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30 June 2021

Hemingway: a masterful six-part series from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

This documentary has cast an unlikely spell on me, someone who hitherto has always proved resistant to Ernest’s manly attractions.

By Rachel Cooke

Hemingway (29 June, 9pm), the “epic” new six-part documentary series from the award-winning Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (The Vietnam War), really should come with a health warning. After one episode, I’d half-filled a notebook with frenzied quotations from it. After two, I’d spent more money on books than I cared to think about. God knows what will have happened by the time I get to the end. Will I by then be writing some execrable novel? Will I be on the next train to Pamplona, and hang any Covid restrictions? Either way, it has cast an unlikely spell on me, someone who hitherto has always proved resistant to Ernest’s manly attractions. It is a bewitchment that makes me feel at once rash and restless, and like retiring to bed for a week with only a copy of A Farewell to Arms for company.

In the past, Burns’ films have sometimes been a bit too epic for my taste. While their unimpeachability – the feeling that they’ve been carved on tablets of stone by some all-seeing prophet of public television – could not be the source of anything but admiration, they induced no fervour; they did not wholly grip. Not in this case, though. Partly, this is thanks to Ernest Hemingway, a man who, according to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, had “so many sides he defied geometry”.

No writer’s life has ever throbbed with more drama than his. But Burns and Novick also deserve credit. This series is luxurious in the way that some hotels are luxurious, every detail expensively – and expansively – right. Their talking heads (Tobias Wolff, Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien) are a coup in and of themselves, their readers (Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep) better than any TV show deserves. As for their script, its elegance and stunning concision is apparent even next to Hemingway’s gorgeous declarative prose (they quote him generously).

Their approach is chronological – and no wonder. All of Hemingway’s bravery and all of his madness may, for those of Freudian bent, be traced to his plush and pious Chicago childhood. A controlling mother, a depressed father, four devoted sisters: it’s textbook stuff, though this isn’t to say that the footnotes aren’t startling. When Hemingway returned home after being injured in the First World War – he served as an ambulance driver in Italy – his mother’s gratitude didn’t cause an outbreak of empathy. In 1920, her son, still only 21, attended a moonlight party with some teenagers near his family’s weekend cottage. His mother, disgusted by this “corruption”, wrote him an outraged letter in which she listed the many sacrifices she’d made for him; his own sacrifice – the 220 injuries he’d received to his body thanks to enemy mortar – went unremarked.

[See also: Sky’s Murder at the Cottage is an extraordinary piece of true crime]

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In these times, when people must seemingly be all good, or all bad, and nothing in between, Hemingway makes for a wild study. A constantly shifting prism of light and shade, he is a chiaroscuro human being, one who invites disapprobation and – yes – adoration in almost equal measure. Burns and Novick aren’t about to purse their lips, but nor are they out to dry-clean him. Their experts have been chosen for their sagacity as much as for their familiarity with the texts, and as things get more difficult – Richardson having already been abandoned for Pauline Pfeiffer, there will now follow many depressions, and much drinking and faithlessness – the film-makers will certainly look to them for perspective.

Already, O’Brien has not told, but shown us through a sublime bit of close reading that, no, this is not a writer who necessarily disliked women; that this is a writer attuned since childhood to androgyny; that it is an act of bad faith idly to roll out the word “misogyny” before any other in connection with him. Even when O’Brien is after him – “he loved an audience… a great pity for a writer” – there’s wry indulgence in her voice. He lived greedily and wholly; he did not ever think, costively, of life as some tightly knotted done deal, and she knows this, and she likes it. It makes her shiver and swoon. What a masterstroke to have her. But then, this series is all cleanly executed masterstrokes. Let it ravish you. Let it seize you, and carry you off. 

BBC Four