'First Light' is an abuse that Hemingway does not deserve

July 18, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Suppose you are teaching English to brighter-than-average high school sophomores. They have read some Hemingway. As an exam, you ask each to write a passage as he would have written it. Here's one:

"I'm a stranger here, I thought. But the whisky said no and it was the time of day for the whisky to be right. Whisky can be as right as it can be wrong and it said I was not a stranger and I knew it was correct at this time of night. Anyway my boots had come home because they were made of ostrich hide and I remembered the place where I had found the leather in the boot-maker's in Hong Kong. No, it was not me who found the leather. It was someone else and then I thought about who had found the leather and about those days and then I thought about different women and how they would be in Africa and how lucky I had been to have known fine women that loved Africa. I had known some really terrible ones who had only gone there to have been there and I had known some true bitches and several alcoholics to whom Africa had just been another place for more ample bitchery or fuller drunkenness."

What grade do you give it?

I'd forgive you for a B-minus. It has some of the tone. It recognizes the rhythm, the spareness of vocabulary, the staccato pace characteristic of Hemingway. One of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, he changed forever the way that the English language can be put to work, influencing -- for good and bad -- almost everything written after him.

But I give it an F: As an imitation, it is disrespectful. It is a burlesque, an abuse of the true qualities, of the dignity of Hemingway's work and Hemingway himself. Yet that passage, intact, appears on page 138 of "True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir" by Ernest Hemingway, with an introduction by Patrick Hemingway (Scribner, 319 pages, $26).

That passage is one of a great number -- I gave up counting at 30 -- of the same failings.

The rough manuscript was written not long after Hemingway's last trip to Africa: Kenya in the winter of 1953-1954. Though it is not mentioned in this volume, that jaunt ended with two airplane crashes that badly injured him. He killed himself with a shotgun in 1961 in Montana.

In his introduction, Patrick Hemingway, his son, says that the "unedited manuscript" is 200,000 words long, and "certainly is not a journal," and that "what you read here is a fiction half that length." He calls his father "the author."

It would have been far better to have left the rough draft at peace, available to the curious in its raw form. Hemingway had decisively chosen not to make it, or call it, a book -- sound judgment. There have been other posthumous Hemingway volumes. "A Movable Feast" (1964) was glorious. "Islands in the Stream" (1970) was less grand, but respectable.

"True at First Light" is a story about Kenya, when the Mau-Mau were arising. His fourth wife, whom he calls Miss Mary, is along and is committed to killing a very big, dangerous lion.

Hemingway -- the narrator -- is very adept and knowledgeable. He has done it all, or all that man can do and can learn from the greatest of the White Hunters, who cannot be along this time, and from being attentive. The narrator has been made Acting Game Ranger, and leads his elaborately staffed safari, killing game responsibly and selectively, for the good of the local population of both people and animals. He treats the sick and gives insight and nourishment to the needful.

He also indulges himself in a sexual involvement with a Kenyan village girl called Debba, with whom he chats in small snippets of several languages, none of them articulate enough to be called conversation. Miss Mary somehow accepts that, or is said to. The Mau-Mau threat never turns up.

The best parts are the conversations, mostly between the narrator and Miss Mary, but others as well. The finest of those passages suggest the power Hemingway's historically original use of dialogue: The participants speak at two levels. One level is explicit, often about the countryside, or game or weather or food or other fundamentals. Raw life. The other, simultaneous, voice is one of tension, of the distinct, innate, often mysterious power of each person.

The two voices together produce the prose that makes Hemingway, at his best, so powerful and so unforgettable as he shows the reader that a lone human life can be accessible, insatiably needful and indomitably courageous.

But there is no grand structure in "True at First Light," no true book. The talking doesn't do what Hemingway's great dialogue does -- to constantly tighten tensions, to ratchet the spring of narrative energy, making the story stronger, the suspense, the expectation ever more powerful. In "True at First Light," the dialogue promises a great deal but never delivers.

Few writers ever have been so keen as Hemingway about doing things right and surely: focus, purpose, concentration, awareness -- in clean, direct sentences without flourish or ornament. This was Hemingway at his best.

Paunchy, lazy, repetitive, self-indulgent, shameless, embarrassing, self-pitying, bloated. Those were among the more unforgiving words flung at Hemingway in his last decade, maybe unfairly, surely ungraciously. But they describe well "True at First Light."

It is weird that Patrick Hemingway in his introduction cites Ralph Ellison at length on his affection for Hemingway's work. For Ellison is the most recent other victim of posthumous exploitation, with the publication of "Juneteenth," a book he too did not write in that form and intended never to have published. Both these contrived books are desecrations of great writers' legacies and judgments.

Papa deserved a better present for his 100th birthday, which comes this Wednesday.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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