We all know the legends of Ernest Hemingway–the drinking, the fishing, the safaris, the suicide. But, before Hemingway was known as “Papa”, he was “Hem”, and he was not that different from you and me.
Here are ten ways that Ernest Hemingway and other authors are remarkably similar to us!
Part One of this post can be found here.
6. They can’t afford books and hang out at the library.
7. They wish they could read their favorite books again for the first time.
8. They lose their luggage!
9. They put up with annoying people.
10. Their happiest times were when they were penniless.
*All information, quotes, and paraphrases derived from Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, unless otherwise noted.
“In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach,” (35)
“I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit any time I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished.”
Hemingway immediately takes her up on the offer, grabbing six books, including Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler and Other Stories.
He frequented Shakespeare and Company often, where he had a friend in Beach, and could engage in conversation with other writers such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound. In addition, he received all of his mail at the library.
Sounds like the perfect library, right? Hang out in the back room and read any and all books you like, take as many as you want home with you, the proprietor is a sweetheart, literary discussion is encouraged, and you could pick up your mail! Where’s my local Shakespeare and Company?!
7. If I could turn back time…
Remember what it was like to read your favorite book for the first time? The wonder and excitement you felt? Don’t you wish you could do it all over again? Hemingway and his pals did, and they mourned the loss of that reading experience.
Here is Hemingway discussing with his poet friend Evan Shipman the re-readability factor of certain novels:
“[War and Peace] comes out as a hell of a novel, the greatest I suppose, and you can read it over and over.”
“I know,” I said. “But you can’t read Dostoyevsky over and over. I had Crime and Punishment on a trip when we ran out of books down at Schruns, and I couldn’t read it again when we had nothing to read[….]”
“Dostoyevsky was a shit, Hem,” Evan went on. “He was best on shits and saints. He makes wonderful saints. It’s a shame we can’t reread him.”
“You can read some of it again. Most of it. But then it will start to make you angry, no matter how great it is.”
“Well, we’re lucky to have had it read the first time and maybe there will be a better translation.”
“But don’t let it tempt you, Hem.”
“I won’t. I’m trying to do it so it will make it without you knowing it, and so the more you read it, the more there will be.” (137-138)
I wonder if these guys had ever tried my re-reading method: wait ten years until you’ve forgotten the details, then try it again. This usually works for me!
8. “It’s okay honey, don’t cry. At least I still have the carbons….YOU WHAT?!?”
En route to Geneva, traveling to reunite with her husband for the holidays, Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, lost her suitcase.
No big deal. Just some clothes and toiletries, right? Wrong! Hadley traveled to Geneva with everything Hemingway had written in Paris so that he could work on them during their holidays in the mountains.
Again, no big deal, there were copies, right? Wrong! Hadley brought the originals AND the copies. “She had put in the originals, the typescripts and the carbons, all in manila folders,” (73).
Hemingway only had two stories left–one that had been rejected from a publisher and one that he had buried in a desk drawer because Gertrude Stein hadn’t liked it.
Hemingway was crushed, but brushed it off to his friends saying, “It was probably good for me to lose early work,” (74).
Literary scholars don’t think so. They are still hopeful that one day the suitcase will turn up.
Have you ever dealt with a hanger-on who won’t leave you alone and just won’t get the hint no matter how rude you are? Hemingway did, and he was so annoyed that he included an entire chapter covering this very hilarious incident. I related to it so much (although, I could never be as rude as Hemmingway was!) that I have read the chapter “Birth of a New School” a few times.
I’ve discussed this scene in a previous post, and I still think this guy reminds me of Kenny Bania, Jerry Seinfeld’s annoying fellow comic, on Seinfeld. So, since Hemingway doesn’t give his annoying guy a name, I will simply call him Kenny.
Here’s the play-by-play of how Hemingway fights against annoying people:
Hemingway is writing at his favorite cafe, getting a lot of good work done, he’s feeling good, and then he’s interrupted with a dumb question:
“Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a cafe?”
Duh, Master of the Obvious!
Hemingway’s first tactic is to lose his temper:
“You rotten son of a bitch what are you doing in here off your filthy beat?”
“Listen. A bitch like you has plenty of places to go. Why do you have to come here and louse a decent cafe?”
Kenny, the interrupter, doesn’t give two figs for the insults, he continues to engage with:
“It’s a public cafe. I’ve just as much right here as you have.”
“I just came in to have a drink. What’s wrong with that?
Kenny has a reply for every insult that Hemingway throws at him! He won’t leave this way. All Hemingway wants is some peace as he works. Next tactic: ignore the guy.
[Kenny continues:] “All I did was speak to you.”
I went on and wrote another sentence. It dies hard when it is really going and you are into it.
“I suppose you’ve gotten so great nobody can speak to you.”
I wrote another sentence that ended the paragraph and read it over. It was still all right and I wrote the first sentence of the next paragraph.
“You never think about anyone else or that they may have problems too.”
I had heard complaining all my life. I found I could go on writing and that it was no worse than other noises, certainly better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon.
“Suppose you wanted to be a writer and felt it in every part of your body and it just wouldn’t come.”
And Kenny goes on, ‘waa waa waa I can’t write!’…but Hemingway has successfully tuned him out and it was a while before he actually hears Kenny again.
“‘We went to Greece,’ I heard him say later. I had not heard him for some time except as noise. I was ahead now and I could leave it and go on tomorrow.”
Hemingway is done writing now, so he turns back to his initial tactic insults.
[Kenny:] “Don’t you care about life and the suffering of a fellow human being?”
“I thought you could help me, Hem.”
“I’d be glad to shoot you.”
“No. There’s a law against it.”
“I’d do anything for you.”
Noooo! This guy has no self esteem! This is why he won’t leave. The only true tactic in dealing with someone like this is to give them what they want–a little bit of confidence.
Hemingway does this by suggesting a new line of work for Kenny: being a literary critic.
“Do you think I could be a good critic?”
“I don’t know how good. But you could be a critic. There will always be people who will help you and you can help your own people .”
Hemingway goes on, describing all of the things the annoying guy could do as a critic, and Kenny now has a purpose and hope for some success.
“You make it sound fascinating, Hem. Thank you so much. It’s so exciting. It’s creative too.”
He is now a critic in his own eye, and Hemingway can get rid of him:
“You’ll remember about not coming here when I’m working?”
“Naturally, Hem. Of course. I’ll have my own cafe now.”
“You’re very kind.”
“I try to be,” he said.
Success! Kenny can now be avoided–at least at the cafe! That’s a start.
So, did the he become a great critic?
“It would be interesting and instructive if the young man had turned out to be a famous critic but it did not turn out that way although I had high hopes for a while.”
Ahh, poor Kenny. (91-96)
10. “I drank that bottle of wine in the dark…you were crying, I was crying. We just cried and cried…Those were the happiest days of my life, though.”
Hemingway’s last sentence in A Moveable Feast sounds much like what my parents have always said. You can hear the nostalgia in his voice, the warmth. My parents sound that way too when they look back on times when they were very poor. Once, when I was a baby, my mom and dad couldn’t afford to pay the electricity bill. That night, my mom spent all of the pennies they had stored away in a coffee can, on a bottle of wine. They always say those were the happiest times. Hemingway seemed to feel that way too.
But then we did not think ever of ourselves as poor. We did not accept it. We thought we were superior people and other people that we looked down on and rightly mistrusted were rich. It had never seemed strange to me to wear sweatshirts for underwear to keep warm. It only seemed odd to the rich. We ate well and cheaply and drank well and slept well and warm together and loved each other. (53)
Hemingway’s look-back on Paris, his poorest times spent with his wife Hadley and his new baby boy, are just filled with love. I can imagine Hemingway– successful, aged Hemingway–transcribing and editing these journals in the late ’50s and thinking ‘We really had it figured out back then.’
It makes me think that no matter what, enjoy what you have, the important things. And keep it simple. When you’re poor, that’s all you have–the simple things. What kept Hemingway going at this time was love–love of Hadley, Bumby, and his reading and writing. He had close friends and he was satisfied with a coffee or a glass of wine. He was able to enjoy what he had, not getting lost in all of the details that are so entangling when you get a bit of money.
So, if Hemingway is like all of us, let us learn from his look-back: enjoy what you have, enjoy the little things. Don’t get caught up in the race.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. Scribner’s. New York: 1964.