An American Storyteller

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 6)

Reflections at Sea
On a seagoing day (his first after winning the Nobel Prize), Hemingway's big Buick station wagon bounces through the suburbs along the Havana wharfsides by 9 a.m. The Pilar is a hardy, 42-foot craft with two Chrysler engines, built to Hemingway's specifications 20 years ago. Hemingway carefully supervises the provisioning of the Pilar's iceboxes for a hot day afloat--several brands of beer for his guest and the mate, some chilled tequila for Skipper Hemingway. He consults with his mate, an agile, creased Canary Islander named Gregorio Fuentes. Then Hemingway shucks off his shoes and socks, chins himself on the edge of the Pilar's flying bridge, throws one leg up, and, favoring his sore back, slowly raises himself to the roof to take the set of controls. The Pilar glides trimly past Morro Castle. Hemingway delightedly sniffs the sea-grape-scented air and gestures to the whole ocean. "It's the last free place there is, the sea."

Gregorio deftly baits four lines and trails them from the stern. In fluid Spanish, Hemingway and the mate decide to fish the waters off Cojimar, the little fishing village near which Hemingway set The Old Man and the Sea.

The air and the baking sun make him feel good. In the sea haze, from the blue water, amid the occasional flying fish, ideas seem to appear--Hemingway notices about how things are. "When a writer retires deliberately from life, or is forced out of it by some defect, his writing has a tendency to atrophy just like a limb of a man when it's not used." He slaps his growing midriff, which, in his enforced idleness, is spreading fore and aft. "Anyone who's had the fortune or misfortune to be an athlete has to keep his body in shape. I think body and mind are closely coordinated. Fattening of the body can lead to fattening of the mind. I would be tempted to my that it can lead to fattening of the soul, but I don't know anything about the soul."

The Soul & Traumas
In a sense, Hemingway perhaps never fully faced up to the concept of soul in his writing. Religion is a subject he refuses to discuss at all. He is equally ill at ease in the world of the ruminative intellectual. But he recognizes that in that world there is much worth knowing. In the bright sun, Hemingway recalls the shut-in figure of Marcel Proust. "Because a man sees the world in a different way and sees more diverse parts of the world does not make him the equal of a man like Marcel Proust," says Hemingway humbly. "Proust knew deeper and better than anyone the life of which he wrote."

Suddenly Gregorio cries out: "Feesh! Papa, feesh!"

Proust is gone. Hemingway reaches down, grabs one of the rods by its tip and pulls it to the roof. He jerks once to set the hook, then with slow, graceful movements he pumps the rod back, reels a few feet, pumps, reels. To protect his back, he lets his arms and one leg do the work. By the shivery feel on the line he can identify the catch. "Bonito," he tells Gregorio. "Good bonito." With smooth speed, he works the fish close to the stern. Gregorio grabs the wire leader and boats a blue-and-silver bonito of about 15 pounds. A broad, small-boy smile flashes through Hemingway's old-man whiskers. "Good," he says. "A fish on the boat before 10:30 is a good sign. Very good sign."

Gregorio takes the wheel and Hemingway lets himself down to the deck and sits down. His voice has an ordinary sound, but high-pitched for the big frame that produces it. For all his years away from his rootland, he speaks with an unmistakeble Midwestern twang. Absentmindedly he rubs a star-shaped scar near his right foot, one of the scars left by the mortar shell which gravely wounded him at Fossalta, Italy, in 1918 when he was a volunteer ambulance driver. Nick Adams, hero of many of Hemingway's short stories, was wounded at approximately the same place in much the same way. So was Lieut. Henry of A Farewell to Arms; so was Colonel Cantwell of Across the River and Into the Trees. A critic named Philip Young last year published a book attributing Hemingway's approach to life and his artistic creation mostly to the Fossalta wounding (plus some harsh sights witnessed when he was a boy in Michigan traveling with his doctor father on emergency calls). Hemingway does not think very highly of that book. "How would you like it if someone said that everything you've done in your life was done because of some trauma?" he says. "I don't want to go down as the Legs Diamond of Letters."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6