Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson

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Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full account of the last 27 years of Ernest Hemingway's life, in which he enjoyed his greatest successes but which also marked his physical and mental decline, during which the one 'constant' was his boat Pilar.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 534 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Bodley Head
ISBN: 9781847921932

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This substantial volume is not exactly a full biography of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, it might almost have been subtitled ‘The rise and fall’. Its theme is more or less the second half of his life, from 1934, when he returned from an African safari and took delivery of his boat Pilar, to his tragic death 27 years later. Hendrickson intends it to be an account of the writer, bringing together the different elements of his life – fishing, friendship, wives and family - and above all, naturally, his writing.

However, it may sound a rather vague premise for a life story – or at any rate the story of the most significant part of his life – and the title is arguably a little misleading. In fact, the inference is that the boat somehow enabled him to be a free spirit. Throughout the years, his beloved Pilar gave him a sense of freedom, and access to the ocean, as well as a suitable base for fishing and entertaining friends. We are also treated to more than a few purposeful zigzags and loop-arounds and time-bends and flashbacks and flash-forwards and other sorts of departures from the main frame here.

All this makes for an interesting, but ultimately slightly disconnected read. As one who prefers biographies to follow a more or less chronological path, I find these constant zigzags rather break the flow. We learn a certain amount about Hemingway’s early life, and also about the sad fate of his cross-dressing and eventually transsexual son Gregory, known in the family as Gigi, who died in rather pathetic circumstances in 2001. But the somewhat haphazard structure suggests that this book is really most suited for those who are familiar with Hemingway’s life, rather than as an introduction.

That being said, the author has done his research very thoroughly. He has certainly conveyed much of the character of the man, the ultimate hard guy of 20th century American literature. The image he presented to the world was that of a supremely confident yet sometimes nauseatingly arrogant man who wrote several rather poor and overlong books as well as great ones, the man who enjoyed and idolised the so-called sports of elephant hunting and bullfighting, passions which would not find many takers in today’s climate. Perhaps significantly, despite his popularity at the time, his two books on the subject, Death in the Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa, were never well received at the time, and I suspect they have even fewer admirers now. Perhaps it is significant that The Old Man and the Sea, one of his shortest novels, is generally regarded as one of the best, and remains one of his most popular.

There is next to nothing in the way of literary criticism, although Hendrickson does have something of interest to say on the general reaction to his various books, favourable or otherwise. We also have much in these pages on not just friends and family, but various influential personalities in Hemingway’s life as well. He could be considerate to friends and family, but deeply unpleasant as well. When his publisher sent him an advance copy of a new novel, From Here to Eternity, by James Jones, his response to the publisher was a letter of such foul-tongued vitriol – reproduced in all its awfulness here - that I hesitate to quote any of it in this review.

Inside the tough, hard-bitten exterior was a tortured soul. After being involved in a couple of aeroplane accidents in 1954, resulting in concussion, a fractured skull and ruptured liver, Hemingway was a changed man, and never made a full physical or mental recovery. For the last six years of his life, it was said, he alternated between ever-shortening cycles of euphoric writing and paranoia-ridden depression. The general verdict was that he had exhausted his available material, and wrote at excessive length – a case of quantity over quality. He aged badly, suffered from delusions, his speech became slurred, and he was admitted to a clinic under an assumed name, ostensibly for high blood pressure.

But the decline in his powers had been pitiful. By the summer of 1961, the recipient of a Nobel Prize for literature and one of the most famous writers of his age, only in his early sixties, was barely able to write a coherent sentence. Early one morning his wife heard two loud muffled thumps loud, and called the doctor. For some time, the official version was that he had been cleaning his gun and had an accident. Only gradually did the truth emerge that he had deliberately shot himself.

It’s an interesting and well-written book, but in places a rather rambling one. I found it rather unfocused on the whole. A little editing would have made for a shorter, tighter and much better read.

Our thanks to Bodley Head for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If this appeals then you might like to try:

The Longshot by Katie Kitamura

Buy Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson at Amazon.com.

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