Spare Me

I have more to say about this guy Hemingway. On the advice of my internet friend Joan, who reads this blog faithfully, I searched all over for a copy of That Summer in Paris in which Morley Callaghan talks about knowing “Hem” as a young man, in Paris in 1926. A Canadian journalist at the time, Callahan very modestly described what he saw and understood about all those boozy ‘expats’, including the beautiful and damned Scott Fitzgerald and his spellbinding wife Zelda with the dark gold hair, Zelda on whom Fitzgerald based several of the characters in his fiction, from Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby to Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night.

I’ve always felt a definite fondness for poor Fitzgerald, trying so hard to work in spite of worsening problems with alcohol, not to mention his efforts to help his wife manage her own faltering mental health.

Hemingway, by contrast, I’m always mad at, maybe because of that macho swagger of his. And then of course he had to go and commit suicide, which brought my judgment down on him for years, at least until my friend Mary pointed out that his whole family of origin was plagued with depression and mental illness.

The guy has always been hard for me to like or understand, even after reading the remarks of this Callaghan fellow, which seem very modest and therefore truthful..

Apparently Hemingway was always insisting that Callaghan box with him, implying that he could teach him much in the ring. He knew Callaghan had boxed in college and that seemed to goad him on. He wanted to put the guy to the test and even tried to force him to box right in his own living room.

One day at Hemingway’s gym, they went a few rounds. Callaghan says he was the better boxer only because he had gone up against so many fast boxers in his college years. He emerged the victor in any case and Hemingway came out of the fight bloody and bruised.

Yet every chance he got he tried to box with somebody. “He had all the lingo, he hung around gyms, he had watched fighters at work. He wanted to be seen as the sage of the ring. Writes Callahan “something within him drove him to want to be expert in every occupation he touched.”

This is the point where I get off the Hemingway bus. I have known too many men like that in my life – and then too he was so uncharitable about poor Scott, who wanted his simple friendship.

Callaghan writes about his own talks with Fitzgerald and how impressive he found the then-29-year-old:

“I remember drawing back and looking in wonder at this slender, charming and secretly tormented man. This was the man who was supposed to be leaving a crazy disorderly life? Yes, he did get a little drunk, did crazy things, and people thought of him as the wild irresponsible playboy of the era. Yet what fantastic energies he had stored in him! What power of concentration while at the same time he watched over the wife who Hemingway called crazy! Here he was telling me of the production which could only come from an exacting rigid discipline, What haunted him I was sure was that he gave only his spare time to the work that was closest to his heart… He made him me feel lazy, as I was, and it seemed incredible that a man as knowing as Ernest would talk of him as if he were simply an alcoholic. He worked much harder than Ernest did. In fact he made me feel I didn’t work at all…”

Later, when he saw Hemingway, he told him that he and Scott had talked for hours.

“I had liked Scott’s shrewd opinions, quick fine intelligence, extraordinary perception and tireless interest, and I remember that Ernest merely shrugged,, unimpressed. Ernest was simply unbudgeable. It was depressing. Was no one else to have an insight about Scott? Was Scott’s story written and no line ever to be changed? A drunk who knew he was wasting himself and his talent?.. He seemed to have some other feeling about him, some other hidden resentment.”

Hemingway was jealous of Fitzgerald, is how it sounds to me.

Oh I guess I admire the guy a little. His style of writing certainly changed everything in 20th century American literature from the moment his work emerged. But he was vain and greedy for love it seems to me and well, I’ll take a fallible man beset by self-doubt over a guy like that any day.

I’ll take Fitzgerald, who made pure magic with words and did his best with the tools he had to work with and died suddenly and young of heart attack and not a bullet in the brain.

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