l i t e r a r y l i v e s s t e p h e n am i d on
The Sail Also Rises Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934–1961
By Paul Hendrickson (The Bodley Head 534pp £20)
Ernest Hemingway’s troubled psyche, terse prose style and macho antics have been so thoroughly anatomised by a legion of biographers that yet another life of the man would seem to be utterly superfluous. It is to Paul Hendrickson’s immense credit, therefore, that he has hit upon a novel way of looking at Hemingway by writing a history of Pilar, the boat upon which the Nobel Prize winner spent a significant portion of his adult life.
Hendrickson ambitiously claims that his aim is to try to lock together the words ‘Hemingway’ and ‘boat’ in the same way that the locked-together and equally American words ‘DiMaggio’ and ‘bat,’ or ‘Satchmo’ and ‘horn,’ will quickly mean something in the minds of most people, at least of a certain age.
He succeeds admirably. No one reading this book will ever be able to think of Hemingway again without picturing him standing on Pilar’s flying bridge or wrestling with giant blue marlin from its fighting chair. Time and again, Hemingway took to his boat to escape the pressures of marriage, fame and fatherhood, spending long periods trawling the waters of the Caribbean in search of ever larger fish. It proved his existential lifeboat, the perfect vessel for playing out his complex, ferocious inner dramas.
ing the 1930s, it was most inextricably entwined with his years in Cuba, where he moved to his famous Finca Vigía estate in 1939 and lived for the next two decades. It was here, often on the boat itself, that Hemingway created some of his most notorious books, including Across the River and into the Trees, which was so reviled by New York critics that Hemingway openly fantasised about murdering them all with the Thompson sub-machine gun he kept aboard Pilar to slaughter sharks. It was also the source of the novella that bagged him both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, The Old Man and the Sea.
Hendrickson, a veteran Washington Post reporter whose fine The Living and the Dead memorably depicted Vietnamera America, has created a richly nuanced portrait of Hemingway that charts a course between hagiography and hatchet job. Certainly, there is a lot here that is distasteful. In 1935, while working on an article for Esquire, Hemingway was forced to substitute the word ‘illegitimate’ for ‘bastard’. Papa could prove to be a right illegitimate himself. When his youngest son, Gregory, suggested that his arrest on a morals charge – the day after which his mother, Pauline, died – ‘wasn’t so bad’, Hemingway reportedly replied to his deeply troubled son: ‘No? Well, it killed mother.’ When asked by his publisher Charles Scribner to blurb James Jones’s much-lauded From Here to Eternity, Hemingway’s response made it clear that there was only room for one captain on the bridge of American letters:
I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss [sic] out of a dead nigger’s ear.
Pilar became a place for Hemingway to prove his masculinity, one every bit as intense as the bullfighting arena or the plains of Africa. Friends who thought they were going on a pleasant outing could find themselves engaged in bloody struggles. Hemingway once shot himself in the leg while wrestling with a shark he’d pulled aboard, then wrote a memorable essay about it. After the poet Archibald MacLeish failed to reel in a big fish, a furious Hemingway grabbed the boat’s shotgun and began to kill seabirds. ‘Ernest took to shooting terns,’ the poet reported, ‘taking one on one barrel and the grieving mate on the other.’ Woe to anyone who insulted his prowess, like the poor sod in
Hemingway bought the thirty-eightfoot, dual-engine Pilar in 1934, just as his fame was solidifying and, in the view of many critics, he was also losing his grip on the astonishing talent that had allowed him to create The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and many of his fine Nick Adams stories. From the moment it set sail, Pilar was meant to be redemptive. ‘A man who let his own insides get eaten out by the diseases of fame,’ Hendrickson writes, ‘had dreamed new books on this boat.’
Although Hemingway owned Pilar during his residency in Key West dur-
Hemingway on ‘Pilar’: only room for one
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Bimini who was almost beaten to death by Papa after calling him a ‘phony’ and a ‘faker’. During the Second World War, Hemingway had Pilar heavily armed so he could spend long days searching for U-boats. His inability to engage the Germans in what would have almost certainly been a suicidal attack proved one of his life’s biggest disappointments.
Hendrickson makes clear, however, that Hemingway’s behaviour often sprang from his anguished sense that the miraculous talent that allowed him to write The Sun Also Rises in eight weeks was drifting inexorably away. ‘He led a life of action in the physical world, all right,’ the author writes. ‘But underneath that was a bookish man in glasses trying to get his work done, and finding it harder with each passing year.’ As Melville taught us, no fish is big enough to stand in for a man’s anguished soul.
Hemingway’s Boat loses some of its steam when it digresses to provide lengthy portraits of Arnold Samuelson and Walter Houk, two marginal characters who worked on Pilar for short periods. There is nothing digressive, however, about Hendrickson’s extended portrayal of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, known to his father as Gigi. Described as ‘a medical doctor, a semi-secret crossdresser, a manic-depressive, an alcoholic, a largely neglectful father of eight’ and ‘a very loving man’, Gigi was a walking, talking rebuttal to every macho posture his father adopted. Although Hemingway was capable of epic rage at his son, especially when he did things like steal Mary Hemingway’s expensive French knickers, he also showed flashes of tenderness and understanding. Not that it mattered in the end. After undergoing surgery that transformed him from Gregory to Gloria in 1995, the youngest Hemingway child slipped into insanity and destitution, at one point landing in jail for signing his name in all the copies of his father’s books in a public library. He died in a Florida women’s prison a few years later.
Given the intensity of Hemingway’s connection to his boat, it seems fitting that his last two forlorn years were spent landlocked in arid Idaho, where he slipped further into the depression that was to cause him to turn the shotgun on himself on a Sunday morning in July 1961. Sharks, marlins, seabirds and Nazis were no longer sufficient targets. The time had come for Hemingway to kill the prey he seems always to have been pursuing. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 36
d j tay l or
Unhappy with Larry Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage –
ancy and Lawrence Durrell
By Joanna Hodgkin
(Virago 328pp £25)
When Thackeray observed of Becky Sharp and her associates that he liked ‘all those Bohemian people’, he was following a definition first minted at the turn of the nineteenth century. To Henri Murger, author of the genreauthenticating Scènes de la vie de bohème (1847–9), and to Thackeray himself, in an early sketch like ‘The Artists’, a ‘bohemian’ was a dispossessed chancer, living on the outermost margins of respectable society, short on cash, getting by on native guile. The bohemianism practised by Nancy Myers in her marriage to the novelist Lawrence Durrell, on the other hand, seems to have consisted of having your cake and eating it. Each had a small private income. Both were able to make use of agreeable bolt holes on Greek islands and in Parisian apartment blocks. Like George Orwell, officially ‘down and out’ in late 1920s Paris but with a maternal aunt living a few streets away, help was always at hand if required.
To make this distinction is not to jib at the career-path that Nancy and ‘Larry’ chose for themselves in the 1930s on procedural or even moral grounds, but simply to note that if you are going to use an adjective like ‘bohemian’ in the subtitle of a book about prewar literary life, then it helps to define your terms. Nancy Myers was born in 1912, in what seem to have been rather curious circumstances: her father was a supposedly prosperous Eastbourne dentist, her mother a retired ladies’ companion with a thoroughly exalted, though ultimately bogus, sense of her social position. Family myths and legends abounded, and there was a mysterious removal to downmarket Lincolnshire in 1917, where genteel economising seems to have been the order of the day. Mrs Myers, who fought a long and unsuccessful battle to transform her only child into ‘an ideal daughter’, was remembered by the object of these attentions as
‘just a rather silly and unhappy woman’.
Escaping to London in her late teens, Nancy found a berth at the Slade art school until the funds ran out. A cousin’s legacy that could have underwritten further studies was, for some reason, not handed over until her twenty-first birthday. By this stage, having got through a succession of consistently rackety boyfriends, she had fallen in with Larry, then working for a Leytonstone estate agent but keen to pursue a more adventurous life. After first lodging with the multitudinous Durrell clan on the south coast – here Joanna Hodgkin fills in the background with extracts from Gerald’s My Family and Other Animals – the young couple followed their relatives to Corfu, before moving on to Paris, where Larry could pursue his hero-worshipping relationship with the American novelist Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer (1934) was a decisive influence on his third novel, The Black Book (1938).
And what about Nancy? Existing accounts of the gay old expatriate-boho life enjoyed by Miller and his mistress Anaïs Nin in the Fourteenth Arrondissement invariably portray her as a quiet, selfeffacing presence in the corner of rooms and on the edge of conversations, altogether extinguished by the personality of f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11