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Weekly Alibi The Son Also Rises

Patrick Hemingway discusses life with Papa

By Blake De Pastino

JULY 26, 1999:  For most of his adult life, Patrick Hemingway lived in Africa. For decades, he ran what he calls a "safari firm" in the savanna. He served as honorary game warden for the nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania during dangerous political times. He became so intimate with the ways of the wild that he was appointed by the U.N. to teach other Africans about African wildlife. Then, after his retirement, he moved to Montana, where he has lived in relative seclusion for the past quarter-century. In so many words, he has lived a life that can only be described as Hemingwayesque.

So perhaps it's fitting that, three years ago, Patrick agreed to publish his father's last book -- or, more accurately, his last draft of a book -- on the condition that he himself would edit it. What he had to work with was 850 pages of a "fictional memoir," based on a winter safari Hemingway spent in Kenya with his fourth wife, Mary, and, for a time, Patrick himself. It was a stock of literary tinder that from the very beginning had the makings of truly incendiary stuff.

After all, Hemingway was legendary for his inefficiency as a writer, producing reams of what he knew to be unusable material, just to arrive at a few, near-perfect, razor-sharp sentences. He was famous for complaining about how difficult the writing process was for him. And even in finished form, his streamlined prose was often so slick that it became downright hard to follow, strafed with the author's trademark pages of unlabeled dialogue. And yet, Patrick, who self-admittedly has "very little" experience in writing, wanted to do the work himself. Hemingway was his father. What Ernest intended to say, Patrick claims to know "in my bones as his son, for goodness sake." He is, by every measure, a Hemingway.

The final, edited version of Hemingway's last manuscript, published under the title True at First Light, arrived in bookstores this week, in time for the 100th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway's birth. And by all accounts it has the distinction of being the year's most highly anticipated -- and wildly controversial -- release. For hardened Hemingway fans, the posthumous publication of True at First Light may come as no surprise. Five books have already been culled from Hemingway's unfinished work, ranging from A Moveable Feast, his notoriously self-indulgent memoir of Paris in the 1920s, to his collected letters, which he explicitly requested be kept out of the public eye after his death. Nonetheless, the literary marketplace has demonstrated an insatiable hunger for Hemingway's words, regardless of whether they were ever meant to see the light of day. And True at First Light is only the latest to emerge from the shadows.

But that hasn't helped stem the controversy. As critics began pointing out as early as last fall, altering the work of one of the century's most influential authors is, to say the least, a dangerous task. The effect that Hemingway's precise prose has had on American literature, they point out, is measurable in entire generations of writers, with some of the country's most prominent voices having been shaped by Papa's original diction. Both Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem) were known to have spent months of their teenage years hunched over typewriters, transcribing A Farewell to Arms in its entirety, chasing down its rhythms, tracking its syntax. And Hemingway himself was aware of the power that could be made manifest in even the slightest change of phrase. His early mentor Gertrude Stein taught him that commas were a sign of weakness; if you need to use punctuation, she said, then you're not doing your job. And as anyone who has encountered Hemingway's spare and desiccated prose can attest, it was advice he took directly to heart.

As a result of all this, True at First Light has been roundly lambasted by the purest of literary apparatchiks, many of whom can claim plenty of critical truck. Last November, Joan Didion rallied to her hero's defense, saying that Patrick's work on the manuscript "inevitably works to alter what the author may have intended." In the May issue of Harper's magazine, former Hemingway editor Tom Jenks denounced the new release as "unformed, fragmentary, digressive and anecdotal." And no less than The New York Times just last month declared -- in mock Hemingway prose -- "what he wrote this time was not good and it was not true."

But while the book itself has become a dense thicket of controversy, little attention has been spent on the man who made the project possible. Critics are quick to point out his lack of literary experience, but besides that, no one seems to know Patrick Hemingway, his motives, his workings and his memories. Which is why we tracked him down at his home in Bozeman, Mont., where he took time to speak at length about True at First Light, his critics and what it was like to be Papa's son.


Weekly Alibi: How did this project first come about? It's been said that your father wrote True at First Light in the early 1960s.

Patrick Hemingway: Actually, earlier than that. He wrote it in 1955. He went to Africa in the winter of 1953-1954, and then he wrote this book about a year after he got home. He was still in Cuba then. Mary did authorize Sports Illustrated to have a look at the manuscript in the early 1970s, and they did run extracts from it, mostly from the viewpoint of Sports Illustrated -- that is, as a sort of safari or an account of hunting activity. But the present version has a lot of material that makes it more than just the reportage of the safari. That's one of the many interesting aspects of this book -- it's a fictionalized memoir, which is a difficult genre to pin down. I guess it's impossible to tell at this point where the fiction ends and the memoir begins. I'm afraid that's true of most things.


WA: How long did it take you to assemble the manuscript?

PH: Well, that did take some time. We got a very careful photocopy made at the [John F. Kennedy] Library, and we hired a typist to put it into Microsoft Word, and that's what I worked with, always checking with the original copy during the process.


WA: What kind of condition was the manuscript in?

PH: Well, he did have all of his writing initially in longhand, so we had to have someone type up the original manuscript in long form. · He had a very legible hand, but there are instances where you had to think twice about it, but not significantly. It's an easy manuscript to read.


WA: I'm sure you're aware of all the criticism that's been expressed about this book, beginning with Joan Didion in The New Yorker and more recently The New York Times.

PH: I must say that was a rather nasty piece in The New York Times. · The piece in the Times is related to The New Yorker article, because Joan Didion expresses her point of view that Hemingway has been done a disservice by this posthumous publication, and I think one could take that point of view. But, unfortunately, I think the reality is that Hemingway's unpublished manuscripts would eventually find themselves in print even if people had to wait until the copyright had expired. As soon as the copyright had expired, it would have been published by somebody. So I think really, sooner or later, it was bound to happen. And I think sooner is better because I'm still alive as an editor for this particular work -- who knows what he's doing, I think -- and so it's better than somebody a hundred years later who might have difficulty even understanding it at all.


WA: What were the changes that you made in editing True at First Light?

PH: It basically needed my cutting out some of the more descriptive passages, the passages that appeared to be more or less repetitive. Because that's the way Hemingway worked. He wrote a lot more initially than he planned to use. So I think that it was better to cut it down to strengthen the narrative line. Essentially there are three narrative lines in it: one is the lion hunt, one is the leopard hunt [and] the other is the sort of romance between himself and this African girl, compared with his relationship with his wife. Remember, this is fiction, not necessarily what happened. But those three narrative lines, for a commercial cut, needed to be as strong as possible, and I think that made the work more readable for the average reader. You know, a scholar or somebody knowing a lot about it might prefer the uncut version, which supposedly is going to come out.


WA: Were there particular passages or memories that leapt out at you?

PH: I think what leapt out at me was the description of the people fictitiously, but they were people who I had known, and I'd think, gosh, he's got them to a tee.


WA: Like who, for example?

PH: Oh, they were people that you never have heard of. I mean, there are celebrities in the book, like Marlene Dietrich, but that's not the people I'm talking about -- more like the people that served me on the safari, the Africans. There was a man named Keiti -- I knew him well because I went out [hunting] later with him, and I got to know Keiti very well. So I could say, that's Keiti all right.


WA: What are some of your more positive memories of your father, before or after that trip?

PH: Well, we had some very nice times there on that last trip. That's the last I saw of him. We never did spend any time together afterwards. I stayed in Africa, and he was a long ways away, traveling in Spain and Italy and so forth, so those are the last memories I have of him ·


WA: What were some of your more disturbing experiences?

PH: Ohhhh, gosh. [Pause] It wasn't so much that the memories were disturbing in that anything awful happened. It was disturbing in that I realized how much I had forgotten. You know, it's amazing how one forgets. And then when you meet someone -- of course, he was writing only a year after the events, but then you see the wealth of the detail of what was going on and how it's all just sort of faded out. It's like a sofa, you know, that's against a window, and the light has destroyed the pattern on the sofa. That's what I mean by disturbing. There were no horrible things that happened.


WA: Which is your favorite work by your father?

PH: Artistically, I like A Farewell to Arms because I think it's a very fine example of sort of a classic novel, you know, about the war. But because of my own life, and how it impinged on my parents' life, I like The Green Hills of Africa and To Have and Have Not. Key West is where I was brought up, so that's always meant a lot to me. Neither one of those works, really, is Hemingway's best. But I like 'em ·


WA: Because this is your father's last work, it seems like the stakes for True at First Light are incredibly high. How do you think this book will affect the way people remember your father and his work?

PH: I don't think it's going to affect the way they remember him, probably, one way or the other. I think its major importance is that it shows Hemingway in what is really, for all intents and purposes, the last decade of his life. You know, he lived 60 years, and this is the last 10 years of his life, and it shows him more or less in his own words, highly fictionalized as a character in a book, but he's writing about himself and his opinions, and I think that makes an interesting contrast to, say, A. E. Hotchner's Papa Hemingway, which was somebody else's writing. · People are interested in Hemingway, and there's this sort of -- I'd say trite and rather wrong -- image of him: Here's this wonderful writer who was young and wrote a masterpiece like A Farewell to Arms, which set a whole fashion in American language, et cetera, and then as he grew old and drank too much, he got worse and worse [and became] the dregs of this once-great writer. I think that's just ludicrous.


WA: Why is that?

PH: Well, I mean one of the things that is absolutely going against this thesis is A Moveable Feast. Have you read that?


WA: Yes, I did.

PH: Well, did it strike you as the work of a muddle-headed old man who was so far gone with drink and self-deception?


WA: No, I wouldn't say that.

PH: Well, he wrote it one year before he died. So I don't think you can get a clearer, more concise, more -- in a sense -- killer Hemingway, I mean as far as describing people so that they're damned to eternity, than in that book. [Laughs] You know, A Farewell to Arms was written when he was well, I believe, under 30. If you like books by people in their 20s, fine, but you can't expect a major writer in his 50s to be writing the way he was when he was 20. · I just find this point of view particularly [unseemly] and very, very unworthy of a real literary critic. Especially the lady who wrote that thing in the Times -- I just thought that was ridiculous. That was a professional reviewer for The New York Times, I'm sure highly regarded, not highly regarded by me. I don't know her other reviews, so I may be doing her an injustice, but based on this review I think she's highly incompetent -- even if she does work for The New York Times.


WA: What do you think she specifically got wrong with her review?

PH: She missed Hemingway's humor entirely. She quotes a passage where Hemingway is parodying religious writing. She makes it [seem] as though he were [writing a serious piece] rather than a parody. I mean, to my mind it's utterly incompetent.


WA: So how do you know that when he wrote that particular passage that it was a parody?

PH: In my bones, as his son, for goodness sake. I know when he's making fun of things. Now if he didn't succeed in conveying that impression to the reader, then all right. I can see how that could happen, but you know, I just don't think that's true ·


WA: Well, after all the controversy has died down and the centennial celebration is over, what will you do? What's next for you?

PH: I'm 71. I don't know what's next for me. I wake up every day and I think, "Gosh, great day." So I don't have any further literary plans. I'm retired. I took this up as retirement, you know?


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