Hemingway: Separating Truth From Fiction
Special To The Seattle Times
------------------------------- "True at First Light" by Ernest Hemingway Scribner, $26 -------------------------------
When Ernest Hemingway was alive, his epigraphs came from Ecclesiastes and John Donne, but once he died they came from Ernest Hemingway. That's how you can tell a posthumous book. The epigraph is a direct quote from the book itself, which any living author would consider redundant, but which editors of dead authors rely on to justify their editing. So it was with "A Moveable Feast," Hemingway's memoir of Paris in the 1920s (published posthumously in 1964), and so it is with "True at First Light," his memoir of Africa in the 1950s.
"In Africa," Hemingway writes in "True at First Light," "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."
The words are unmistakably Hemingway's. But would he have chosen such an airy, weightless phrase as his title? At least the title focuses on Hemingway's love of morning. Most days he was up before the sun. Mary, Hemingway's fourth and final wife, and the woman who discovered his body after he committed suicide in Idaho in 1962, is often described in "True at First Light" as "morning fresh."
Perhaps it is his love for her that is true at first light and a lie by noon. Perhaps it is the memoir itself. Patrick Hemingway, the author's son, tells us in the preface that the manuscript was
originally 200,000 words and is now "a fiction half that length." This sentence haunts the reader. What's missing? Why does it begin and end where it does? Wouldn't Hemingway have edited it differently? Mary Hemingway has called much of his African writing "fiction", and it's being marketed as a "fictional memoir." How much is real, and how much is made up?
Yet Hemingway's language and tensions are as beautiful as ever. In eastern Africa in the 1950s, Hemingway has become a Mzee, or elder, of several Shambas or villages. Ostensibly he is there to hunt, and to share his love of hunting with Mary. A tough, pretty young woman, she has responded and is ready for the final test, the killing of a large lion that prowls near their Shamba. But does she have talent or killer instinct enough? She kills, not a lion, but a wildebeest, at point-blank range. Her bullet hits fourteen inches higher than intended. "So a certain problem still existed," Hemingway writes.
Other tensions surface. Debba, an African woman, is jokingly described as Hemingway's "fiancee," but there is an obvious attraction. Does he indulge? African men are allowed many wives and Hemingway seems in danger, at times, of going native.
Indeed, when Mary is not present, Hemingway becomes harder, and, if not quite bloodthirsty, the possibility of his bloodthirst is exhibited. Jokes are made about pushing a traitor out of an airplane, and Hemingway and the African men plot attacks on other Shambas, even though they believe they will never take place. Or do they? As you turn the pages you wonder how far gone Hemingway is. One can almost imagine him turning into Colonel Kurtz, Conrad's mad European ruler in "The Heart of Darkness."
The brutality that exists in the book, though, is more often of the honest variety, and is refreshing. You don't have to be familiar with Africa to know the conflicts of couples traveling together. At one point Hemingway teaches Debba a Spanish phrase which Mary subsequently hears him repeat in his sleep. "I'm sorry I don't remember the dream," he tells Mary. "I never asked you to be faithful to me in dreams," she responds.
The end of the book will surely disappoint - it seems as arbitrary as the beginning - but readers of Hemingway won't be disappointed by the language. Far from it. The conflicts emerge subtly, and the prose is beautiful and evocative. You taste the beer, you feel the dust, you smell the lion.
Published Correction Date: 07/18/99 - This Book Review Gives An Incorrect Date For Ernest Hemingway's Death. Hemingway Died In 1961.
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.