Books: An American Storyteller

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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 unmistakable 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."

Symbols & Style. In the past, hardly anyone ever suspected Hemingway novels of symbolism. Then, in The Old Man and the Sea, people saw symbols—the old man stood for man's dignity, the big fish embodied nature, the sharks symbolized evil (or maybe just the critics).

"No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in," says Hemingway. "That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better." He opens two bottles of beer and continues: "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks.

But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true."

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