An unsolved problem

[Sunday, November 22, 2015]
F: 2:15 p.m. I’m ready to try again if you are, Papa. The writers and Harry?
EH: It was a difficult stitching-together I was trying to do and, once again, I regret so much – and so much in vain – that I didn’t have the time I needed to work out the tactical problems. Things were moving so fast, I would have had to miss the war in Spain – and Martha – and another chance to be 18 –
But there’s more to it than that, because if it came to a cold-blooded balancing of the books, a new adventure or completing the work in progress, probably I could have stayed and finished. But the foundations were all crumbling. I could hear things snapping underneath me. All this is something I’ve visited before, and we’ll look at it some more, but just make a note of it. The snapping of the supports under my old life was the background for my finishing or abandoning or rushing the book. It’s the only time I let that happen, but I still can’t quite see how I could have prevented it. Other timelines didn’t necessarily work out any better.
But anyway, Harry and the writers. Harry was the linchpin of the story and every other element had to relate to him. But that wasn’t so easy in the case of the writers in Key Wes. Other than an encounter in a bar, where were their lives going to touch? If he had still had his boat, I suppose he might have taken a party of writers fishing, and maybe that could have been made into an effective scene, but it wasn’t possible and by that point Harry was well beyond the captaining of sports fishermen.

F: The implied contrast was maybe not so much between them and Harry as between them and Papa. At least, that’s what some critics have suggested, and I must say, that’s how it seems to me too. Particularly the writer who is writing about the textile strike but not researching it, and just using clichéd plot devices… Not you. And not only this but other portraits were recognizable enough that you had to revise heavily to avoid possible libel prosecutions. So, why, and – well, let’s start with why?
EH: Why was I so petty, you’re saying.
F: Well—
EH: I don’t feel like making excuses for myself. Let’s just leave it that a guy gets tired of being labeled that or that, and see other guys doing things that more or less parrot the party line – I don’t mean the Communist Party line, though that influenced all left intellectuals in the 1930s, but what you might call the literary establishment party line – and being rewarded for it. I was doing my best work, I was at the top of my form, I met fabulous response from the reading public, I was making tons of money for my publishers – but I wasn’t following the party line, and so I was always being chided in print. I was irrelevant. I was a phony. I was a low-brow cretin. I was hiding behind the false hair on my chest. I was insensitive to the finer things in life. I was deaf to the sufferings of the poor. I was callous, heartless, trivial, stupid – you name it.
People don’t realize it, maybe, but that kind of criticism – especially if it is a steady barrage from all sides – builds up a pressure in a guy. I was always aware of being alone. I always had a sense that my career was precarious, and if I had a flop or a couple of mediocre books, my day would be over. I’m not saying that was true – though it might have worked out that way, who knows – but that was my fear that I lived with all the time. So to see a steady drumbeat, always the same tune, from so many directions, you can see how it looked like a pack of wolves trying to pull me down.
Who isn’t going to snap back sometimes? Max got a lot of it, in what you’re calling Hemingway’s emails, and you are absolutely right, it was an indulgence to be able to write off the top of my head, white-hot, profane, unfair, just for the relief of it. And in To Have and Have Not I did let it get into the characters I was using as foils for Harry – only I didn’t find an effective way to do it.
If Key West itself was the main character, standing in for the whole country, and if Key West could have been an active participant, you would have seen it. As it is, it’s there, but it doesn’t quite work.
Here is the environment I was describing.
The keys, home to hard working families who made their living as best they could, living on the sea.
Key West, a mixture of Conchs and rich visitors and tourists and others including blacks, Cubans and others who had not been born there but had come to consider it home.
The Gulf Stream, a presence always in the background that defined it all.
Cuba, across the water, a sort of sleazy Paris and gateway to the outer world [by way of steamship routes].
By implication, the railroad, and Miami, and the States beyond, another background presence.
Now you look at Key West and what do you see but several worlds living side by side, mingling sometimes at the bars, but otherwise each in its own limited circle. I wanted to draw the interaction among them. But by the very fact that the worlds didn’t touch, or touched only marginally and accidentally, it was hard to do. What logical connection would tie a rich crooked broker in his yacht – or a rich honest businessman for that matter – to a Conch scrabbling for a living? How would a casual tourist get involved in Harry’s world? How would Harry or Marie cross paths with a writer and his wife? How would Cuban gangsters or revolutionaries interact with any of them?
It wasn’t an easy problem to solve, and I didn’t really solve it, finally. I had to strip it down to Harry and the revolutionaries, then a survey of the rich on their yachts, then a look at the writers and their problems, then a view of the vets on a spree, then a sketch of the problems of the down and out Conchs, and throw in a little about the bureaucrat and the law and authority that was superimposed on it all. Ultimately, it was impossible.
F: That first story, “One Trip Across,” that opens the book, is so wonderful. I was hooked by the first half dozen words. Why couldn’t you have written To Have and Have Not in the first person, as worked so well in your other two [previous] big novels? The change in viewpoint was bad enough, but a third-person view really worked against a sense of unity.
EH: Maybe if I had started off knowing that I couldn’t do what I had in mind, I might have. And if I had limited the book to Harry’s story, maybe it would have worked better. But I just didn’t have time to think! I know I keep saying that. What it means is, I got so I couldn’t really keep my mind on it – all my mind, even while I was writing it – and how are you going to write anything that way, with you half somewhere else? After the war [World War II] I had the opposite problem, or maybe I should say the opposite situation. Then I had all the time I needed, and I had a steady life and no outside distractions – or not many, anyway – and I worked and reworked and stitched and sewed and cut and altered and I never did finally decide how to fashion my big book, or books. I didn’t need the money, so that spur was gone. Max died, so that sounding-board was gone. What I had were memories and ideas and time, and I let them lure me on. But in the mid-30s, time was one thing I didn’t have. My life with Pauline and the boys was getting to me, Key West’s changes were getting to me, overseas events were looming larger than ever, particularly to me as I had seen them coming. Everything was crumbling. In terms of continuity, I might as well have begun To Have and Have Not ten years before. That’s how fast things were changing within me and around me. I had to tie it off as best I could or it would have had to be abandoned.
F: All right, that sounds like end-of-topic to me. What next time?
EH: Maybe Martha. But maybe something entirely different. I guess we’ll see. F:
I guess we will. Till next time, then.

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