Hemingway on the problem of biography

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

7 AM. Reading Hotchner’s Hemingway And His World, now. A reason that people can’t get his life straight is that there are too many parts to remember. So, if there’s a long stretch when he isn’t publishing (regardless if he is writing) it looks like a blank patch. Or if he isn’t even writing, clearly lost time. Yes, Papa?

It’s natural enough. You want to tell somebody life story, you find a couple themes and follow them — his work, his loves, his families (the one he is born into, and the one he creates). You might throw in his hobbies or other things, but it’s only a few themes. They won’t all be very communicable. They won’t be equally important, and they won’t be equally important at any given time in his life. And they won’t be the whole of his life, and they can’t ever be.

This whole idea of understanding somebody’s life is oversimplified. You can find a mainspring sometimes, and tell the story of the mainspring and how it plays out, but even there you’re going to get — let’s say, you’re going to get one external facet of the man — one place where what he is interacts with what he experiences of the world. And since you can’t get the internal connection between that part of him and other parts, you’re going to get a very superficial, almost static, view of even that one part of him. It would be all right if you just could remember that you’re mostly missing him.

Well, I am certainly beginning to see it with you. A few others make it clear too. Jefferson, for instance. A lot of facets to examine, and no practical way to hold them all in mind, and no practical way to express them all within a sufficiently small compass that the reader can hold it.

Movies or TV could do it, to some extent, but the basic fact is that it takes more than a lifetime to understand and absorb a lifetime, so what are you going to do?

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