ISSUE 4 — January, 2006

Under Kilimanjaro — Ernest Hemingway

Recently I was doing some research on Key West, Florida, for my book Roadshow, about Rush’s 30th anniversary tour. Until 2004, Key West had been just about the last corner of the United States I had never visited, and during a break in the tour, I rode there on my motorcycle with my riding partner, Michael, and bus driver, Dave.

Even before finally getting to Key West, the name had long carried a host of associations for me, mostly from the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. One of those touchstones was a short story set in Key West, something about a hurricane and a shipwreck, and I looked it up (“After the Storm”) to read it again. I also re-read Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, set around Key West and Cuba, and his unfinished novel, Islands in the Stream, also set in the Caribbean, in the title’s literal Gulf Stream, while his characters were the metaphorical islands.

Whatever their faults, I love those two books, especially Islands in the Stream, which not only has many memorable scenes of natural beauty in the subtropics and tropics, and marvellous show-don’t-tell depictions of friendship, loneliness, frozen daiquiris, and the joys and sorrows of fatherhood, but also what I consider one of the great ending lines in all literature, “You never understand about anybody that loves you.”

To Have and Have Not was my first Hemingway novel. Before that, I had “thought” I didn’t like Ernest Hemingway’s books, even though I hadn’t read any. When you’re young and don’t know much but want to pretend you do, you sometimes adopt someone else’s opinion when you don’t have one of your own. I blush to recall that once or twice as a callow youth I parroted the phrase of a British journalist who told me he didn’t like Hemingway because “all of his characters are like John Wayne.”

As I have often said, and will again, “What a fool I used to be.”

Around 1979 or 1980 I was visiting a friend, Captain Mike Macfarlane, and his wife, Pat, on the Caribbean island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. One rainy day I picked up their copy of To Have and Have Not and started reading, and as the tropical rain pounded down outside Mike and Pat’s cozy little house, I was transported to the mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys, the deep blue of the Gulf Stream, and the lawless Havana waterfront. For a few hours I lived the struggle of a classic “flawed hero,” Harry Morgan, a Depression-era fishing-boat owner who battles swindling clients, rumrunners, Cuban gangsters, illegal-immigrant smugglers, and U.S. Coast Guard agents. Such circumstances and desperate decisions eventually defeat Harry Morgan, and I came to understand that the novel’s title carried many shades of meaning — not just about having and not having money, but having and not having love, pride, integrity, physical strength, and eventually, life itself. Given the time of the novel’s writing — the 1930s — Hemingway also seems to have intended a strain of social commentary, voiced in Harry’s dying words, “a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance.”

To Have and Have Not is often described as a “flawed” novel, and re-reading the book made me understand that criticism — it was pieced together from two short stories and a concluding novella, and ultimately reads that way — but I’m not sure it matters. Nearly all novels are flawed to some degree, or in some fashion, but the real measure of quality is not a book’s objective merits, but a kind of enduring subjectivity — how it affects readers, how many, and for how long. Obviously To Have and Have Not had an important and enduring effect on this reader.

Many novels that are justly considered “timeless classics” can be criticized by either casual readers or expert critics, but any flaws, real or apparent, do not distract from the enduring pleasure they give. There are such things as “flawed masterpieces,” like flawed diamonds, but while every gemologist will find the same flaws in a diamond, readers will find different flaws in the same book. What matters is how many diamonds they find.

Hemingway once wrote that he felt he had learned to describe landscapes from Paul Cézanne’s paintings, and as someone who is equally moved by how the world appears on a given day, with its weather and its moods, I know what he meant by that. Ernest Hemingway carefully selected and shaped his words to portray not just topography and meteorology, but to convey a tacit emotion, the way the characters felt when they were in a place, whether Paris, the Austrian Alps, Key West, Havana, or the East African savanna.

For me, it was largely Hemingway’s feeling for nature that first affected me, and the care and effort he took in capturing the world he so obviously loved, but his best writing conveys so much more — the power of his observations, the subtle clarity of his imagination, the diversity and depth of his characters, and the lapidary craft of his descriptions and dialogue.

It’s important to understand that the classic Hemingway hero, hard-boiled, yet sensitive, wasn’t always that tough, really, but he tried to be — tried to be “graceful under pressure” for reasons he believed to be worthy. Most of all, the Hemingway hero, like the writer, was authentic. That word has a Greek etymology that means “self-authored,” and like other American writers from the “manly men” school — Zane Grey, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Edward Abbey — Ernest Hemingway was the man he seemed to be, and he wrote as that man. A man who could be both tough and tender, if he tried to be, and could feel his way into other lives, imaginary and widely different in character from himself, yet equally authentic. One might wish there were more such “self-authored” writers today.

Stylistically, Hemingway’s famous and much-imitated “chiseled prose,” the spare, understated language, presented an economy and plainness that might seem restrained on the surface, yet were the rare true example of “less is more” — because less was better. Hemingway’s instinctive sense of craft and painstaking rewriting aimed to concentrate more meaning and more feeling into his writing. He referred to that approach as the “iceberg” effect, where he intended the reader to sense a huge mass that was unsaid, and he often threw away more of his writing than he used. For all of those reasons, Ernest Hemingway had an almost uniquely powerful effect on literature. Like Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra, Frank Lloyd Wright, T. S. Eliot, and Gene Krupa, Ernest Hemingway changed everything that came after him.

And like those other towering artists, with their complexities and contradictions, Ernest Hemingway has sometimes been oversimplified and dismissed because of his image more than his work, especially by “post-moderns” who dislike his personal machismo — the big-game hunting, deep-sea fishing, bullfight-following, tough-talking, hard-drinking, womanizing he-man. However, like it or not, that was the man, and the man was the artist. Many writers and critics have taken shots at Ernest Hemingway, as a writer and as a man, but they missed the target because their aim was distorted by their own flaws — envy, shallowness, uninformed prejudice.

After I first read To Have and Have Not at Mike and Pat’s place on Tortola, I went on to read all of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, short stories, non-fiction, many biographies, and even the book of his letters (that his will had specified should never be published — a lesson about how a person’s posthumous wishes might be respected).

And speaking of posthumous, Islands in the Stream was also published after Hemingway’s death. That novel could certainly be described as “flawed” too, but again, I’m not sure that matters to a reader. The book’s virtues far outweigh its flaws (it was also made into a beautiful — if flawed — movie with George C. Scott, David Hemming, and Claire Bloom), and if it seems disjointed, then it’s important to remember that the author never finished it. Like Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, an incomplete novel published after his death, it’s pointless to bewail what it might have been, but rather be glad for what it is.

In that spirit, I richly enjoyed Under Kilimanjaro. The book was shaped by two scholars, Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming, from a lengthy manuscript that was left unfinished at Hemingway’s death in 1961. An earlier attempt was made to cut the same material into a shorter book, True at First Light (1999), edited by one of Hemingway’s sons, Patrick, but the editors of this current edition felt there were more diamonds to be mined from that lode, and they were correct.

Under Kilimanjaro is full of so much fine writing, and evokes its time and place like few books of any kind I have read. As a traveler who has visited the parts of Kenya and Tanzania he was describing, and climbed the mountain that dominates this book, as it does his celebrated story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I can attest that what he captures so carefully — the sweep of landscape, the individual trees and grasses, the animals, the birds, the feel of the air, the rain, the campfire, Kilimanjaro’s immense presence — is rendered with truth and beauty. And indeed, love.

Anyone who doubts Hemingway’s tenderness (as a proper and natural part of his equally necessary toughness) will find that quality well rendered here — though it certainly was in evidence in his very earliest stories, in the first collection called In Our Time, and a so-called “novel fragment” from the same period, “The Last Good Country,” that appeared in the 1987 “Finca Vigia Edition” of his short stories.

It is also illuminating to compare Under Kilimanjaro with Hemingway’s earlier “fictionalized memoir,” Green Hills of Africa, about a safari he made in the 1930s with his second wife, Pauline. Under Kilimanjaro takes place 20 years later, in the early 1950s, when Hemingway spent six months in East Africa with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. The difference in him, as man and writer, is dramatic. Between the two African books he had lived through fairly direct involvement in the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and two failed marriages. He had passed from a man in his youthful prime to a mature and lionized icon (he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea). In those 20 years, there was a major transformation in the way Hemingway wrote about himself, his wife, the African people, and big-game hunting itself.

Like another “white hunter” before him, Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway was ahead of his time as a naturalist and conservationist. His second African safari was more concerned with photography (he had a deal with Look magazine) than wholesale slaughter of the wildlife — anticipating the photo safaris of later generations. The gunplay is mainly limited to providing meat for his camp, with the exception of his appointment as “honorary game warden,” when he reluctantly hunted lions, leopards, or elephants that were troubling the homesteads of the local Maasai or Wakamba people. The descriptions are spare and clean, yet rich and evocative, and the dialogue is often witty and self-deprecating, and sometimes intimate and — again — tender.

The story also has a poignancy for the reader that was unknown to the author, for it represents his “last good time.” Coincidentally, it was two terrible small-plane crashes, only a day apart, that put an end to Ernest and Mary’s East African idyll in early 1954. The injuries he suffered in the second crash, while taking off from a Ugandan airstrip, where he had to rescue himself and his wife from a burning airplane by butting the door open with his head, are blamed by some for the steep decline in his mental and physical health that ended with his self-inflicted death in 1961. Photos taken before and after that near-fatal accident show a shockingly different man, and contemporary accounts from his wife and friends describe the sudden transition from a strong and confident action hero to a feeble and depressed paranoid. (It was Mary Welsh Hemingway’s autobiography, How It Was, and her account of his decline and suicide that inspired the verse about “the writer” in Rush’s song “Losing It,” from Signals.)

Hemingway left the manuscript for Under Kilimanjaro in a Havana safety-deposit box, along with those for A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, and The Garden of Eden (each also published posthumously, in that order). He called those manuscripts his “life insurance policy,” meaning that he wanted them to remain as a legacy for his survivors. He meant his wife and children, of course, but we too are his survivors, and I am glad for these last few treasures from his imagination, his ambition, his life, and his character.

Flawed or not, they are still diamonds.