Reynolds' fifth, final volume on Hemingway's life

May 09, 1999|By DOROTHEA STAUS | DOROTHEA STAUS,Special to the Sun

"Hemingway: The Final Years," by Michael Reynolds. W.W. Norton. 352 pages. $30.

Michael Reyolds has written his fifth and final installment of the life of Ernest Hemingway. It is a consistently interesting and straightforward account of the author's last 20 years. Despite the temptations presented by the subject's complex nature -- his deep depressions, manic elations, tough, swaggering virility combined with a child-like dependence on his various wives -- Reynolds manages to eschew the psychobabble fashionable in literary biographies today.

He allows the reader to interpret the effect of Hemingway's neuroses upon his novels, and one follows, almost breathlessly, the story of the life: the real and feigned exposures to danger, restlessness and the constant duel with death, ending with suicide at the age of 61 (in 1961).

Hemingway's novels are not only mirrors held up to experience, although autobiographical in parts, they are, mainly, works of the imagination. In this volume, Reynolds deals intelligently with the late works, placing them in the context of their locale and period.

The opening pages are concerned with the Spanish Civil War, and the rupture of a third marriage to the beautiful fellow writer Martha Gellhorn. Next, we see Hemingway in his fishing boat, Pilar, scanning the sea for enemy submarines near his island retreat, Finca Vigia, in Havana.

This is a self-appointed mission as Hemingway was over-aged, with a damaged leg from the Great War. But, Reynolds writes, ". . . although there were hundreds of competent journalists supporting the U.S. war effort" (World War II), their job was not Hemingway's. "Ernest wanted to command troops in battle, but with the freedom that independent ventures like the Pilar patrols allowed. His story of the dynamiter and the partisan guerrillas in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' was a fantasy close to his heart."

Later in the German theater of war, he tore off his reporter's badge and acted the role of soldier, boasting afterwards of his many one-on-one killings. Hemingway's flagging courage could be fueled by excessive consumption of alcohol and the sight of shed blood. He was a passionate spectator at bullfights, hunter in Africa and at his second home in Ketchum, Idaho, and he wrestled with the capturing of monstrous marlins in Cuba.

His four marriages were scenes of combat also, leaving Mary Welsh, his widow, as the lone surviving matrimonial partner. Even visits to the Parisian haunts of his youth represented personal internal wars against the passage of time and advancing age. Yet despite the incessant tumult of his life, he did not abandon his writing.

A fiction work of several thousand pages was planned, modestly titled "Sea, Air and Land War!" But it was never completed and broke into several separate novels, including his last big success, "The Old Man and the Sea".

Ernest Hemingway's stylistic innovations form part of permanent literary history. He threw open a window upon the confines of convention observed by the great novelists of the 19th century, with his brief, choppy sentences and simple, limited vocabulary -- an influence both good and bad upon authors who followed him.

The biographies and critical studies continue to proliferate. Hemingway, a self-made persona, is familiar throughout the world; the handsome, husky, hirsute, macho countenance as recognizable as the face on the Lincoln penny. The completed five volumes by Michael Reynolds have joined Hemingway lore. The field, though crowded, should welcome this ambitious addition.

Dorothea Straus has written six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species" and "Under the Canopy." She has written for Harper's Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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