Ernest Hemingway

Book review: Hemingway is still 'True at First Light'

Updated: 2007-08-03T20:14:42Z


Special to The Star

Mary and Ernest Hemingway
John F. Kennedy Library
Mary and Ernest Hemingway during their African safari

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the June 27, 1999 edition of The Kansas City Star>

Given that Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, he has been (thanks to his heirs and editors) extraordinarily prolific in his afterlife, publishing, publishing, publishing.

A Moveable Feast in 1964, Islands in the Stream in 1970, The Dangerous Summer and The Garden of Eden in the mid-'80s, as word-architects at Charles Scribner's Sons cut and pasted together from thousands of pages of incomplete manuscripts at the bottom of the maestro's drawer.

Eerily -- or sadly, pathetically, as some critics have lamented with crocodile tears -- it seems Hemingway has never stopped writing, never stopped expanding the already bloated and overmarketed myth of himself.

Now for all intents and purposes we are at the end of a grand road with Hemingway. His final book, True at First Light, a "fictional memoir" (whatever that is exactly, no one can say) of Hemingway's 1953-54 Kenyan safari with his fourth wife, Miss Mary, has arrived four decades after it was written and left unfinished.

Where that road delivers us, his readers, with True at First Light is predictably -- even calculated to be -- murky and controversial. Murky, because of the game the author plays between reality and invention: Are we reading thinly disguised autobiography or weakly imagined fiction? Are we to understand the book as memoir or enjoy it as make-believe? This matters only insofar as Hemingway himself was unsure about his intention and never managed to control the manuscript to his satisfaction.

The controversy is twofold, and its first layer seems banal except in retrospect. At the Hemingway Centennial Celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in April, a panel of distinguished writers, including Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer of South Africa and Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, seemed to agree that Hemingway "only had one foot down in Africa" when he wrote about the continent in his fictions. They mostly forgave him for making Africans stock characters milling around in the background of white people's adventures because, the panelists concurred, Hemingway didn't pretend he knew very much about the Africans, or even cared about their lives.

But in True at First Light, Papa plants his second foot, with a vengeance. Written a decade before Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act, this made-up memoir is almost a love letter to the African tribesmen Hemingway employed, hunted with, drank with and, perhaps, seduced.

The character of Debba, a young tribal woman whom Hemingway, much to his wife's annoyance, refers to as his "fiancee" and tries to bed, would have indeed been shocking to a past generation of American readers. Now, however, the white/black romance seems rather passe, though Hemingway's curiosity, obvious respect and genuine fondness for his African crew, and the pervasiveness of Swahili in the text, still appear astonishing and unexpected.

The second aspect of the book's controversy is merely tiring. After all the sifting and selecting through the posthumous box of the writer's literary estate, it is absurd to expect at this late date that somehow Patrick Hemingway, Papa's second son, who edited True at First Light and wrote its strange introduction, had somehow gathered the remaining fragments and anecdotes and hunting scenes into a full-bodied narrative that might resonate nicely against the backdrop of the author's best and finest work.

And it is equally absurd to excoriate the book and its author, as some have, for not matching up with novels like A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. While it might have been cynical for the family and Scribner to publish True at First Light -- the book is already a lock for international best-sellerdom -- it is self-aggrandizing and useless to be grandstanding on the old man's grave.

Hemingway, ravaged by old injuries, alcoholism and deteriorating mental health, was in terrible shape when he committed suicide 38 years ago at the age of nearly 62. But True at First Light does not gift-wrap convincing evidence of his decline as a man or artist, and it will not diminish his legacy as some of his other posthumous publications have. Nor will it enhance it particularly. But it will certainly deepen our understanding of the person considered to be the pre-eminent American writer of the 20th century if it is read, as it should be, for its highest value, as an artifact of a life, of the lost world of colonial Africa and the Great White Hunter.

Admittedly there's not much of a story line here. Alternately cranky and kittenish, Miss Mary desperately wants to shoot a lion, but she's too short to aim her rifle accurately in the tall grass of the Kenyan savannah. Hemingway indulges her obsession, hauling her out into the bush day after day until she finally hits one in the foot, and Papa finishes off the beast with a lucky shot. Miss Mary goes shopping in Nairobi; Hemingway gets snockered with the guys, becomes much too friendly with love-interest Debba and is chastised for this impropriety by his African headman. End of the story, more or less.

But there is enough music here in the prose, flowing through pockets of rich substance, to remind us to miss Ernest Hemingway and to honor what he was able to give us, in his genius, as he aired out 19th-century literature and imbued modern American culture with his sensibilities, which strived to grasp things truly, if not always clearly. Listen:

"Dante only made crazy people feel they could write great poetry. That was not true of course but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed fringed lake you see across the sun baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable."

For Hemingway lovers, True at First Light is a nostalgic, gossipy, sometimes hilarious, often rewarding journey and it provides us, I think, with a poignant epitaph for one of our most influential, and most troubled, literary icons. In his own words, then:

"G.C. and I were drinkers and I knew it was not just a habit nor a way of escaping. It was a purposeful dulling of a receptivity that was so highly sensitized, as film can be, that if your receptiveness were always kept at the same level it would become unbearable....

"This looking and not seeing things was a great sin, I thought, and one that was easy to fall into. It was always the beginning of something bad and I thought that we did not deserve to live in the world if we did not see it."

By this measure, Hemingway deserved not only to live in the world but also to have the world live in him. And he did. And it did.

Bob Shacochis is the author of several books, including Swimming in the Volcano, a novel, and The Immaculate Invasion, an account of the American military in Haiti published earlier this year. A contributing editor of Harper's magazine, he traveled to Kosovo to report on the war and its aftermath. He lives in Tallahassee, Fla., and northern New Mexico.

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