In the late 1950s, as her husband pecked MOVEABLE FEAST into his portable typewriter, Mary Hemingway browsed the early drafts. Hemingway had written in the book’s preface that “…while this book may be regarded as fiction, there is also the chance that a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”
Mary Hemingway declared herself puzzled by the tenor of the material, which did not strike her as particularly autobiographical.
“It’s biography by remate,” said Hemingway.
Remate, a jai alai term, refers to a two-wall or bank shot. Scott Donaldson, author of HEMINGWAY VS FITZGERALD: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, makes the claim that A MOVEABLE FEAST was never intended as an autobiography. Hemingway’s presentation of it as `informed fiction’ betrays his awareness of the game he played in writing the book, which was infamous for its assaults upon his companions and contemporaries of late twentieth century Paris. “There are truths,” asserts Donaldson, “that go beyond mere facts.”
But HEMINGWAY VS. FITZGERALD is not a biography, either. Donaldson states that his intent is to tell their story in a style similar to Hemingway’s FEAST – by way of bank shots and rebounds, as though the truth of their friendship might better be grasped by setting the past in retrospective motion and watching the results.
It is an uneasy method of analysis, more akin to separating a snarl of laundry by tossing it into a dryer. The book is not as sequential as it might be, which can make it difficult to follow. And because Donaldson does not present his characters in a manner consistent with a biography, it is necessary to know something about them ahead of time, and to have some familiarity with their material.
Upon reading HEMINGWAY VS. FITZGERALD, I actually made myself a list of relevant snack items; to wit, the books you must have in your belly to make sense of Donaldson’s. Is it worth it? Yes. HEMINGWAY VS. FITZGERALD is well worth the work it takes to read it. At the very least, the snacks are worth it, whether you finish the analysis or not.
Of the Hemingway work, one needs to have read THE SUN ALSO RISES, if one has not yet done so. A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and certainly the better known of Hemingway’s short stories, would also be of help. (SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, FIFTY GRAND, and THE SHORT HAPPY LIFE OF FRANCIS MACOMBER, to begin with). Add Pulitzer Prize-winning THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, if you enjoy fish. And on the side I recommend as much good red wine as you can hold. (See THE SUN ALSO RISES for Hemingway’s treatise on the virtues of red wine.)
THIS SIDE OF PARADISE is the best introduction to the period that produced Fitzgerald, although he is best known for THE GREAT GATSBY. TENDER IS THE NIGHT, long-winded tome though it is, may well have been his best work. Of all, PARADISE is best worth a gander. It’s Fitzgerald’s first book, and it heralds the directions he would eventually take, in his work and in life.
From Donaldson’s analysis one may gather interesting tidbits about Hemingway. He actually wrote poetry, and there is a collection available, titled EIGHTY EIGHT POEMS I intend to commence an immediate search for that one.
Another surprising item: Grace Hemingway held her first-born, Marcelline, out of school for eighteen months in order to facilitate an experiment: she twinned Ernest with his older sister. The two children entered kindergarten dressed and coifed exactly alike, in ruffled dresses and Dutch doll haircuts. Needless to say, this did not go over well with young Ernest. “I NOT a Dutch dolly!” he is reputed to have raged, at two, presumably in response to his mother’s fashion sense. “I Pawnee Bill! BANG…I shoot Fweetee!” (his favorite name for his mother).
That Hemingway did not get on with his mother is well documented. What was new to me was that Grace had continued to work, after getting married, as a vocal instructor, bringing in more money than her physician husband. One of her students, a special “friend” named Ruth Arnold, later came to live with the family. Rumors flew. Dr. Hemingway was less than pleased; Ernest, whose relations with his mother worsened with time, eventually forbade his own sons to visit their grandmother on the grounds that she was “androgynous”.
For much of his life, Dr. Hemingway suffered from severe depression, shooting himself to death with his father’s revolver. Ernest, who inherited the disorder, carried on the tradition, shooting himself behind the ear.
Let’s hear it for subtext.
Fitzgerald’s upbringing was, if anything, less encouraging. Dowdy, outspoken and graceless, Mollie Fitzgerald spoiled the hell out of her only son, imbuing him with unrealistic social pretensions and ambitions. Unpopular with other boys, and frequently getting into fights (which he lost), young Fitzgerald got along better with girls. “I had them figured out,” he wrote, and claimed that he could think like a girl. “I’m half feminine – at least, my mind is.”
Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with social strategies went so far that at eighteen he sent a series of letters to his fourteen-year-old sister, in an attempt to create a social role for her to play. The letters read like a series of tactical exercises, instructing Annabel in dancing, grooming of eyebrows, sizing up of opponents, learning to look charmingly helpless…and these were just the defensive moves.
Fitzgerald’s sister wisely abstained from taking on this customized “role”. It is questionable whether Fitzgerald himself applied his universal role playing techniques to himself; nevertheless, in PARADISE but to a greater extent in GATSBY his work explores role-playing and the strategic and tactical pitfalls of class warfare.
Neither of Fitzgerald’s parents approved of his literary ambitions; they thought writers were “…distinctly peculiar.” Yet they found nothing peculiar in their own treatment of the children. It is a long-standing practice for the parents of underprivileged children to nudge their talented offspring into elevated social circumstances.
Slight, self-conscious and shoved into a series of unappreciative social nests, young Fitzgerald was rejected by schools, clubs and social circles as argumentative, showy, and “…not one of us”. The father of the first girl he fell in love with, Ginevra King, is said to have quipped, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” If Mollie had not foisted him upon society in so callous a manner, would we have gotten THE GREAT GATSBY or TENDER IS THE NIGHT? Not a chance, says Donaldson. Yet Fitzgerald’s sense of having been born to the wrong class was only partially responsible for this recurrent theme in his work. Rejection of a more particular type had more significance, and in this respect, Fitzgerald and Hemingway had something else in common.
Jiltings, says Donaldson, constitute a rite of passage common to everyone. Although contemporary parlance speaks of “failed relationships”, Donaldson will have none of it. “If it is the relationships that fail,” he says, “and not the people in them, there need be no question of assigning blame, or of acknowledging one’s own shortcomings and another’s fickleness and cruelty.”
And yet fickleness and cruelty have played so great a part in the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald that Donaldson follows the path of their “jiltings” very closely.
Following his break with Ginevra King, Scott fell in love with Zelda Sayre…who refused to marry him unless he could support her in a manner consistent with their mutual dreams and desires. Upon publication of PARADISE, Fitzgerald won her…and spent the rest of his life battling mutual dreams and desires. Zelda’s transient schizophrenia eventually claimed her; Scott’s alcoholism dragged out the completion of TENDER for almost nine years, and destroyed his credibility in the writing community for the rest of his life.
Hemingway, whose social skills also came a little late (though not necessarily due to flowered hats) served as a Red Cross driver in Italy during 1926, where he pulled a fellow soldier to safety under fire despite heavy injuries (for which he later received a medal of honor). Hospitalized in Milan, he made the acquaintance of his first and second great loves: nurse Agnes Von Korowksy, upon whom he based his character from A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and alcohol. The first relationship ended badly, due not to social elevations, but to age difference, for Agnes was seven years Hemingway’s senior. The second carried on for much longer, though it was Hemingway who abandoned it; he was sober when he committed suicide.