The old man and the sea of books

One hundred years ago, on July 21, 1899, a child was born who would have a profound effect on American - and, indeed, world - literature in the 20th century.

As Michael Reynolds writes at the conclusion of this fifth and final volume of his comprehensive biography, "Ernest Hemingway was the embodiment of America's promise: the young boy from Oak Park who set out to become the best writer of his time.... He remodeled American short fiction, changed the way characters speak, confronted the moral strictures confining the writer, and left behind a shelf of books telling us how we were in the first half of this century.... His ambition, intensity, creative drive, sense of duty, belief in hard work, and faith in the strenuous life carried him to the pinnacle of his profession ... before destroying him when he could no longer meet their demands."

"Hemingway: The Final Years" covers the last 21 years of its subject's life. It begins in 1940, with Hemingway's completion of one of his finest fictional achievements, his powerful, yet restrained novel of the Spanish Civil War, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Although Hemingway continued to live through a variety of thrilling, dangerous, and dramatic experiences, from big game hunting in Africa to reporting - and even participating in - combat after the Normandy invasion, these failed to engender the magnificent fiction that his previous forays had done. He was never able to write the great novel of World War II, as he had done for the century's earlier world war in "A Farewell to Arms."

The effects of the disappointment Hemingway felt are probably incalculable, and Reynolds paints a bleak picture of this writer's decline. The external pressures were bad enough: the expectation that he would produce a great novel; the pain of watching from the sidelines as one writer after another succeeded where he could not; the scornful reviews that greeted the novels he did manage to write.

But Hemingway's own judgment of his later work and of himself must have been what was hardest of all to bear. His ex-wife Martha Gellhorn characterized his embarrassing "Across the River and Into the Trees" as "God's vengeance; but Ernest will never know. He will go on ... always feeling misunderstood ... always feeling everything is someone else's fault."

Actually, Hemingway was too good a writer not to recognize his weaknesses. Reynolds's account of Hemingway's tormented last decades is keenly analytical, boldly interpretative, and reasonably judicious.

His portrait is marred only by his determination to establish what he sees as the inevitability of Hemingway's eventual suicide, with which this volume concludes. True, his father committed suicide and Hemingway himself often frightened those around him - particularly his wives - with threats to kill himself. But Reynolds's attempt to convince us that there was no other way in which the story could have ended is too fatalistic to be persuasive.

In the last two decades of his life, when his literary output was so uneven, Hemingway spent an inordinate amount of time boasting of his skills as boxer, lover, brawler, and soldier. This biographer is adept at separating the facts from Hemingway's mythologizing.

"The question about these claims," he tartly remarks, "is not whether they are true or not, but why Hemingway felt compelled to invent and exaggerate them.... [M]aybe he could no longer tell the difference between what he imagined and ... reality. Or, more disturbingly, he was, perhaps, becoming his fiction."

Taken all in all, this is likely to be, for some time at least, the definitive life of Hemingway: extensively researched and vividly evocative.

It is, however, rather a pity that a writer famous for pioneering a modern prose style remarkable for its limpidness, spareness, and directness should have a biographer who is so prone to overwrite. What would Hemingway, master of the simple, declarative sentence, have thought of that?

after the Normandy invasion, these failed to engender the magnificent fiction that his previous forays had done. He was never able to write the great novel of World War II, as he had done for the century's earlier world war in "A Farewell to Arms."

The effects of the disappointment Hemingway felt are probably incalculable, and Reynolds paints a bleak picture of this writer's decline. The external pressures were bad enough: the expectation that he would produce a great novel; the pain of watching from the sidelines as one writer after another succeeded where he could not; the scornful reviews that greeted the novels he did manage to write.

But Hemingway's own judgment of his later work and of himself must have been what was hardest of all to bear. His ex-wife Martha Gellhorn characterized his embarrassing "Across the River and Into the Trees" as "God's vengeance; but Ernest will never know. He will go on ... always feeling misunderstood ... always feeling everything is someone else's fault."

Actually, Hemingway was too good a writer not to recognize his weaknesses. Reynolds's account of Hemingway's tormented last decades is keenly analytical, boldly interpretative, and reasonably judicious.

His portrait is marred only by his determination to establish what he sees as the inevitability of Hemingway's eventual suicide, with which this volume concludes. True, his father committed suicide and Hemingway himself often frightened those around him - particularly his wives - with threats to kill himself. But Reynolds's attempt to convince us that there was no other way in which the story could have ended is too fatalistic to be persuasive.

In the last two decades of his life, when his literary output was so uneven, Hemingway spent an inordinate amount of time boasting of his skills as boxer, lover, brawler, and soldier. This biographer is adept at separating the facts from Hemingway's mythologizing.

"The question about these claims," he tartly remarks, "is not whether they are true or not, but why Hemingway felt compelled to invent and exaggerate them.... [M]aybe he could no longer tell the difference between what he imagined and ... reality. Or, more disturbingly, he was, perhaps, becoming his fiction."

Taken all in all, this is likely to be, for some time at least, the definitive life of Hemingway: extensively researched and vividly evocative.

It is, however, rather a pity that a writer famous for pioneering a modern prose style remarkable for its limpidness, spareness, and directness should have a biographer who is so prone to overwrite. What would Hemingway, master of the simple, declarative sentence, have thought of that?

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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