To Have and Have Not and A Moveable Feast. The former an example of his as yet unbeaten facility for brilliant book titles, the latter a throwaway collection of memoirs of his time in Paris in the twenties. I have no real opinion of Hemingway. I do remember the thrill of reading The Old Man and the Sea one day in the library at Lampeter, when I’m fairly sure I should have been doing something else. But he certainly hasn’t been an inspiration.
To Have and Have Not, though, is one of my favourite films. And I have to say what the book lacks is Walter Brennan and Lauren Bacall. What it has, in their place, is some clumsy attempts at a modernistic style – what feels like several short stories badly stitched together – a mildly disturbing sex scene with the stump of Harry’s arm, which thankfully never made the film, and a bonkers amount of casual racism, even for 1937. All in the voice of the characters, of course, so I’m not accusing the great man of anything. Then again, the book features Conch’s (Have-Nots), niggers and Chinks – and yes, only the niggers are lower case.
Chapter 5 starts strong:
“I held the wheel with my knee and opened up my shorts and saw where Mr Sing bit me. It was quite a bite and I put iodine on it, and then I sat there steering and wondering whether a bite from a Chinaman was poisonous…” (The use of the indefinite article quite a thing there, as he goes on to decide a bite from Mr Sing probably isn’t, as he’s the sort of Chink who scrubs his teeth.)
The penultimate chapter is Harry's wife’s sub-Joycean monologue. “Cubans are bad luck for Conchs. Cubans are bad luck for anybody. They got too many niggers there too.“
Yeah, you’re right, stick to the film.
A Moveable Feast is more interesting. Gossip and tales about Paris in the twenties, published just before he killed himself. Snobbery, faux poverty, gambling to supplement the writing, long lunches and bottles of St Emilion, portraits of Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein etc, plus, pleasingly, poets play a starring role.
How about this:
“Ernest Walsh was dark, intense, faultlessly Irish, poetic and clearly marked for death as a character is marked for death in a motion picture” (At this point I couldn’t help but think of Star Trek – the original TV Series). “He was talking to Ezra and I talked with the girls who asked me if I had read Mr Walsh’s poems. I had not and one of them brought out a green-covered copy of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, A Magazine of Verse and showed me poems by Walsh in it.
‘He gets twelve hundred dollars apiece,’ she said.
‘For each poem’ the other girl said.
(Obviously, he doesn’t get paid that much, but in today’s terms that’s about $20000 per poem. I thought about this for a long time. In between weeps.)
Thankfully, Evan Shipman rides to the rescue a hundred pages later on. Evan Shipman is now just as unknown a poet as Ernest Walsh is, though there is a horse race named (presumably) after him. Hemingway remembers him fondly.
“We need more mystery in our lives, Hem,’ he once said to me. ‘The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”