what I saw and I could discuss it professionally with professionals. I had the respect of men like Buck not because they were writers or I was a writer but because they saw that I was not a bluff or a poseur.

But I was 45, and that’s too old to be at war. It’s just too old. Men do, of course. The officers of senior rank were pretty much all in their 40s and 50s. But it’s too damned old to be accompanying boys of 18 and 20 across northern France in winter. I was plenty glad to be done with it, and glad to know it was going to be my last taste of it. You didn’t see me volunteering to go to Korea, for instance.

So I came home, and I was bone tired. I wasn’t elated, I wasn’t in some exalted state of mind, and I certainly didn’t think our “crusade” was something to give parades for. It was just a dirty brutal job that had to be done, and it was getting done, and I wouldn’t be any help in Germany and I didn’t want to see any more kids get killed and I didn’t have any duty holding me there. I just wanted to go home and silently lick my wounds — and home wasn’t even in the US, but in Cuba.

Home was all different too, of course. Marty had found the place and had made it our nest, but she was gone and Mary was on her way. And the war had run over the old life the way it ran over everything else. You couldn’t expect any part of life to stand still, any more than part of Spain could resist the 20th century. Didn’t mean you had to like it, but there it was.

Were you in a black mood, then?

Not actively. It was more like recuperating from a fever. You sort of inch your way back into life, and you see that life has been going on without you, and there are a lot of big and mostly small adjustments you have to make. But there is a gray haze of fatigue you are pushing through, and it works as a cushion and at the same time it muffles things, making everything harder and less worthwhile-seeming.

I had lost five years of my writing life. Ten percent if I lived to be 70. All right, what you draw is what you get. I had a lot of new material, and I had a big canvas to paint if I could proportion it. And, after all, I hadn’t been killed or obviously wounded, and perhaps I wouldn’t be seen as too pre-war if I got something out soon enough. But I was tired, bone tired not even so much in my body as in my soul, and that’s hard on a writer, for you don’t just write from what you know, but from how you know it, and from what part of you knows it. That’s a matter of emotion. If you can’t touch the part of yourself that experienced certain things, there’s no use trying to just talk about them, that’s just a laundry list.

And yet you can’t just wait until you feel like writing. Amateurs may wait until they’re in the mood, but professionals don’t, because they know they can’t.

That’s one reason why Islands in the Stream begins with that long pre-war (should call it inter-war, really) section. I could afford to go back into that place in myself, and that’s also why it is so sad, because it was all lost. Thomas Hudson lost wives, love, children, way of living, use of his talents and then finally his life. It didn’t work out quite that way for me, but I could imagine Jack being killed (and, in fact, did for a good while) and the rest came easily enough.

I really want to hear about your writing after the war but I’m too tired already. Need some breakfast, maybe. More later, I hope.

10:50 AM. You had it in mind, I gather, to have a vast novel of land, sea and air warfare?

That had been in my mind, but I couldn’t get enough air experience to really know the subject. I’d left that too late in life. If you’ve spent a good deal of time hunting and fishing, you’ve absorbed the feel of the land and sea, and you can use it as background for your stories. But if you haven’t been a flyer — and of course especially if you haven’t been a combat pilot or haven’t even had any equivalent to flight school or the special military training given to future pilots and mechanics and navigators and bombardiers — how are you going to write about it knowledgeably? You could write about men’s reactions to combat, or to prolonged strain, or to the effects of bombing, and you might be able to describe the experience of combat in the air — but it would take you a while to acquire the vocabulary, the unnoticed background that is the equivalent of knowing what the role of the pelican is in the life of Key West fisherman. I didn’t have it and couldn’t get it, so the air component dropped out.

The sea component was there, but I had to untangle it from the Crook Factory of real life — and I had to consider how much of certain things I wanted to — or felt I could — say. But the two sections — Cuba and At Sea — that Mary and Charlie attached to the pre-war section they called Bimini is not entirely a natural fit. It needed a transitional section I didn’t get to write. Where I went wrong was in the very final part of the Bimini piece. It rounded it off emotionally, but too abruptly and too cursorily. It needed to be expanded and done more carefully, or it needed to precede a section that would have gotten Thomas Hudson into the war. As it is, people who aren’t familiar with the 20th century — as, soon, they won’t be — will be unable to fill in the blanks. But, as a patchwork solution that saved all three pieces from oblivion, it served. I’m not criticizing their decisions, just saying this isn’t what I would have done.

And I chose to do the land piece in a way that seems to have pleased nobody. Instead of set pieces, I had Richard Cantwell remember things glancingly, touching memories with his emotions and then backing away. All right, the romance doesn’t work in the way it is, and I can see that now. I can only plead that I was involved in heavy wish-fulfillment. If I’d made her a middle-aged woman, or even a woman in her late 20s, probably it would have been all right. Or if nobody had known of Adriana. But the excellent material that is in that book gets passed over.

Well, Papa, I for one thought the book far too short and had far too little about his military experiences in the war. What there was excellent — and a nice tribute to lightning Joe Collins in passing — but it made me wish for much more. What you wanted, perhaps.

I wanted to leave the impression of a man sick of war, sick at heart, sick of stupidity and suffering, even somewhat sick of himself. Painting scenes of warfare wouldn’t have accomplished that.

Not even in conversation with fellow officers, or thoughts sparked by his chauffeur or by anyone?

Any story can be taken in many directions, but only in any one of them, not in all. The more you try to hedge your bets, the less chance that you will accomplish any one solid thing.

Do you think that across the river pushed your idea of leaving out everything you could too far?

Well, maybe. It shouldn’t have been too far. Readers should have been able to get it, and, after all, many of them did, and do. But I guess I should have thought that fewer people can do trigonometry than can add columns of figures. But even so — it was worth doing for its own sake.

So — what was your life after 1945?

It wasn’t as good as the 1930s, that’s sure. Accumulation of the side effects of years of endurance, for one thing. Too well-known for the wrong things, for another. Unable to get myself settled back within myself, mostly — and this I didn’t ever consciously realize. People talk about my getting trapped in the Papa myth, but I wonder if they know what they really mean to say. It isn’t that I was fooling myself, or that I was lost, or that I was trying to fool others. It’s a little more difficult than any of those, or all of them.

When I came home from war for the last time, I came home from other things, too. It was no longer the 1930s, and neither the political stuff I’d gotten lured into nor the sense of one particular menace to be overcome — fascism — still existed. But what had we gained, and where were we going, and what were we going to do and become? I didn’t feel a part of any of that.

I was a writer, not a politician or a political hanger-on. But everything had moved to politics. The life I had lived was getting ever less possible for anybody to live, and even if you could, it was as an exception rather than as one among many.

And, you know,


Once the times have moved on to a place you don’t want to be, you are stuck writing elegies, or fantasy, or reminiscences. I didn’t much like the postwar world, and I didn’t particularly belong it, and I didn’t have all that much to say to it. Plus my friends kept dying, like Max Perkins and then Charlie Scribner, and it isolates you.

Andy you were living on an island away from your changing country.

I did get to Montana every so often, but that’s right — my ordinary life didn’t have anything to do with the ordinary life of Americans in cities or small towns, even. I started to lose touch. Even when my life had been conspicuously different — sea fishing, hunting, attending the corridas — it was different in a way that let people tag along with it and add to their life. But now, they didn’t understand me or my life and I didn’t much understand them or theirs. You ought to relate to that, too!

Oh yes. Television is a great divider depending on whether you watch it or not.

It isn’t just television, it’s everyday experience, and what people make of it. If you read all the time — and I did — and you had had unusual experiences and unusual friends and enemies, and you had had a certain prominence, and so had access to certain facts — you weren’t living in the same world as most people.

Now, I am not talking about conspiracies. I’m talking about common experience, common understanding. The rich don’t understand other parts of society very well, because they live isolated from other people. That had happened to me. It wasn’t like Key West in the 30s, or Paris in the 20s, when I could hang around fisherman or workers as well as educated and artistic people. After the war, I was too famous and too pre-war for that to be possible. I was el viejo not just in years (and in being beat up) and not even particularly in wisdom, but in an experience — which to a degree is the same as saying — he’s past his time. And if you don’t particularly like or believe in the times you’re in — well, you are part of your time, in a way.

And so?

And so it had its effect on my writing, because it had its effect on my life, on my experiences. How could I write about life in Levittown, even if I wanted to? How could I write about anything I didn’t have a feel for? That isn’t quite saying, if I didn’t live it I couldn’t write it, but if I couldn’t find my way into it, certainly I couldn’t write it.

I wish you’d done a better job of integrating the Harry Morgan book, before the war. I know it was the temptation to use One Trip Across and The Tradesman’s Return both, but one being in the first person and one in third person breaks it up. And there’s too much of a break in the action too, and the relevance of contrasting his life and the professor’s life isn’t nearly as clear as it should be. And that book couldn’t have been put off until after the war.

Oh, I know. Don’t think I did. But I had to get to Spain, and it all was starting to look over and done with. (I thought the war would get to us a little sooner than it did.) I needed a book and I didn’t have the patience with myself that I usually had. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking all that well.

Martha Gellhorn?

Can’t really blame it on her. It is true, politics was the rock that book broke on. And yet, it was politics I was trying to show. So what could you do? I wanted to bring that hurricane in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It would be like using people’s deaths for my own profit. Besides, what would Harry do? His opinion of it would have been harsh enough but could he have helped? And what would be the good of his traveling there and seeing things and not really doing anything? So I left it. But I started off thinking I’d show the effects of politics on a simple self-sufficient man. And when I botched it, it couldn’t be fixed.

3:45 PM. Reading The Old Man And The Sea, I come to where he praised a hail Mary and then adds, “Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.”

And I think, the Virgin is company for him — for those who believe — as all my deceased friends, including those I did not know in life, are to be. It is as real to them as that, and this is what the unbelievers do not understand, because it is something they have not experienced, and their belief makes them see as impossible. Their belief in nada, or their unbelief in anything they cannot see or justify.

5:30 PM. Making a virtue of necessity [power outage] — to Vito’s for supper . And, on impulse, a pizza. I wonder when the power is going to come back

This afternoon I reread The Old Man And The Sea. What a fine achievement. Papa, did Max Perkins read it over your shoulder?

[EH] Well, ask him.

Consider it asked.

[MP] Don’t think that keeping an eye on earth through the lens of our old personality is the only thing we have to do — but we do it often enough. And don’t think that because I am remembered via Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wolfe and Scribner’s and my other authors, that this or any of them or all of them together were the center of what you might call my soul-life. That would be like being a popular singer and having people think your life’s purpose and significance to you yourself was encompassed in one hit song you sang. It could be, in theory — but it wouldn’t be. The things one is remembered for are not necessarily the things closest to one’s heart.

That’s clear enough. Should I ask what was the center of your life?

It would depend on what you focused on. The emotional center of my life was my family, of course, especially my daughters. But suppose you want to look at what was most critical for my growth — again, it would depend on what you concentrated on. Editing people might one day challenge my intellect, another day, my patience. Being a part of Scribner’s might lead me into uncomfortable situations as you noticed a while ago, talking with Ernest — divided loyalties. And life day by day has its own recorded challenges. “Unrecorded” doesn’t mean unimportant; it just means, perhaps, private, or perhaps not easily categorized.

So, looking over your shoulder at the world that continues without you, what draws your attention?

It would be slightly easier to explain if we were on a particular subject, so let’s take your original question. As time proceeded, my connection with my authors drew more and more people’s attention to me, little though they realized that we here feel it! It’s like the steady drag of a fishing line in the mouth, “Papa”!

[EH] Yes, that isn’t a bad way to put it.

And when Ernest was working on the story, that he had told me long before, he had me somewhat in mind — not front and center, of course, but there — and I felt it. Then when he dedicated the book to young Charlie and me — that brought more attention, reminding people, you might say. Reminding them that I existed.

All during that time than Ernest was writing the book, he was actually dragging his pencil behind his imagination. So it was as though he was painting us a movie. You see? Or — probably you don’t. It was a stretch of time during which his mind was occupied with one thing, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, but always there.

Here’s my pizza, so more will have to be later.

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