Lately I’ve had Ernest Hemingway coming at me from all directions. For the second time I watched Woody Allen’s brilliant romantic comedy Midnight in Paris, in which a Hollywood hack writer fantasises that he’s back in the Paris of the 1920s. The look-alike actor playing Hemingway employs the dialogue that came to be known as Hemingway Choctaw, while swigging from a bottle and challenging anyone and everyone to a fight. It is a marvellous piece of filmic impersonation.
Soon after, I saw Hemingway and Gellhorn, a film about the stormy relationships between the writer and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Nicole Kidman gives a stunning performance as Gellhorn old and young.
Then a quiz threw up the question ‘Which famous boxer sparred with Hemingway after they’d drunk a thermos of frozen daiquiris?’ The answer, which I didn’t know, was Gene Tunney. This sent me to Carlos Baker’s edition of Hemingway’s letters, where there are plenty of boxers listed in the Index – Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Georges Carpentier, Joe Louis and many others including Gene Tunney – but no mention of sparring with him.
Hemingway was fond of recording his sporting achievements in his letters but perhaps he had come off worst against Tunney who, after all, had beaten Jack Dempsey twice, lost only one fight in his career, and retired as heavyweight champion of the world. Reading the letters I was reminded of Hemingway’s wide range of interests, from sports to art and music, and of his extraordinarily effective writing style – sometimes clipped, sometimes discursive, always evocative.
Hemingway has exerted an extraordinary influence. Raymond Chandler wrote an amusing Hemingway parody and Noel Coward famously adjusted Cole Porter’s lyric for ‘Let’s do it’ ’with, ‘ Ernest Hemingway can just do it …’
And now I’m reading William Kennedy’s powerful Changó’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes in which a paunchy, alcoholic Papa is throwing punches in a Havana bar in 1957.
I regard A Farewell to Arms and The Sun also Rises as two of the greatest novels of the 20th century and the story ‘Fifty Grand’ as possibly the best short story I know, unless it’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, also by Hemingway. Even at his worst Hemingway is better than most and it’s not surprising that so many of his books and stories have been adapted for the screen. The Killers is one of the few successful adaptations; most others have sanitised the material. Hemingway’s attitude was take the money and run. Stand by for remakes.
Hemingway, genetically predisposed to madness, profoundly sexually disturbed and constantly at war with himself, did the one thing that makes a writer immortal – he wrote in a way that no one had before. As a corollary he has been much imitated but never bettered at depicting the struggle between man and nature and between masculinity and something else.