Category Archives: Books

Reminiscing with Hemingway

Last night i watched Gregory Peck et al in the 1952 production of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

Hemingway was in his mid 30’s and on his second wife when he wrote the story.. He already had  published two successful novels, and had made a name for himself. But those stories take place in Europe. Hemingway wanted something more raw.  In 1933, he went on safari in East Africa and used his experiences from this trip to create a number of stories. Perhaps “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is the best of that lot. It was first published in Esquire in 1936.

Here is the thing — Hemingway was a relentless self promoter. None of the above stuff was done without the goal of getting material to publish and further glorify the life of Ernest Hemingway. He knew he was tapping into a character that would be immediately embraced. This was a fusion of the brash American sportsman and exotic danger.

So, to the story.! The  plot device in the story is illness (gangrene) caused by injury. These force the man of action (writer Harry Street) into reflection – as it turns out, a rather stressful activity. BTW, Hemingway used this plot device many times, in fact, whenever he wanted to add a bit of depth to a character, he got them to start reminiscing about their difficult past. It always ends badly.  Hmmm … that sort of tells you something about the author, n’est ce pas?

Remember – tough guys always have troubled pasts. It is simply part of the formula.

More than many writers, Hemingway sought out these troubles his real life As it turns out,, illness and injury were things that Hemingway knew a thing or two about. Here is a list of his various more serious misfortunes

  • 1918, seriously wounded by mortar fire while serving as an Italian ambulance driver
  • 1928 a skylight falls on his head in his Paris apartment after he yanked on the cord thinking it was a toilet flush
  • 1930 a car accident leads to a broken arm
  • 1933 while on safari in East Africa he contracted amoebic dysentery that led to a prolapsed intestine
  • 1944 suffered a concussion from a London car accident
  • 1944 pneumonia prevented him from covering the Battle of the Bulge
  • 1945 in Cuba, a car accident, he “smashed his knee” and sustained another “deep wound on his forehead”
  • 1946  – 49 – severe headaches, high blood pressure, weight problems, and eventually diabetes—much of which was the result of previous accidents and many years of heavy drinking
  • 1954, while in Africa, Hemingway was almost fatally injured in two successive plane crashes
  • 1954 from a brush fire,  sustained second degree burns on his legs, front torso, lips, left hand and right forearm
  • From the end of the year in 1955 to early 1956, Hemingway was bedridden.  He was told to stop drinking to mitigate liver damage, advice he initially followed but then disregarded
  • 1056 on a trip to the Basque  Country Hemingway became sick again and was treated for “high blood pressure, liver disease, and arteriosclerosis

Wow! This — and especially the very, very heavy drinking — caught up with him. The dude was only 62, when he shot himself. By then he was a physical and mental wreck. He had played the part of adventurer all too well.

But it seems that back in 1952, Hollywood was not buying ALL of the Hemingway persona.  In Hemingway’s version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro,, the main character, Harry, hallucinates at the end, believing that a plane is carrying him off to safety. But no such luck… Saving Harry would be too “sugar coated”. Nope. Harry Street had to go.  And he does. in his cot in the middle of nowhere. Bonk. Dead.

Hollywood producers would have none of that. At the end of the film, Gregory Peck, playing Harry Street,  is out cold, near death,  and a plane  REALLY DOES arrive to save the day.  And not only that,  Harry also falls in love with his rich wife again.  Ta Da! A happy ending!

This is what Daryl Zanuck thought film audiences want ed to see back in 1952. That was apparently ok with Hemingway. He made no huge complaint about the film (later he would make a stink about the 1957 film version of his novel, The Sun Also Rises).

And this is were things get interesting for me. Hemingway thought he was breaking from a “sentimental” tradition. He was telling things more like they really were. he was “authentic”.His style was “new”. While the tough guy character lives on (think Rambo), we do not expect the tough guy to be sophisticated or honest enough to “tell it like it is”. To the contrary, the tough guy image is now more fantasy than reality (as in superheroes). We look elsewhere for authenticity — and heaven forbid, often to female characters!

And of course, this would have made Popa Hemingway rather unhappy.

Who Was John Berger?

John Berger may not be a name that jumps off the tip of your tongue. He passed on last month at the ripe old age of 90. Here he is in his prime

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The Guardian had this to say about him just before he passed on

Critic, novelist, poet, dramatist, artist, commentator – and, above all, storyteller – Berger was described by Susan Sontag as peerless in his ability to make “attentiveness to the sensual world” meet “imperatives of conscience”. His book Ways of Seeing, and the 1972 BBC television series based on it, changed the way at least two generations responded to art. And his writing since then – especially about migration – has changed the way many of us see the world.

Indeed, Berger was more than anything else, a storyteller. It is an odd  career path. Here is the skill that is needed

In 1944 (Berger) joined up, refusing a commission with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry, and became a lance corporal at a training camp. He preferred the company of working-class recruits, for whom he became a scribe, writing their letters home. In a sense, he has continued to do this all his life: telling other people’s stories lest they vanish. In a conversation with Susan Sontag, he once said: “A story is always a rescuing operation.” And he has also said (in The Seasons in Quincy): “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen. For me, a storyteller is like a passeur who gets contraband across a frontier.”

You might have guessed that Berger was just a tad radical. In fact, he was a Marxist, believing in the dignity of work and disliking the injustice of the systems that exploit labor.

He also criticized Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series. Clark saw genius coming from the great individual. Berger saw it in connections.

The Spectator article by Michael Henderson  that I link to is rather dismissive of Berger. I think Henderson overdoes it. Clark is not more “right” than Berger. And one should not dismiss Berger’s views on art because of his politics. Both men contributed vastly to our ability to see and appreciate reality. We need more of this these perspectives days, not just “one right way”, I would think.

I will be re-viewing Berger’s 4 part BBC series and will offer a quick update on it soon! Stay tuned!

Remembering General Grant

The Guardian has a series called the 100 best non-fiction books and it lists the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant at number 55.

Grant would have been surprised. He was not a literary man. Nor was he known for his eloquence. To the contrary, he was a man who got things done. Indeed, he was the only man that Lincoln found he could rely upon to get the civil war over with.

Grant was intelligent enough to know what had to be done. And what had to be done was not pleasant. It meant killing a whole lot of men in battle. But Grant did not flinch from the task. He executed it with dogged determination. And he got it done.

But there is something in Grant’s memoirs that is more valuable than his account of how he did it. What comes through is Grant’s deep honesty about himself and what happened. He was not a man who minced words.  And he was not one to hide his own flaws.

We seem to have less regard for this particular character trait. We value more the swagger of success. We admire those who find the trick to making a billion, even if that adds little value to mankind.  We might do well to read Grant’s words to remind ourselves that greatness can be found in other ways.

How is Your Book Collection?

Books are like companions, and the best companions are old friends. One of my old friends is a book by Joyce Cary called “The Horse’s Mouth”.  Here is Cary looking very much the British author in his younger days. He was born just a few years before my grandfather!

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You might know of the book from the Alec Guinness film  that came out in 1958.  The book was published in 1944 and was Cary’s bets loved work.

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In fact, it  is the third and final book of a trilogy.  the first two are “Herself Surprised, and To Be a Pilgrim”.

These are all out of print now, but you can find used copies of The Horse’s Mouth via internet. Some for outrageous sums (upwards of $4k!). Just for fun, I wrote a note to Heywood Hill to see if they could locate a used copy. BTW, you can find copes of The Horse’s Mouth at “Quill and Brush“. I ordered one there for $75.

Stay tuned for my response from Heywood Hill!

FOLLOW –  No need to wait! Heywood Hill responded immediately that they have a paperback copy of The Horse’s Mouth in the shop at a reasonable price for a rare book and that they would be willing to search for the other two books in the trilogy. I placed an order tout de suite! Very friendly folks!

Remembering “They Came to Baghdad!

Agatha Christie published this novel in 1951 when she was 61 years old and well into her second marriage. Her husband was an archeologist by the name of Max Mallowan. Yes, they traveled together to Baghdad more than once.

The story is less a “whodunit” than an action story.  It starts off this way

Captain Crosbie came out of hte bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.

Nice opener! So pretend you are the novelist. What comes next? More about Crosbie, more about the pleased air, more about the setting? There are choices, dear boy.  Christie elects to gt into the character. New paragraph. –

Captain Crosbie often looked pleased with himself. He was that kind of man.

Aha! Now we know something. The plot will have to challenge that smugness. And of course, it does!

I rather like the cover illustrations for the novel. How about this one? the damsel in distress is always a good seller!

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This one appears to be more appropriately exotic

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This one is just a tad to abstract for an Agatha Christie story, don’t you think?

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Prose in 1929 … and today

From Isaiah Berlin’s “Mr. Churchill in 1940”. Berlin’s essay starts off this way.

In the now remote year, 1929, an eminent English poet and critic published a book dealing with the art of writing English prose. Writing at a time of bitter disillusion with the false splendours of the Edwardian era, and still more with the propaganda and phrasemaking occasioned by the First World War, the critic praised the virtues of simplicity.

The enemy of this humble and honest style? Sir Winston Churchill, or course. But within the space of a decade, many things would change. The western world, still not recovered from the horrors of the first war, would be plunged into economic disaster, which would lead to yet another and even more horrendous war. Churchill, a man whom many regarded as kaput in the 1930’s, would re-emerge as the one leader who could  just perhaps,  save his nation.

BTW, Berlin wrote his essay in 1949 as a review of Mr. Churchill’s war memoirs, and it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  Churchill was still at his peak of fame. And Berlin paid appropriate homage to the man, his role as a leader, and his writing. Churchill’s books were best sellers. They were highly relevant to people wanting the inside story of what they had lived through.

Does this have any relevance at all to us now?. What do we care about the pre-war disillusionment? The rise of fascism?  It was all long., long ago. A mere pinprick on the immense map of history. Better understood than the passions at Bosworth Field, but not by as much as one might think. We may remember the famous dates, but few if any of us can conjure up the emotions that led to the series of events that made those dates significant..

We have our own issues to contend with. And they are as perplexing to us, as was the rise of Hitler et al. Will we find our heroes who can confront the challenges now at hand?  That remains to be seen. But one thing is worth noting. Churchill’s great strength was rooted in his understanding and appreciation of history. Perhaps I am wrong, but I sense that our understanding and appreciation of our own history is  of a less order.

Do you agree?

Heywood Hill and the Personal Library

There are not many of us left, I am sad to say. Not many who could spend a lifetime or two just reading and collecting books. Not “best sellers”, but books that take us down an individual path. Worst sellers? Perhaps. More importantly, books that help one develop a  unique perspective on the world as it was, is, or may become.

But not all hope is lost! Consider the ongoing success of “Heywood Hill“, an establishment located on Mayfair’s Curzon Street that thrives on delivering precisely these kinds of books to its clients.

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BTW, did you know that Curzon Street was the fictional home to Lord Goring of Wilde’s “An ideal Husband”?  Roald Dahl’s Henry Sugar caused quite a disturbance there by throwing large amounts of money onto the street from his balcony! In the recent past, it was home to Benjamin Disraeli, who dabbled in novel writing as  well as politics.

Vanity Fair offers a peek inside Heywood Hill. And I found this idea to be particularly attractive

A Year in Books,” (is the) the Heywood Hill scheme wherein subscribers are sent a surprise parcel every month. “No two people get the same,” says Karin Scherer, the fizzy enthusiast who helps run it. Every month she and two other booksellers personally choose titles for more than 700 customers, based on “reading consultations” in which they name books and authors they have most loved, or genres they can’t abide.

To be honest, I am not sure what a “fizzy enthusiast” is, but I am willing to set that question aside in light of the fizz I might get from the deliveries. Indeed, whole libraries are being developed.

The other bespoke service that has taken off lately is the creation—or, if you must, curation—of private libraries. Years ago, the shop assembled a library on the history of Ireland for Stoker Devonshire’s father, the 11th Duke. “It struck me,” Dunne says, “that we could do it for others.”

Heywood Hill is now assembling libraries at the rate of one or two a month. It could be for a school (“300 books that every intelligent teenager should read”), or for the VistaJet founder Thomas Flohr and his daughter, Nina, who commissioned a 4,000-volume library devoted to 20th-century art and design for their Swiss chalet.

Sadly, my own library was demolished to enable renovation of the second floor of my humble abode. But it shall be resurrected!  And when it is, I wonder if I might ask for assistance in developing a collection of historical drama of the type that JG Farrell produced?

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Now that is something to look forward to!