note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Larry Stark
I started high school the year after World War II ended, and my sophomore year, in Mrs. Appleby's English class, I was encouraged to begin writing stories. After four years of movies and comics and radio broadcasts and news about our victorious war, of course most of my imitative heroes tended to die, nobly and selflessly and heroically, in the last paragraphs. After graduation, I became the first in my extended family to start college --- bussing from home to and from the Rutgers University College night-division --- while Charlie Reynolds my best friend went off to Texas to begin learning how to fly B-52's.
In the first semester as an English major I took a course on "The Literature of Modern American Life" which looked into magazines, television, and movies --- and, since it was new, the movie of "The Snows of Killimanjaro" was contrasted with the original Hemingway short-story. I sent a long letter to Charlie extolling its virtues, but he wrote back that he couldn't find a copy of it in the base library --- so I typed out a copy of the story and mailed it to him.
Looking back, I realize I was never the same since. Not only did my heroes begin surviving, but I began writing not about the things I had read, but more and more from experiences I had had myself. I was becoming a writer. And, as I read more and more by him, and about him, I began declaring that, for me, Hemingway was god.
And, for me, that's still true.
By re-reading, I learned that it was impossible to read any of his books a "second" time. Take "The Sun Also Rises" for instance. I had told someone that, on the last morning of the San Fermin fiesta, the whole tone and temperature of the book changed when the cursing fireworks-expert found it impossible to launch his fire-baloons --- but re-reading I came upon the carved-in-granite sentence "When he retired the legend grew up about how his bullfighting had been, and when he came out of retirement the public were disappointed because no real man could work as close to the bulls as Belmonte was supposed to have done, not, of course, even Belmonte." One day as a bookseller I had a girl say, of Lady Brett Ashley "Well, I think she's just --- well, a whore!" So I looked again, and found bubbling up everywhere, in this book I believed I had practically Memorized, jokes and witticisms I had never seen before.
I lost count of the first-times I read the book at nineteen.
But not just this book. At one point I read, out loud, one from "The Complete Short Stories" every night before bed. And for each of three friends I read onto tapes "The Old Man And The Sea". (That took about four and a quarter hours each time, and doing it in one go meant getting, by the end, almost as exhausted every time as old Sangtiago did.) I found, in a collection of the by-lined stories he wrote for newspapers, an article on bullfighting that described the corrida that ended up not only in "The Sun Also Rises" but also in the classic story "The Undefeated". I found the passages on Hemingway in Gertrude Stein's "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" --- the ones he was replying to in the opening of his "non-fiction novel" called "Green Hills of Africa". I found a collection of the columns he wrote for Esquire, and the war-reports he sent to Collier's. I kept coming back to him, and just last year I indulged in what I can only call a Hemingway orgy, when I found that the revised edition of "A Moveable Feast" --- edited by his grandson --- had finally appeared in an affordable paperback edition.
I don't know what initially kicked it off --- yes, I do: I wanted to see if the postumously-published works held their own when compared to books he had lived long enough to finish to his own satisfaction.
I think it must have been finding "Green Hills" again a New Book when looking for a quote; so I followed with his first noteworthy collection "In Our Time" and then the magnificent mountain of "For Whom The Bell Tolls" (That, talking about a small unit of mixed-nationality anti-Fascist partizans in Spain, created the paradigm for all of the World War II movies --- "Bataan" "Sahara" "The Sands of Iwo Jima" "A Walk in The Sun" "The Story of G.I.Joe" --- and did it in 1939), then his only real failure: the WW-II memoire "Across The River And Under The Trees" followed by "A Farewell to Arms", and on into "Islands in The Stream" (which talks in detail of his three sons) and "The Garden of Eden" (which dealt with his wives Hadley and Pauline). Somewhere along the way I began looking into Carlos Baker's biography for his notes about each one's writing and publishing, filling in the background reality. At that point I found the bullfighting book "Death in The Afternoon" in paperback, and followed it with his other failure: a parody/joke called "The Torrents of Spring" --- which the young author fobbed off on his original publisher Liveright to get a much better contract with Scribner's for "The Sun Also Rises"; and I finally slammed into "A Moveable Feast" --- and a sudden and for me a heartbreaking clue to the man's death.
For someone who had prided himself on working hours to bring forth "One true sentence" and in always leaving out everything that was unnecessary, the self-indulgent slag-heap of "Across The River..." must have been a painful disappointment. When he followed that with the complete-in-one-issue-of-LIFE triumph "The Old Man And The Sea" --- cited as an example of "a body of work" for which he got the Nobel Prize --- it must have been galling to hear it called "not as good as his other books" (even though, every single time he published a new book, people always insisted it was "not as good as his last one"!).
But there was something there. Hemingway, despite his he-man stance and his boxing, was accident-prone, and banged himself up a lot; banged his head up a lot. When he went on a B-17 bombing-mission, he admitted that it was, for the first time, since a car-accident in the London black-out, that his head did not hurt --- but he "embedded" himself with a forward unit on the way to Paris and then Berlin as a correspondent. He had bouts of rampant paranoia, survived two airplane-crashes in Africa, tried at one point to jump from an airplane in flight, and had a series of electroshock-treatments at the Mayo Clinic. When he tried to write an article for LIFE Magazine on a mano-a-mano bullfight duel, "The Dangerous Summer" stretched into not one but four rambling installments. Interviewers from THE PARIS REVIEW heard him admit he couldn't edit his own work. And as an addendum to "The restored edition" of "A Moveable Feast" his grandson Sean included variant fragments, including thirteen jumbled and rambling, repetative attempts to write the first few paragraphs for an introduction to the book.
Not long after he tried these floundering attempts to write as he once did, Hemingway placed his forehead against the double barrels of his hunting shotgun, and blew his head off.
But before he decided he had to do it, he had written at least fourteen books of uncompromising excellence and created a style of prose that several generations of writers have admired and imitated --- or tried.
I found myself thinking of these things tonight --- well, last night; it's 5:26 in the morning --- while watching a crew of New Yorkers try to make their hacked-apart staged reading of "The Sun Also Rises" come in at a little more than three hours on the echoing, amplified stage of Emerson's Metropolitan Theatre.
It seemed to me that they sorely needed a good editor who understood the writer and his work.
But then, as he said of his own Old Man Santiago, "I am a strange old man."
( a k a larry stark )