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Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (1934-61)

Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (1934-61)
Paul Hendrickson
Bodley Head, 532pp, £20

Towards the end of Gerbrand Bakker's latest novel, The Detour, the protagonist, a Dutch lecturer hiding out in Wales, spares a thought for Emily Dickinson's dog. Alfred Habegger's 2001 biography of the poet, which is earlier described as a "doorstop" and "exhaustive", had only men­tioned the dog, a Newfoundland called Carlo, four times: "A timid little woman whose only friend was a big dog and Habegger didn't care."

Paul Hendrickson, in his rummage around the Hemingway mythology, is more forgiving of Carlos Baker's "door-stopping" and "exhaustive" biography Ernest Hemingway: a Life Story (1969). He calls the book "essential" despite its scant references to an object that he considers significant, even key. A big, sad man whose "dearest possession", as his fourth wife put it, was a 38-foot boat, but Baker cared only in passing. Hendrickson, by contrast, could scarcely care more and, without giving his predecessors too hard a time, he has written a book, explicitly not a biography, devoted to Pilar, a twin-cabin Playmate cruiser that Ernest Hemingway bought in 1934.

“I felt that if I could somehow learn whatever was possible to learn about a possession that meant so much to its owner . . . then I might be able to begin to understand things about Hemingway . . . in ways that I had not previously been able to understand": this is not a prefatory note to the account of a quest gone wrong but a kind of credo, written with confidence and a sense of vindication. Hendrickson appears to have learned everything he could about Pilar and he has understood plenty of things about Hemingway, but he quickly loses sight of any connection between the two.

Hendrickson, a former reporter for the Washington Post, is refreshingly neither a literary scholar, a career biographer nor a friend, relative or lover of Hemingway. But though his research is astounding, he has a tendency to value proven fact for its own sake: "A cloudless July morning in Havana, temperature mid-70s. (I checked.)" He regrets that we know "next to nothing" about the day when Hemingway and his second wife purchased the boat. "Did he and Pauline flag down the first taxi they saw outside Scribner's? What was the route to Brooklyn?" Hendrickson has the bill of sale and the purchase order but doesn't know when Hemingway paid: "I couldn't find a paper trail." At times, the book seems motivated less by what the boat might say about Hemingway than what Hendrickson can say about the boat, even though the shortcomings of existing Hemingway scholarship are anything but empirical.

Having discovered everything there is to know about Hemingway's nautical pursuits, Hendrickson goes to great lengths to make them resonate symbolically. With a shaky command of the second person, he writes that "whole passages" of Green Hills of Africa "would make you think of Pilar". He alleges: "You could compare the bounce-back and up-and-down commercial and legal fortunes of Wheeler boats to the bounce-back and up-and-down life and literary fortunes of the man who bought Pilar."

As a latecomer, Hendrickson has had to sail "the vast, roily, envy-ridden sea of Hemingway studies". "I stood there for a long while," he recalls at one point, "watching the probable descendants of the trout Ernest Hemingway had watched." The word "boat", we are told, appears nine times on the first page of Across the River and Into the Trees. The boat preserved at Hemingway's Havana home has been rumoured, though never proved, to be a fake: "She resists knowing, as her captain himself resists knowing."

The book's title strongly implies its membership of a tradition often thought to originate with Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot but which goes back at least as far as Proust's Binoculars, a critical study by Roger Shattuck published in 1963 which might have owed something to Howard Moss's The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust. Hendrickson only appears to understand the potential uses of this model. Hemingway's boat, it turns out, serves as neither a "structural frame" nor an "organising principle" for a book with the subtitle Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (1934-61).

Of the book's four sections, two cover the year or so after he bought Pilar; another takes place before 1934; and much of the last section either bears on events that took place within the time scheme but away from Pilar, or after Hemingway's death. Though he loved the boat, he didn't lose it and most of the things he did lose during that period were lost neither because of, nor on, the boat. (His third marriage, to Martha Gellhorn, is dealt with in a parenthesis.) As for the claim that the book is not "meant to be the nautical history of a piece of floating wood" - if there is a more detailed book to be written about Hemingway's boat, I don't want to read it.

It isn't that Hendrickson has written a boring or excessively narrow study of Hemingway; it's just that he has mistaken a spur for a crux. Pilar prompted him to think about certain aspects of Hemingway's life but the fact that the 27 years for which Hemingway owned the boat were his last 27 years only means that he never sold it, destroyed it or gave it away. This isn't to suggest that a fresh angle on those years is unwelcome. Hemingway's middle age has become a blur of whisky, shock treatment and bad prose and Hendrickson succeeds in showing that, in the words of one of Hemingway's last surviving friends, "the terrible vile side" doesn't define him.

It isn't a matter of turning from iconoclasm back to idolatry - from Hemingway the brute to Hemingway the sweetheart - but of achieving a better balance. Hendrickson also wants to rescue Hemingway's later work from ridicule; however, given that his interest in the novels is confined to their autobiographical details, and that little is made of A Moveable Feast - a return not just to the territory, but to the fresh and bracing prose of The Sun Also Rises - this isn't achieved.

Pilar is intended to give coherence to a series of biographical studies, many of them enthralling and moving. Hendrickson deals with such disparate topics as Hemingway's foreign friends, the career and family life of his sometime assistant Arnold Samuelson, and the psychology of his youngest son, Gregory, also known as Gigi and the author of Papa, whose arrest at the age of 19 for entering a women's lavatory dressed in drag has been either distorted by, or hidden from, previous biographers and memoirists.

Hendrickson, who interviewed Gregory for an article in 1987 and has interviewed various of his wives and children for this book, knows what happened and what has happened since. It is Gregory's story, from roughly 1 October 1951 to 1 October 2001, and what it says about Hemingway as a father and a heterosexual, that occupies the book for its final chapters. Although it might sound damning to say that a book called Hemingway's Boat would have been better without the boat, in this case it's a compliment with a hint of regret.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt