Monday, October 3, 2011

Hemingway's Boat- A book Review

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
        Third verse of "Sea-Fever"
        By John Masefield (1878-1967).
        (English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)

There is something universal about the sea. We long to be near it, in it or on it. Hemingway was one who reveled in being on the water. Aside from being a famous writer, he was an avid sportsman. Hunting wild game in Africa and running in the Gulfstream in search of marlin, wahoo, dolphin and other game fish, Hemingway pioneered new ways of fishing and new gear.

He ran his boat, Pilar, out of Key West, Bimini and Cuba. Fishing the purple waters offshore in search of ever bigger game fish. Inspiration for the book “Old Man and the Sea” came from his friends in Cuba from whom he learned much about the habits of the big fish he sought.

Paul Hendrickson’s book, Hemingway’s Boat, takes us aboard the famed Pilar and uses the boat to help define the Hemingway character from a different perspective taken in the nearly one hundred books that have been written about the writer and his life.

I have read about twenty of those books over the years, including Hemingway’s letters from the collection by Carlos Baker. What better way to get a handle on Hemingway the man than to read over his shoulder, in his own words, his explanations of his reactions to events in his life. Many books have tried to psychoanalyze him over the years, and most of them are rubbish filled with the author’s own prejudices either for or against Hemingway. If you have the time and interest, read his Collected Letters. However, if you are interested in a completely different perspective towards his life, read Hemingway’s Boat.

The book offers an insightful perspective into what made Hemingway tick. From all that I have read, Hemingway was quite a jerk in real life. A bully, misogynistic, braggart, liar, drunk and father, husband, friend and supporter of those he liked.

Hendrickson fills out Hemingway’s profile by not concentrating on his reported foibles but by defining him by the people around him. Letting you see Hemingway in a new light by featuring some of the people that he associated with on daily basis. His wives, his children, his girlfriends, his fishing buddies and his publishers, all of which with whom he had very mixed relationships,.
Hemingway's writing room behind the main house.
He liked to teach but did not like to be taught. One of the easiest ways to get on Hemingway’s bad side was to try to correct him, especially on his writing. Or his choice in women. Hemingway learned, whether he liked it or not, at the knees of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. When he was finished with them, he often attacked them, as if to say he was now a better writer than they were, although he later defended Ezra when he was jailed for treason. With Hemingway, it seems that the better writer he became, the worse he became as a person. His fame made him a bully and royal pain. He liked writing about friends and people he knew because in his writing, he could control them. In real life he couldn’t and it frustrated him quite often.

A major turning point, and some say rejuvenation of his writing, came when he bought Pilar. As Hendrickson points out on page 145, “I believe Pilar was part of the change, allowing him to go farther out, where you don’t see the shoreline.” Farther out indeed. In his writing, shorelines were never good for Hemingway. He needed the boundless horizons of the ocean and human experience on which to create his most memorable writing.

Hendrickson examines Hemingway through the people around him, and corrects several misconceptions involving some of Hemingway’s exploits. Mr. Hendrickson’s research goes so far as to verify the temperature in Havana on a given day to collaborate one of Hemingway’s tales about his exploits in Cuba.

In other areas, Mr. Hendrickson’s research is a little less thorough. He tells a tale of Hemingway having guests on board and how Hemingway managed to make love to a young woman onboard the Pilar while anchored out in some secluded anchorage. While I don’t doubt Hemingway’s WANTING to have sex with the young lady, I can tell you from personal experience that it couldn’t have happened the way many authors imply, including Mr. Hendrickson.

If you have spent any time around boats, you would know that on a 38-foot boat with a small cabin forward and the rest of the boat open, there isn’t much privacy. With six or seven other people on board, in quiet anchorage, at night with no mechanical noises like air conditioning, you could not have a loud thought in your head without some overhearing it. Having sex with a vigorous young girl would be impossible unless no one else cared. This tale persists in the Hemingway legend in spite of its near impossibility.

The other place where Mr. Hendrickson stumbles is in that in several places he has Hemingway checking maps for upcoming trips aboard Pilar. They are charts, not maps. Maps show land details, charts show water features. A typical landlubber mistake, but not too serious. The only reason I mention these two gaffs, is that the rest of the book is so well researched and some old myths are laid to rest quite effectively.

The book, overall, is a very interesting and informative read. Well worth it if you want to know more about the Pilar and the role it played in Hemingway’s’ life and writing. It does go off track when it delves into Gregory “GiGi” Hemingway’s desire to dress in women’s clothes and his subsequent operation that transforms him from a man to a woman. I assume that the author and Gregory formed a friendship that lasted quite some time.  While interesting, and the author blames Ernest Hemingway for the identity crisis of his son, it has little to do with the boat, which is the title of this work. It should have been left to another volume, not included here. It slows the story and takes the reader far off course.

To say you will not read Hemingway because of how he lived his life is a laughable conceit. You are depriving yourself of some of the best writing in American literature.

This is a wonderful book overall and a good read. If you are interested in one of America’s greatest authors and like boats, the sea and fine writing, you'll like this book.

Three out of five propellers.

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