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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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis