* Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

First impression … “Hemingway’s Boat” is a wonderful combination of Hemingway gossip and Hemingway writing.

Unfortunately, this view was not sustained as I continued reading. After about 100 pages, my enthusiasm began to wane.

There is much repetition and a confusing lack of focus. The timeline and cast of characters has become very jumbled. I have the sense the author has lost control of the material and is just pumping out everything he knows. Yet, every once in a while there is a fascinating story.

Almost 200 pages to go. I think some serious editing would have made “Hemingway’s Boat” much more readable and memorable.

100 pages to go. I am so thoroughly bored and confused by the frequent leaping from decade to decade and character to character that I’m not interested enough to do the work to figure out the connections and point of what I confess I’m now only skimming.

Finally finished. Ernest Hemingway is one of our best writers and he lived a fascinating life, full of triumph, failure and tragedy. A biographer, it seems to me, would need to approach a life of Hemingway much as a historical novelist might, with focus and selectivity. But while “Hemingway’s Boat” contains many interesting anecdotes, my conclusion is that the author was simply overwhelmed by the huge amount of material he has obviously studied and absorbed.

Believe me, I know the feeling, having succumbed to it more than once in writing my own historical novels. Fortunately, several of my early readers pointed out to me that it was not necessary, and indeed distracting, to write everything I knew. “Hemingway’s Boat” would have been a far better read had Hendrickson received and taken that same advice.

It’s a real shame this book wasn’t shorter and more focused, in no small part because there are numerous really terrific insights into Hemingway’s love affair with writing … which turns out to be no less compelling and interesting and tragic than those with his wives and friends. For example …

  • p 16 … so much more fear inside Hemingway than he ever let on
  • p 17 … a bookish man in glasses trying to get his work done … finding it harder with each passing year
  • p 35 … his onetime mentor Gertrude Stein had turned on him savagely … EH calls her “that fat old lesbian bitch”
  • p 40 … every chickenshit prick who writes about my stuff writes with a premature delight and hope that I may be slipping.
  • p 77 … Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night … close to a commercial failure … had to terrify Hemingway
  • p 80 … Hemingway conflates and rearranges several women and several events … he emphasizes writing “true” … but what is true? … does he believe that fiction can be truer than true
  • p 82 … in “Snows of Kilimanjaro” he portrays an author still so young and in seeming control … yet able so vividly to foresee his own doom
  • p 112 … when you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place, and you know what’s going to happen next … that’s the time to stop … then leave it alone and let your subconscious mind work on it” … Hemingway’s technique for dealing with the terror of tomorrow’s blank page
  • p 132 … “save your best stuff until you’ve learned how to handle it” … keep something in the tank
  • p 133 … “look, it doesn’t matter that I don’t write for a day or a year or ten years as long as the knowledge that I can write is solid inside me” … trying to convince himself?
  • p 134 … “I’ve got it all and I know what I want it to be but I can’t get it down … I can’t!” … and that’s all he had, so if he didn’t have that, he had nothing.
  • p 156 … one by one, he lost all his friendships, with men and with women
  • p 211 … Stein … “he was so tough because he was really so sensitive and ashamed that he was” … “I doubt if he will ever write again truly about anything” … Stein knows that Hemingway will read what she said … she is taunting him … she is killing him …
  • p 333 … NYT Sunday review … Hemingway on the cover … the most important author living today has brought out a new novel (Across the River) … that’s a very high bar .. and what if you know that what you’ve written really isn’t so good … it’s not true
  • Across the River and into the Trees stands as Hemingway’s statement of defiance in response to the great dehumanizing atrocities of the Second World War. Hemingway’s last full-length novel published in his lifetime, it moved John O’Hara in The New York Times Book Review to call him “the most important author since Shakespeare.”
  • p 345 … in 1925 … The Sun Also Rises … its seeming miraculous, falling-out whole, first draft, which in effect was the final draft … and now he couldn’t do that any more
  • p 459 … in spite of all his illnesses, he kept on writing, or tried to – that’s the heroic part
  • p 464 … the irrational fears returned … he felt incapable of writing one sentence

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