Grave robbing

Several years ago Patrick Hemingway went over to New York with a memoir that his father had written, and it was accepted by a fairly good publisher.

His deal made an awful row I heard, and I think that was where we lost the truth, because when his father's book came out it was quite changed. It was more odd than ever, and it was not so graceful, and it was not so nice. The publishers had praised this memoir pretty highly and it rather went to their heads.

It is not really such a bad book as the critics call it, although it is a very poor book. It recounts splendid imaginary hunting adventures of an American writer with his fourth wife in an intensely dangerous land, the scenery of which is fairly well described.

Then there is another thing. The writer is also in love with a young East African girl. The young East African girl, her name is Debba, wants to marry him, but his wife is less enthusiastic. During this time, his wife becomes absolutely determined to kill an old lion by herself, but that is a very hard thing to do.

Every writer deserves a clean, well-edited book, but this is not it. As long as a writer is alive to control his work he is comparatively safe. When he dies his work enters into the terrain of the bull and he is in great danger. When Hemingway died the legend grew up about how his writing had been, and when books came out after he died the public was disappointed because no editor could write as well as Hemingway was supposed to have written, not, except, for Hemingway himself.

Somehow I feel I have not seen this book clearly. I could picture it. I have a rotten habit of picturing the books that might have been. It was a warm summer day and I sat at my desk in the office, watching it get hotter, and the phone ringing, and the other editors going by, and the e-mail coming in, singly and in groups, waiting for a review. I watched an editor from the Ideas section walk past my desk and watched her walk down the aisle and lost sight of her, and watched another, and then saw the first one coming back again. She went by once more and I caught her eye, and she came over and sat down on the corner of my desk.

"Well, what are you reading?" she asked. " 'True at First Light.' " "Is it good?" "Not too good." "What's the matter?" "Nada." "Why don't you read something else?" "It sounds like a parody of a great writer." "You oughtn't to read it if you don't like it." "Would I read it if I didn't like it?" "It's a rotten shame." "Yes, it is a rotten shame. But there's no use talking about it, is there?"

I was slightly angry. Somehow such posthumous creations always make me angry. I know they are supposed to be interesting, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to drop it. It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the nighttime, but at work it is another thing.

"Oh, Ron," she said, "it could have been such a damned good book."

On my desk was an ad from The New York Times announcing this literary find. It raised my expectations. The phone rang suddenly pressing the deadline against me.

"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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