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Pumping Life Back Into Papa

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Bringing a literary icon to life decades after his or her death is one of the great artistic challenges.  Whether such a thing even needs to happen is another issue altogether.

Recent years have seen numerous attempts to bring Ernest Hemingway back to life, to show us what he was like as a living, breathing human being instead of as the creator of lean, taut, athletic prose, prose whose creation defined him, along with a wealth of biographies about the dysfunctions in his life and a batch of letters that nobody except those biographers have ever read.  The first assumption is that if he wrote that way, if he peppered his letters with various language codes and nicknames, then he must have talked that way, too, a potential logical fallacy, which, if applied to Faulkner, would have left the man gasping for breath on the floor before he ever finished a sentence.  The second assumption is alcohol, alcohol, and more alcohol.

As someone who has read all of the books and biographies (or most of them) and who has repeatedly declared over the years that Hemingway is his favorite writer, I have been fascinated by this renewed interest and the attempts to recreate him that have resulted.

(SIDE NOTE:  With the possible exception of Spencer Tracy in The Old Man And The Sea, no one has been able to produce a satisfactory film version of a Hemingway novel or story.  Tracy's character doesn't talk all that much, which may help.  Should we expect portrayals of Hemingway himself to be any more successful?)

The Hemingway of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris is all bluster and stereotype, a not-totally-unlikable person, but a person who function better as a flat cameo character than as a main figure.  This Hemingway is able to hit all of the high notes and to give Owen Wilson's character what he needs to appreciate the apparent magic and hyperlife of Paris in the 20's.  In other words, this Hemingway is just fine, he meets our pre-conceived expectations and doesn't challenge anything, spouting his own pithy prose as he advises another writer (Wilson).

The Hemingway of HBO's Hemingway and Gelhorn is altogether different.  As portrayed by Clive Owen, this Hemingway has moved way beyond the physical and mental wounds of WWI to become a hard-living daredevil of sorts, who pushes life to the limit in various settings of the Spanish Civil War and WWII.  We don't encounter him writing so much as we see him squandering his talents by trying to prove himself on the world stage.  If there's a war, he can't bear to miss it, especially if his just-as-ambitious journalist/writer/correspondent wife plans to go.  His loyal, hard-drinking but less ambitious pals acknowledge the spark between Hemingway and Gelhorn and her sensuality (she is quite beautiful as portrayed by Nicole Kidman), but they encourage him to follow his own path, not his marital path.  And he does.  And it costs him.  Owen's features, along with the bushy mustache he grows for the part and the glasses he wears, gives him an unfortunate closer resemblance to Grouch Marx than to the Hemingway of that time period, and, more unfortunately, his portrayal is even more of Hemingway the buffoon.  While that may be accurate to some extent, I've read enough biographies to know that there was deep pain and self-doubt beneath all of the bluster, especially as writing output and physical prowess begin to wane and the ultimate man's man assumes the more benign persona of "Papa," but the script and portrayal are both too superficial to get at this.  HBO wanted a sexy, modern love story with sexy, modern actors, and they probably accomplished that, but maybe not much more.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, and the one that most interests me, is the creation of Ernest Hemingway as Hadley Richardson's husband in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  This novel focuses on the courtship between Hemingway and his first wife, and then their struggles as a young, married couple in Paris, Toronto, and elsewhere, culminating in the dissolution of the marriage because a) she lost his manuscript on a train or b) he begins an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer or c) he is Hemingway and, not unlike Picasso, different women are different kinds of muses for him or he has too many ambitions and individual desires and interests to stay with one woman.

When we meet Hemingway in The Paris Wife, he is something of a regular guy--unsure of himself and his future, thoughtful and considerate and attentive to a woman, poor and willing to accept mentorship from other writers, and, most of all, not relegated to spouting out pithy statements reflective of his writing manifesto.  He is not yet fully formed, afraid of his overbearing mother, grateful for Hadley's virginity and how that takes pressure off of him.  And, therefore, the characterization is jarring, because we've never seen Hemingway in this way before and sometimes don't know how to process it.  It's unfair to say, but much as I can be bothered by the portrayal of Hemingway as a talking list of quotable aphorisms,  I also don't know what to do with him when he sounds like a person from 2013-- not idiomatically so, just strangely modern.

What links all of these portrayals is that they all approach Hemingway from the outside, through the eyes of another character.  The result is that they leave him somewhat unknowable (though who among us is ultimately knowable?).  But, frankly, The Paris Wife intends to illuminate Hadley more than Hemingway, anyway, and it probably does a masterful job of that.  I don't know much about her historical personage.  Her narrative reveals her as a complex woman, not at all desperate (as the age difference between them has always suggested), and not untalented herself.  If she has been portrayed in the past as a wife stuck in a small Paris flat while Hemingway mixed with the great artistic minds of the 20's in Paris, that is both accurate and inaccurate, true but not desired, fair but not complete.  At least according to this fictional, but seemingly well-researched account.

Personally, I'm not interested in having Hemingway brought back to life through image, word, or imagined dialogue.  It reminds me of the scene in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter when a vampire has sucked the life out of little Willie Lincoln and a desperate Mary Todd Lincoln begs Abe's vampire pal, Henry, to give Willie eternal life so that they will have him back.  Lincoln tells her no, if Willy did come back, he would be something different and no longer theirs.  I guess that's how I feel about the revived Hemingway.  He's not my Hemingway.

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