by Penny Skillman, June 15, 2016
In the film “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” a young Miami reporter, who began life as an orphan, a runaway who idolized Hemingway most of his life and copied his short stories to teach himself to write, gets an invitation to Cuba. He becomes close to Hemingway and his wife Mary — whom Hemingway met when she was a reporter for Time based in London during World War II, a fact I mention because Hemingway’s story is Euro-American. His service as an ambulance driver at 18 in World War I in Italy and his wounding and recovery stayed with him as a deep splinter in his psyche, and a source of creative material. His first American-published book of short pieces, In Our Time, the novels The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls spin the gathered threads of war experiences, and competition, and the inoperability of male-female romantic love. Those times written about from the viewpoint of a “Lost Generation,” as Gertrude Stein called it, referring to disillusion with the values of the 19th century, honor, glory, patriotism — all those that traditionally moved young men to go to war. Hemingway was involved in the two European wars and the Spanish Civil War — often spoken of as the first battle of World War II — in which 80,000 Italian and 16,000 German troops assisted the Fascists to bring down the elected Spanish government. (Western democracies all claimed “neutrality.” Hemingway in his reportage mentions how ceding Czechoslovakia to Hitler gave him needed raw materials enabling him to conquer Holland and the Netherlands.) So by the late 1950’s, Hemingway, divorced three times, married four, a couple of years away from suiciding in Idaho in 1961, finding it impossible to write, alcoholic intake catching up with him, and J.Edgar Hoover out to nail him, is at a crucial moment in his life. This short peek at his world at this particular time is a valuable contribution to Hemingway’s story.
The young Miami reporter Ed Myers (as he’s called in the movie), called by Hemingway “Kid,” connects because while he willingly sees Hemingway as a father substitute, he primarily wants to express his admiration. He’s non-threatening. And, chances are, he’d matured enough to wonder who this sustaining hero image in his mind actually was in real life. And Papa, who’s been sucked dry by the masses of fans who follow him in public and want his signature (when they’re drinking Papa tells Ed how celebrity has ruined his writing — “especially the Nobel.”) sees him as non-competitive. Fans never leave Hemingway alone in public. He’s shy when sober, as are many habitual drinkers. Ergo, being in public requires the juice. Ed observes to his Miami girlfriend that Hemingway goes out on his boat often because it’s one place he can find peace, solitude. You understand why Hemingway adds this genuine-seeming young man to his support system. It’s a touching story. The “Kid” is a non-hunter, of non-muscular body, a gentle but not non-functional soul, essentially. There’s a feeling of authenticity about the story, even the incident where Ed grabs Hemingway’s pistol as he and Mary are wrestling over it because he’s wanting to shoot himself. Hemingway warns him to give it to him, Ed tells him he’ll have to kill him to take it. “You don’t have to do it.” Why shouldn’t I do it, Hemingway demands. “I love you,” Ed tells him. Hemingway’s long-time friend who’s dying of gangrene says, “I am another man who loves you.” Then Mary tells him “I love you.” Hemingway is depicted as taken aback — not the sort of talk we’d ever associate with Papa, but this is Hem in real life, fifty-nine years of age, slowing in all ways. Two things: Hemingway liked and could really handle hard liquor; and he could produce at the typewriter. In the movie “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” there’s a scene in which Martha Gellhorn (third wife, and a pioneer female war correspondent) is amazed that after the amount of booze he’s drunk the night before, including absinthe, she finds him in the morning standing at his typewriter working. Churning out pages that he pulls from the typewriter. Hemingway boasted you could tell how good you were working in a book by the amount of good stuff you could cut out of it. He advises Gellhorn to just let the throw-away pages float like feathers down into the garbage can, don’t crumple and throw them. One of the better writing tips. (And now what do writers do, writing on the digital widgetal?)
The American government was trying to force Ernest Hemingway out of Cuba, but if he’d lasted through Fidel’s revolution, things perhaps may have ended up differently, Hemingway might have broken through his depression by connecting again as in the Spanish war with a cause outside of himself. Because Hemingway didn’t want to leave his spacious, light-filled house, the Finca Vigia (now a museum, rented in 1939, by Martha Gellhorn the year before his previous wife Pauline divorced him and he and Gellhorn married) outside of Havana. Ed is told by a Mafia man that Hoover personally wants him out of Cuba — Hemingway has repeated at a Yacht club party what an FBI man in a bout of drunkenness told him — that he’d been at a Mafia party where Hoover was wearing a dress, he’d been forced to undress and while Hoover played with him Hoover’s buddy Toland video-taped it. Mobster Trafficante says he’s returning a favor he owes Ed by telling him; as he turns to leave he turns back, and says to Ed, “Tell your friend I like his books.” Did he read them? The covers? Or am I stereotyping?
The reason I went to see “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” is because I’d coincidentally just read For Whom the Bell Tolls, and was moved, impressed. I’d read many years ago the two other big novels, and The Old Man and the Sea, and Hemingway short stories — which I have always had a hard time connecting with — and a 1962 book of essays, Hemingway, A Collection of Critical Essays, which I recall back then had turned me off to ever reading Hemingway again. I’ve re-read it just recently. Please, dear lovers of literature, do not put your fingers to turning these pebbly pages. Reasons why: the words like “anagogy,” polysyndeton, “objective epitome,” as well as this phrase, “ …under all his brilliant surface lies the controlling Dichtung…” are the epitome, objectively speaking, of the mashed gaseous beans offered between the snippets of genuine insight. Insults to a self-formed artist like Hemingway.
After I finished For Whom the Bell Tolls (written, according to Martha Gellhorn in The View from the Ground in the Finca, at a desk, and published in 1940), I felt as though I’d truly experienced the Spanish Civil War. The details of the meals, the banter, the gruesome cruelties, the heroism, the foibles, the thoughts of protagonist Robert Jordan and the guerrillas, details just short of the fighters’ bowel movements or laundry chores. (Big ole discussions in The Book of Critics chewing on subjects such as whether Hemingway was a Naturalist like Zola, whether or not he deserved the Nobel prize, whether his work is, or is not, “religious,” etc. Only thing here of basic importance is, does it read?) Hemingway, who spoke of his fiction work as a process of getting right the timing of events and their sequence, and choosing which events to tell, got it just right in this one. And the stripped down small word dialogue is suited to the characters, the hard Spanish mountain terrain, and the subject of a national catastrophe writ so large in civil war, that the utter futility and deeply egalitarian tragedy of wars, period, is a slow natural implosion in the reader’s consciousness while appreciating the story. A clean well-lit place this novel. It was a best-seller. Possibly the one they were giving Hemingway the Nobel prize for fourteen years later? The Spanish Civil War always was politically sensitive territory. Both Gellhorn and her husband were sympathizers (personally) with the Republican side, something which at that time carried the whiff of “fellow traveler” in mainstream America. They’d supported production of the film about the Republican side, “The Spanish Earth,” working with John Dos Passos on it and backed it in its U.S. showing — Hemingway narrated it. In anti-communist American enclaves of the time — until WWII— their politics were too left. That a preposterous phrase such as “premature anti-Fascist” was ever invented tells us just how problematic the Spanish War was. Hemingway has — among many other literary sins — been accused of writing of one man killing another as though it were an act on the same level as shining one’s boots or cooking an egg. Well, in a war, there are many killings, and isn’t that the case?
The years of the Spanish Civil War and right after were Hemingway’s prime writing years I think. His war correspondence got more compelling over time, more artistic and rounded: one piece from October 1944, titled “How We Came to Paris,” in the collection By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, actually speaks to emotion, uses the word itself evoking the triumph of the Paris liberation. During the Spanish Civil War, while they both lived at the Hotel Florida in Madrid (Hemingway leaving an angry Pauline in Key West, Florida) in 1937, Gellhorn was apparently having a hard time writing (shell-shocked under German bombing?). Hemingway urged her to break her block, taunting her to jump in the ring and “ throw a few punches” for the cause she believed in. He advised her to write about the human side of it — and she did, later on sustaining her career as a war correspondent, and novelist. But I think she influenced his work too. During the Madrid time, Hemingway wrote a dispatch called “Old Man at the Bridge,” short reportage in which he uses his standard enumerating periscoping descriptive technique, in this piece adding the human emotion, aslant and direct at once. I have to believe Gellhorn read this as he was writing it. It’s the way she wrote about war, compact pieces on behavior that reflect a lot more than they say. The focus on how passive participants (almost everyone around, at one time or another, including the warriors) in war behave. Later on Hemingway included this reportage piece as a fictional story in his 1938 collection, The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Short Stories (not the only time he did this). In it a seventy-six year-old man is a refugee afoot, last to leave his village before Fascist soldiers arrive, having stayed to feed his cat, goats and pigeons, and Hemingway questions him, trying to get him to hurry on to Barcelona, yet the man prefers to rest, knows no one he says in Barcelona, politely thanks Hemingway for his interest. “Thank you again very much.” It’s an overcast day, so the reporter guesses Fascist planes won’t bomb just now, and the reporter must move on. “It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.” So Hemmingway bridges non-fiction and fiction. And the reader is filled with the wine and the wafer.
At the end of the “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” film, the young reporter Ed narrates that afterall Hemingway did serve as a father figure to him. Hemingway admonished him to only make life decisions after first very carefully considering all the consequences that might follow from them, so “you don’t wind up like me at 59.” What? Beautiful house, money, loyal friends, admiration, professional success? And that doggone gorgeous huge swimming pool. What I speculate Hemingway may have felt as a lack was the result of aging itself. Depression borne at heart of tiring physiology. The passing of time that brings a revolution by entropy — anyone could get pissy with that calculus. Expectations vs. what arrives. But figures of celebrity, and complexity, are best not second-guessed, they’re juggling too many intricacies at any one time that can’t be easily simplified. Hemingway also tells Ed “The only worth to a human life is in the willingness to take risks.” Ed takes it to heart by firming up his relationship with the woman who cares about him. There’s the classic ending, embracing, crying, kissing. Better to have just left the challenging thought hanging there. It’s worth noodling around.
But the film never explains how Ernest Hemingway got the nickname ‘Papa’! — he’d been called that since 1944 at least.
Hemingway in Cuba lived with 52 cats and 16 dogs. He’d moved to a place where the living, for those who had dollars, was very inexpensive, and it was not America, yet a short plane ride from it. There he could fish, boat, swim, drink, entertain, not have to dress up or de-hair, write, or loll around in abundantly fair weather, and find solitude. Take trips to Europe or New York when he needed or wanted to. He stayed in Cuba for twenty years. Right for him, and true. He’d seen a lot of the world in his span of time.
(Copyright©Penny Skillman 2016.)