Hemingway's Formative Parisian Sojourn

TWENTY-NINE years after Ernest Hemingway's suicide we have an explosion of interest about his remarkable life. Since 1985 more than 10 major biographies have been published about this world-famous sportsman, macho role model, and superb author. ``Less Than a Treason,'' the second part of a projected three-volume work, describes Hemingway's early career as an author in Paris in the 1920s. Peter Griffin brings empathy, insight, and strong narrative skills to his book.

And what a story he has to narrate! Paris in the '20s was the most exciting place and time for art in this century. Picasso, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, Scott Fitzgerald, and many others defined modernism there as they interacted with each other and with Hemingway. But his tough, spare prose, vocal expertise on boxing, horse racing, and bullfighting, and skillful self-promotion soon made him the best known local figure of them all.

With a fine eye for intimate, concrete details that vivify a scene or sum up a mentality, Griffin depicts Hemingway's happiest and most exciting years. We see him ship off to Paris as a foreign correspondent, learn from the likes of Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ford Maddox Ford, and become disillusioned by postwar politics. Griffin also shows Hemingway reporting from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece, falling in love with bullfighting in Spain, struggling to get his innovative fiction published, and - tragically and all too easily - being seduced away from his devoted first wife.

Griffin's earlier volume, on the novelist's youth, was criticized for taking some of Hemingway's assertions too seriously and for assuming that the lives of his fictional protagonists duplicate his actual experiences. These faults are continued and amplified in ``Less Than A Treason,'' where the biographer no longer analyzes and documents his subject's life but has ``tried instead to recreate it,'' telling ``a story of Ernest's Paris years.''

As a storyteller Griffin can richly evoke a place, historical era, or mood. At his best he succeeds in combining disparate information from letters, news articles, and interviews into hypothetical but persuasive narrations of Hemingway's actions and thoughts. But Griffin's impressionistic method sometimes leads to far-fetched speculations and distorted conclusions.

In particular, Griffin errs about Hemingway's early experiences with women, which were much tamer than the author occasionally implied. Had he been as sexually loose before and in Paris as Griffin suggests, he would have had less moral outrage about Paris mores to put into his novel ``The Sun Also Rises'' and would have felt less guilt about cheating on his first wife.

To condense and smooth out his story, Griffin sometimes rides roughshod over uncertainties and complexities in Hemingway's experience - and too often over facts. His oversimplifications and inaccuracies include assertions that Hemingway was basically contemptuous of the famous writers he knew in Paris, that he cultivated their friendship merely to promote his own career, and that he became promiscuous soon after the birth of his first child.

In actuality, most experts believe, Hemingway respected and was grateful to Stein, Pound, and others, and was true to his wife until well after his child's first birthday. A more accurate portrayal of the author during this period was provided earlier this year by Michael Reynolds in his carefully researched and documented biography, ``Hemingway: The Paris Years.''

Because of its inaccuracies, then, ``Less Than A Treason'' is a dangerous book for the casual reader. Yet it is also a labor of love and contains valuable insights for readers more informed about its subject. In particular, the book's title provides a clever moral summary on Hemingway in the '20s.

Griffin draws his title from Robert Frost's ``Reluctance,'' which asks ``when to the heart of men / Was it ever less than a treason / To go with the drift of things / ... And accept the end of a love ...?'' Hemingway was intensely conscious of his marital treason in Paris and was still mulling it over sorrowfully 30 years later in his memoir ``A Moveable Feast.''

Now that the novelist's somewhat misleading public persona has long been absent from the world scene, he is chiefly remembered as a great artist in prose. And like all artists, Hemingway is ultimately to be judged by the quality of his art. His immorality in the '20s, and his consequent hurt and guilt, continue to be important today mainly because they provided empathy and moral punch to his moving depictions of other troubled people in his subsequent books.

As Griffin remarks at the end of his narrative, despite Hemingway's betrayals, which made him a less likable man, at the end of his Paris years ``his career was well under way.''

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