Papa's progress

Hemingway: The Final Years

Michael Reynolds <em>W W Norton, 416pp, £19.95</em>

ISBN 0393047482

The fifth and final volume of Michael Reynolds' biography of Ernest Hemingway, a project that has been in progress for more than a decade, covers the last 20 years of the novelist's life, from the summer of 1940, when Hemingway was completing For Whom the Bell Tolls, to July 1961, when he shot himself with his cherished Boss gun. Along the way he married and divorced the journalist Martha Gellhorn, married again, wrote The Old Man and the Sea and received the Nobel prize for literature. In between, he gathered intelligence for the US Coast Guard, indulged his passion for bullfights, hunted duck and fished for marlin, concussed himself repeatedly in his reckless pursuit of the ideal of perfect manliness, and drank several butts of his favourite McCallum's Perfection Scotch whisky.

The lavish abandon of Hemingway's living, his excesses and exaggerations, are the stuff of legend, and Reynolds depicts them unflinchingly. We learn about the writer's tax returns, his weight and blood pressure, his medication, the cars he drove and the books he read, the length of his beard. Reynolds' knowledge of his subject cannot be faulted; as long ago as 1981 he published a study of Hemingway's reading, and the quest to know each detail of his life has not flagged since. But one can undertake such a project only in a spirit of admiration, and Reynolds' work stops not far short of hagiography, an awed encomium of the heroism and integrity of a writer he describes as "the embodiment of American promise", a man whose existence spelt "a story the ancient Greeks would have recognised", who "fathered sons, wrote books, influenced friends, and won every prize available to a writer".

These claims deserve some study. For if Hemingway embodied America's promise, America's promise must consist of bloated machismo, anti-Semitism, sexist and sex-hungry cravings and a tediously vaunted pugilism. This, after all, was a man who bragged that he had killed 122 men in five different wars; who, when he married his first wife, took her to his adolescent haunts to meet his old girlfriends; who liked to walk round with an erection that passers-by could stop to salute; who recounted to his correspondents every detail of his sex life (an all-night stand after seven bottles of Louis Roederer Brut; his vast consumption of white turtle eggs to keep him potent and voracious). In his letters he refers liberally to his penis, which appears to have been known variously as Mr Scooby and Mr Scrooby. The honorific "Mr" tells a story. Manhood, manliness and masculinity are one: Hemingway's military-mindedness, so important on the battlefield, was no less vital in the bedroom, and it never let up.

Interviewed for the New Yorker in 1950 by Lillian Ross, Hemingway explained his artistic development in predictable terms. "I started out very quiet and beat Mr Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one." There may seem to be a certain self-deprecating humour in this, but the boast only reiterates the claim staked in a letter of the previous year, in which he told his publisher, Charles Scribner, that he had taken care of these pretenders and would fight his next bouts against Tolstoy and James. He generously conceded that there are "some guys nobody could ever beat, like Mr Shakespeare". This from a man who believed that "the greatest gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector". His whole world had to be visceral, bloodied, belligerent; so inflated was his sense of his bellicose virility that even his parrot's catchphrase was "Wanna be a fighter pilot".

His fascination with his own myth led him to promote himself relentlessly, and lies did the job just as well as distended half-truths. For instance, he claimed that For Whom the Bell Tolls relied "on his experience commanding a company with Kemal in the Greco-Turkish war, and on his participation in various Cuban revolutionary movements, as well as being a descendant of Major Colquhoun Grant, who fought with Wellington in Spain". On this Reynolds comments: "None of which was true in the sense of having taken place; all of which was true in the sense that each claim was what Hemingway wished had happened". In other words, it was a lie. But lying is not a word that Reynolds cares to use; the index, amusingly, contains an entry captioned "Hemingway: fact vs fiction and" - which is about as far as he goes.

It quickly becomes clear that Reynolds is often soft on Hemingway where it would do to be hard, but he is also often soft on himself, and a good deal of his writing is gauche. Thus, supplying the background to Hemingway's marriage to the Life reporter Mary Welsh, he explains that "twice married, once divorced, Mary was no novice in the field of love". As for Hemingway himself: "like many manic-depressives, he could be as nice as pie in public and a son of a bitch in private".

Yet no amount of quirky method and equivocation on the part of the biographer can detract from Hemingway's quality as a writer, and it is to be regretted that his writing commands so little of Reynolds' attention. Quite typically, The Old Man and the Sea elicits 15 pages of comment, but it is comment about how many dust-jacket designs Hemingway rejected (three), the number of copies published by the Book Club of the Month (153,000), the languages into which it was translated within five years (Persian and Latvian, among others) and the number of weeks it spent on the New York Times best-seller list (26). This is all worth knowing, but nowhere does Reynolds assess the writer's technique, the nature of his allegory, the actual merit of the story.

The image of an embattled Hemingway grappling with the traumas of existence is by no means inappropriate, since for Hemingway everything was war. His best writing penetrates the truth of conflict - man against man, man against woman, man against himself. His prose is notoriously short on adjectives, and the reason for this is simple: war makes adjectives inadequate. That, however, is a judgement that blurs the caesura between life and art, and the connection between Hemingway's experience and the style and substance of his writing is one that Reynolds does not explain. In his books Hemingway acclaimed masculinity but at the same time deconstructed it: in his life there was room for only one of these pursuits.

Reynolds, focusing on the life, conveys but half the picture. He deliberately resists the urge to psychoanalyse his subject, espousing instead what one might call the computational school of biography, in which raw facts bulk out everything and interpretation serves only as an occasional garnish. This choice is easily explained, for there has been a glut of wildly interpretive lives of Hemingway, and meticulousness - at which Reynolds excels - has invariably lagged behind sensation. Nevertheless it is Hemingway's psychology that is truly intriguing, and its absence from this final chapter of a five-volume life creates a vacuum that is filled with a sort of funerary bombast. For if you take away the explanations and the speculation, all that is left is the facts. These can prove engaging but more often they are repetitious and estranging, and any but the most dedicated of readers is likely in the end to flounder in the quag of manly detail.