Hemingway in Love His Own Story, A Memoir by A.E. Hotchner – Book Revisited

AE Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway pose for a photo in Seattle.
AE Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway
cerca: 1966 Photograph: AP

The mention of Ernest Hemingway’s name for most people today, may bring to mind a novel they may have read in high school, beyond that, they may be familiar with some trivia tidbits about his life which could be worthy of their own category on the game show Jeopardy. But during his life time, his name was omnipresent and synonymous with great writing.

Hemingway in Love His Own Story, published in 2015, was a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite sometime having read much about his life including Hemingway’s own memoir A Moveable Feast. But reading Hotchner’s memoir, while interesting and adding a few more pieces to the puzzle which is Hemingway’s life, does not adequately leave the reader with a better understanding of Hemingway’s complex relationships with the women in his life. Knowing what had been written on the subject of his wives and female friends, I looked forward for a further explanation – why did he really leave the women he believed he was in love with? The fourth and final marriage he exited by suicide. To be clear, the suicide was not because he was unhappy with that final marriage, but from all accounts it was from a deep depression, possibly a hereditary disposition since his father had also committed suicide years before.

While his stories and novels are regarded as among the best in literature, accounts of his life can leave one thinking he was not exactly the most sensitive man when it came to his treatment of others, especially his first three wives. His sensitive writing however, characterized by succinct and powerful sentences, seems now to have been in juxtaposition with his alpha male persona. A drinker, a big game hunter and fisherman, and a womanizer – or it could be said a lover of many women, four of which he married. How does one reconcile the way he lived to the way he wrote? Does Hotchner’s memoir provide any further clarity on the relationships with his wives?

The second question posed is more easily answered with a simple, no. While the memoir does provided some further detail on how his life experiences were woven into his writings, much of what was covered about his love life, was already known, with the exception of details regarding his third marriage to Martha Gellhorn, an acclaimed writer and war correspondent in her own right. Of the four wives, she stood out not only as a peer to him, but showed great courage and determination in covering WWII events, having the distinction of being the only woman on the beaches of Normandy on D Day, and being one of the reporters reporting from Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. To this day, the deeper reasons for that failed marriage are not clear. It could, however be the obvious – the competitiveness between the two was too intense, and/or, his desire for a traditional, be-at-home-when-I-get-there, wife. Based on the timing of Hemingway’s death, Hotchner probably never had the chance to ask about Gellhorn, since Hemingway took his own life shortly after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Hotchner saw him for the last time two weeks prior, in the hospital, before his release. All the same, it would have been interesting to read Hemingway’s own explanation on that particular relationship and what he thought led to the divorce from Gellhorn, the one wife who seemed to share so much in common with him.

The first question with regards to reconciling his sensitive writing to the insensitive, self-destructive life he lived, may also be simply answered: those to facets of his life are not reconcilable. In reading Hotchner’s memoir of Hemingway, the hope was to find some clarification that the writer, admired by many, had justifiable reasons for exhibiting behaviour that alienated many friends and the women he loved. It did however, explain how some details of his own life experiences were woven into his writings, such as in the The Snows of Kilimanjaro where many similarities can be drawn between Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline; and in Ten Little Indians where he recalls, as a young boy, being present as his father, who was a doctor, performed a caesarian section to deliver the baby of an indigenous woman. The stories are drawn from his real life experiences which he masterfully describes. That is the unique sensitivity he brings to his writing.

The insensitivity in his behaviour can be seen on many occasions. One particular referenced in the memoir involves the release of his first novel The Sun Also Rises, where he presents copies to his friends and they turn on him saying they recognize it was them being depicted in the novel under different names, and in a not so flattering manner. His friends feeling betrayed, turn on him. Because he fails to see why they should be offend, he fires back with insults effectively ending the friendships.

One other passage in the memoir describes how he was insensitive to what his first wife Hadley was going through when she was “sharing” him with the woman who later would become his second wife. Hadley finally announces she was going to leave him after months of this arrangement. He recalls that period with this quote:

“I thought Hadley and I had been getting along all right, she was putting up with my seeing Pauline, but I found out I was deluding myself.”

And later he states:

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I loved her and now she was defending her dignity and I couldn’t be the one to take it away from her.”

He didn’t see it coming. Dignity. Some would say the dignity was taken away when he expected Hadley to accept Pauline as his other lover while still living together as husband and wife. And after the marriage with Pauline was over he acknowledged:

“Pauline was just a mistake, that’s all.”

But this is all personal and as much as we want to avoid judging how one leads their life, a memoir entitled Hemingway in Love His Own Story, cannot be read without some opinions, positive or negative, being formed.

Being sensitive in life and writing with sensitivity are not always reconcilable or comparable. The former is living as one would not expect from an alpha male such as Ernest Hemingway. The later is being able to express how life is lived in relatable, sensitive stories in tune to the reader’s own sensitivities.

“Write one true sentence.” He would say that was his goal when writing and the words were not flowing easily. But, as writing could sometimes be a struggle, so could life and love. Was the struggle to find that one true love successful? Of the four women he married, was that one true love among them?

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Short Story:

This story was written early during the pandemic when many people where locked down and going stir crazy, some without even realizing it…

The Old Mug and the Familiar Fly

By I. V. Greco

In challenging times banality can prove to be a respite. The slow simmering uncertainty and fear constantly gnawing at one’s mental equilibrium needs to be turned off.  Usually, this can be achieved by engaging in some pleasurable distraction which would allow emotional repairs to take place and therefore, restore a more positive outlook before returning to face the trying realities of the days yet to come. But the distraction should only be temporary. Temporarily because too much banality for too long could have its own negative effects. Such was the case in early April of the year 2020 on one of the finest mornings of that spring. The Coronavirus showed no signs of letting up and social distancing was in full swing. Being confined to the house for the better part of the past month, and based on the expert opinions that it would be like this for weeks to come, Judith, a 52 year old widow, like many people, decided to start making her own bread–from scratch, without a bread maker. It was another way to cut back on going out to shops and lowering the risk of becoming infected with the deadly disease. Before the virus hit, she would make daily trips to the neighbourhood bakery to pick up fresh bread and other baked goods. But now because of the pandemic, she was house bound on most days.

She was making bread and enjoying the process; this was her pleasurable distraction. But don’t image this woman laboriously kneaded dough for fifteen to twenty minutes – her achy arms would not allow it. She did however, use a heavy mixer which did most of the mixing and kneading, leaving her to just shape the loaf, and then she would put it aside to rise for a couple of hours before baking. It really was not so difficult after she got into a routine where she would make it every other day. Also, another plus of making her own bread, was having that pleasant aroma of a freshly baking loaf filtering through the house as she went about doing other chores.

So on this fine day after leaving a loaf to rise, Judith went to slide open the kitchen window that was over the sink to let a little fresh air in and noticed a little black housefly on the sill seemingly looking to get out. It may sounds unusual, but the fly looked familiar. She remembered seeing the scrawny black thing feebly crawling around the white ceramic kitchen floor earlier in the morning, looking like it might soon die. She remembered momentarily studying its wobbly movements, and was about to squish it with her foot, but decided against doing that since stepping on it would only leave messy fly guts on the floor and on the bottom of her sneaker, which she would then have to clean up. Seeing that it appeared to be on its last legs, she left it to expire naturally and would sweep it up later when she swept the entire floor, something she did every morning. But this fly on the sill, she thought must be the same one, and somehow it had found the strength to do what flies like to do, which is go to the brightest light in the room – in this case, the kitchen window.

Judith decided to take pity on it again–not wanting it to die unnecessarily by her hand, especially since it was the week leading up to Easter and mercy was easy to dispense on this, one of God’s creatures. She carefully slid back the glass window pane and noticed it stayed there facing the opening while rubbing its hind legs together. This was not normal fly behaviour, she expected it to start flying around frantically, but instead it just stayed there-waiting. It appeared to know there was still the screen panel blocking its way out. Once again Judith carefully slid the outer screen over to one side and once the way was clear, the fly immediately took off into the outdoors with such life and vigour that one would never have guessed it looked half dead just a few hours earlier. Feeling satisfied that she had spared a life, however small it was, she slid back the screen and proceeded to fill the electric kettle with water to make a cup of tea.

In the afternoon, after tidying up and placing the bread on a cooling rack, Judith put the kettle on once again to make another cup of tea. Outside it had warmed up to the point where it would be comfortable to just sit out there with a light sweater. And that is what she decided to do–enjoy her soothing hot cup of tea and read another selection from her book of Hemingway short stories while sitting on her back porch.

Facing the sun, she sat down in a weather-beaten wicker chair next to a pillar made of bricks that normally would be crowned with a planter of geraniums. There were three of these pillars connected by rot iron railing which enclosed the large porch. They stood bare on top now since the planting and gardening season hadn’t yet begun. The centre pillar, which she sat next to, made a good place to rest her cup as she read. She had brought out her reading glasses has well, which she fitted with clip-on shades she picked up at the drugstore. The lenses of the clips were not perfectly shaped for the glasses, but she thought they were close enough and they suited the purpose of reading in bright sunlight which she loved to do.

Before opening the book, Judith cautiously took a small sip of the hot tea. She cradled the old cup, really a mug, which was a souvenir given to her by a friend many years ago who attended the Nagano Winter Olympics held in Japan. She noticed its interior was due for a good scrubbing as it was heavily stained brown from all the tea she drank. The exterior was a beige colour. On one side it had the image of a shark painted in the centre of a red circle next to a hockey stick, and on the other side the name KEC appeared. The symbol for the Japanese team, she assumed, but wasn’t really sure what it stood for since she had never asked.  It also had a couple of small chips on the bottom but she kept it all these years because the tea, for some reason, tasted best out of this particular mug than from of all the other mugs cluttered in the kitchen cupboards. Judith tilted her face upward towards the sun again, and for a moment, closed her eyes and took in the warm rays while inhaling deep breathes of the fresh spring air laced with the scent of wet earth and nearby pine trees. Listening to the quiet solitude of her backyard, she reflected on how this virus had slowed her life down to a much more manageable pleasant pace. But before getting too appreciative of this forced staycation, an uncomfortable thought crept in, reminding her that it was at the depressingly high cost of people’s lives and health. She would rather have things return to normal, or at least to what some were predicting – a different kind of normal. Putting these disquieting thoughts aside, she opened her book and began to read.

After a few minutes, she reached for the mug a second time and brought it to her pursed lips, anticipating the tea would still be hot. But before it actually touched her lips, she noticed something floating on the surface. At first she thought it might have been a small twig from the nearby apple tree in the yard, which had some of its bare branches stretching out over the porch pillar where she had left her mug. But on closer examination she saw it was a fly–the black familiar housefly. It was not moving at all this time, it was just floating on the surface of the tea. It was dead.

What were the odds that it was the same fly? She was convinced it was the very same one. After all, she hadn’t seen any other flies or insects of any kind the whole time she was out there. It had to be the same one! Disgusted at the thought that it might have been there when she took that first sip, she felt her stomach turn. This was followed by disproportionate anger and rage – and then she really lost it. She stood up abruptly, causing the book to slip off her lap (and losing the page she was on), and then she hurled the mug – fly and all – over the railing and onto the cement walkway below the porch, where it shattered into smithereens. She leaned over the railing and looking down at where it lay broken into a million pieces and instantly regretted having lost her temper. She then found herself, for some unknown reason, carefully looking over the rubble searching for where the dead fly might have landed – she couldn’t find it anywhere. She wondered why she wanted to see it again and after briefly pondering this question (without coming up with any logical answer), she gave up the search. 

Finally, feeling calmer, she picked up her book, still lying at her feet where it had dropped during the fatal calamity, and turned to go back inside the house.  As she walked away she shook her head sadly and mumbled to herself, “What a pity.”

But suddenly she realized she might be losing it. She gasped in shock, “Oh no, I really need to talk to someone.”

THE END