Mr. Hemingway




‘We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers.’[1]

Flaubert, Madam Bovary.


The sun shines brilliantly over the thin canal which leads into the harbour, turning the water a deep and inviting blue. In the distance, on a rocky bluff overlooking the opposite shore, hunkers the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, an impressive piece of military architecture dating back to the 18th Century. Beyond it, on an outcrop overlooking the bay stands the — two centuries more venerable — Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, dominated by a stone lighthouse and the ubiquitous tri-coloured flag. Closer to us, on a wide, softly undulating, waterfront road, American- made Fords and Chevrolets dating back to the 1950s cruise by. They have a distinctly piscine quality, these old behemoths, sparkling brightly in hues of red, blue, and purple — fish swimming lazily around a coral reef; a testament to the Cuban joie de vivre and auto-mechanic abilities.

The view, as I gaze on it, is very similar to what Ernest Hemingway would have enjoyed when he sat on this same rooftop six decades ago. It belongs, after all, to a country which has changed, physically, very little in the last sixty years. Cuba is a country stuck in time — at least it certainly feels that way to an outsider —; its cars, buildings and aesthetic all distinctive of a bygone era. But this is about where my connection to Hemingway’s Havana experience ends. While tourism was a very real thing in the author’s day (he was essentially a tourist himself, albeit an arguably adventurous one), Hemingway would not have had his view constantly blocked by the crowds lining up to reach the terrace-edge in order to snap a shot for Facebook or Instagram. Not that I can complain, seeing as a lot of these tourists were brought here, as I was, by the allure of the man himself. Apart from it’s spectacular views, this hotel— Ambos Mundos — boasts the fact that Hemingway stayed here off and on between the years of 1932 and 1939. During that time, among other writing, he worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of his most admired novels. Now the building has become a species of shrine to its most celebrated resident; kitted-out with life-sized photographs of the author and authentic-looking props — depicting different aspects of his life — framed on every floor. The corner room in which he stayed (located on the fifth floor with the building’s best views) is now a museum, where you can, for the reasonable price of 2 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), see where the man slept and wrote — as well as several of his first edition novels plundered from the Cuban house in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. These were procured after Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary fled the country in July 1960, spurred on by very credible fears as well as ever-increasing paranoia.

We had arrived at the hotel the day before. My first half hour, according to my long-time partner Kirsten, had been spent like a child visiting the set of Star Wars; in an excited frenzy of ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahhs’. I was strangely excited by the knowledge that I would be sleeping in the same building as my childhood idol. We checked into our room (the same as Hemingway’s, two floors down), spent some time looking at the decorative frames filled with photographs and memorabilia, before setting out to explore a little of La Habana Vieja.

Today, though — well, this afternoon — has been set aside for the more relaxing pursuits of reading in the sun and coming to terms with our surroundings.  Which is why I’m sitting at a nice outside table at four in the afternoon, a daiquiri in my hand, trying to get a sense of the author whose writing I’ve loved since I first read Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises as a fourteen-year-old living in Switzerland. Kirsten is sitting beside me reading a copy of The Old Man and the Sea that we picked up earlier at the Plaza de Armas Book Market (though the market itself was vast, at least a quarter of the books being sold were Hemingway titles, the rest being a mixture of historical fiction and biographies of Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara). Kirsten scans the pages of her book intently, her drink going unnoticed by her hand. Her absorption would leave me, I figured, about an hour of uninterrupted meditation in which the building and city could, hopefully, fill me with revelations about the author, his thought processes, and, by extension, the act of writing itself. I wasn’t asking for much.

As well as having re-acquainted myself with Hemingway’s work — focusing particularly on the Cuba novels To Have and Have Not (a easily forgettable novel which boasts certain soaring heights) and Islands in the Stream (a piece which was published nine years after the author’s death and which should never have seen the light of day) — I had recently read Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, a biography in which Holmes describes his experiences following Robert Louis Stevenson’s twelve day journey in France’s Massif Central. In his book, Holmes makes this short walking trip seem like a transcendental journey, during which — along with being strangely vague and purposely irritating to the French people who come to his aid (referring to Stevenson as his friend, for example, in the rather patronising view that it would all be the same to these French benefactors) — he receives visions of Stevenson which fuel the depth of his experience as well as his writing. ‘In this sense, what I experienced and recorded in the Cevennes in the summer of 1964 was a haunting.’[2] I am hoping to achieve some similar insights. I too, want to be haunted by Hemingway, to perceive the man in a new and, above all, literarily convenient, way in order to have him to mark down.  As a back-up I am also achieving certain mind altering effects in the consummation of cooling and heavily alcoholic drinks; justifying my actions (to myself) by arguing that, to follow in someone’s footsteps, you must not only inhabit the same physical location but also the same state of mind. For my pursuit of Hemingway this means drinking well and plentifully. After all, the man’s life revolved heavily around alcohol. As Olivia Lang puts it in her group biography of six prominent alcoholic writers: ‘he [Hemingway] maintained an unshakeable belief in alcohol’s essential beneficence, its ability to nourish and uplift.’[3] If I was going to pursue my goal of following in Hemingway’s footsteps, I wanted to do it properly. I needed to be nourished and uplifted. But so far nothing had come of it; I felt very little connection to the man.

Earlier, in the morning, I had hired a bright pink 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible to drive us out to the Finca Vigia, the Cuban home Hemingway took in 1939 ( the car was one which Hemingway could, credibly, have been chauffeured in a few years later, along the same route). Our driver was a small, energetic man dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat, a Bluetooth headset attached to his ear. He showed us the trappings of his beloved car, including — my favourite — four buttons, each producing a different note of claxon which he used often and unsparingly. Traffic jams in Cuba, as a result, often have a musical quality unheard of in other parts of the world. As it turned out the Hemingway home was close to our driver’s house and as we approached we were often accosted by some acquaintance or another. Our driver would stop and have a long discussion as we sat in the back, luxuriating in the early morning heat.

The Finca Vigia turned out to be a, surprisingly beautiful, large, white house hidden in a depth of trees down a long and winding driveway. It has now been converted into a museum and is a popular attraction with tourists despite its distance from the city centre. I had set out hoping to bribe some official there into allowing me to tour some of the restricted areas, thus giving me some truly interesting material for my writing or at least an interesting anecdote to tell at parties. I quickly discovered that this course of action was likely impossible, not because of the moral fortitude of the house’s many caretakers, but due the sheer number of sightseers. The car pulled up the wooded drive and we were greeted by a serpentine queue of identical men and women in short pants and wide-brimmed hats holding expensive cameras, all waiting for their chance to peak through the writer’s front door. We agreed with our driver that he should wait for us for an hour, though not having a discrete moment in which to put my plan into action, I was prevented from doing anything more than peering in through the windows. I could make out big game trophies hanging from the walls and the countless books (I say countless, the estimate is at 7,000) stored in low bookshelves along the walls of every room (including the bathroom, leading me to the particularly useless insight that Hemingway read whilst sitting on the toilet), but that was about it.  I had allowed myself to hope that I would be somehow moved by walking through the man’s property, but as I pushed my way through the crowds of people surrounding the house, the cat-infested tower, and Hemingway’s famous fishing vessel, the Pilar, I felt little to nothing. For a split second I thought that I had something as I sat in Hemingway’s favourite chair by his deep blue pool — in the same spot where he discussed his love-life with A.E. Hotchner over turtle meat sandwiches and cooled glasses of scotch — but it turned out just to be the realisation that it was quite nice to sit in a comfortable chair, on a sunny day, under the shade of a luscious green tree.

On the way out I picked up a pebble from the garden which had formerly been the sight of Hemingway’s cock fighting ring. This pebble was going to be my ‘lucky piece’, which I would carry around in my pocket just as Hemingway did his luck charms.  He had a range of these objects which changed often during his life; from a rabbit’s foot to a chestnut, the focus of his superstitions wasn’t important. In his biography Holmes wore a cheap ring to imitate the one Stevenson bought from a peddler and didn’t that help him? At the very least, it gave him one more object on which to focus his writing. As for me, my ‘lucky piece’ scratched my phone and dug into my leg and the initial exhilaration of having my own good luck charm wore off quickly. I put the rock down on my bedside table upon getting home and haven’t picked it up since.

As we were leaving the Hemingway home I turned to Kirsten in the back seat of the convertible and asked why all the Japanese and German tourists were taking photos of us. Was it because, in our sunglasses and light summer clothes, they took us for attractive Hollywood celebrities? Maybe I could style myself as one for a day.

‘It’s because of the car, darling’, she said. She laughed at my crestfallen face. I turned away as she squeezed my hand. Maybe I wasn’t a celebrity, but by the time Hemingway was living in that house he sure was.  After winning the Nobel prize in 1954 it could be argued that he was the most famous living writer in the world. Or at least the most notorious.

I take another sip of my drink and look around. My notebook is open and the page blank. In want of inspiration, I’m trying to find distraction. Kirsten still doesn’t look up from her book, refusing to engage my procrastination. My eyes fix on a point a little over her head and I find myself watching a man sitting alone at a table in the shade.  I wonder idly if he is waiting for someone, or whether he often comes up to this roof to enjoy the view and the afternoon heat. He’s wearing an embroidered white linen shirt, a dark tan, even darker aviator sunglasses, and thinning white hair combed carefully back over his scalp. A woven panama hat with a pin depicting crossed U.S. and Cuban flags sits on the table beside him, next to a half-drunk mojito.

A family of American women rise from their table to my right, preparing to leave. All have long blonde hair, deep tans and heavy southern accents. The man looks up.

‘Isn’t this just lovely? Just lovely,’ the oldest of the women says.

‘Sure is, Mom.’

They stand looking out at the view. The youngest, unsure as to whether or not they are leaving, takes out her phone and begins snapping photos. The man sees his chance. He gets to his feet and flashes a smile at the women.

‘Isn’t it just amazing? Y’all American?’

A waiter arrives with my next daiquiri. I had forgotten that I had ordered it. I fumbled with what Spanish I knew in my attempts to thank him and he leaves quickly. By this point the man is deep into what sounds like an oft repeated speech.

‘Yep, been here thirteen years all up. Truly amazing country. Lots of issues of course, but we’re working on it. Lot’s I can point out too.’ With this he swept his hand out, designating the wide view of the city. ‘I know all about this city. And it knows a lot about me. That there is the Fortaleze of Saint Carlos, and out further you can see the Castillo de Morro Castle. That, over there, is the original Bacardi Rum building. You know the rum we drink? They don’t, though. Over there is the Plaza of San Francisco of Assisi …’ at this point I busy myself with my drink. While I enjoy watching others, imagining situations, it often becomes embarrassing to listen in too long. The daiquiri is surprisingly good and strong.

The man reminds me of a character I’ve been working on for a short story. It’s a reinterpretation of Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill, focusing — instead of on a woman whose walls of defence have been torn down — on an insecure, deluded, and aging man. Through it I’m trying to explore the issue how we are perceived by others from a masculine perspective; attempting to see what happens when a man, whose sense of self-worth and position has always been secure, suddenly has to confront the idea that perhaps he can no longer make the people around him believe in his status and power. The man in my story begins by telling stories of his past exploits to a younger couple, believing himself to be impressing them with his bravado and gall, only to later overhear them say that they hadn’t believed a word of what he had said. In the end we see that, rather than being permanently wounded by this revelation, the man goes back to spinning tales of his achievements to anyone who will listen. My reasoning behind the conclusion is that men often go to extreme lengths when trying to secure a macho, virile, image and it proves so often effective that they are seldom deterred from it. It’s what I now feel that this man is doing. He had found himself lonely, without external validation, and so has hijacked these women and appropriated an entire city as a backdrop against which to present himself.

As I watch him continue to point out tourist attractions, now with his arm around the mother’s waist, I realise that my story could just as easily be called Mr. Hemingway. This man, if his advances are successful, might call the American woman Daughter and expect her to call him Papa, as Hemingway did with the important women in his life. I’ve never been one for the Freudian approach to interpreting human behaviour, but if those aren’t the habits of a man determined to assert himself as a dominant male, I’m not sure what are. It was the way he lived his life. Hemingway created a mythology out of his masculinity. He hid himself in war, hunting and misogyny. Yet if you strip away the stories, if you doubt in the legitimacy of his claims, what is there left?

In a discussion of the different impact the First World War had on the collective consciousness of Great Britain and the United States, historian Niall Fergusen notes how the fictitious life Hemingway created affected how his audience perceived historical realities. Fergusen writes: ‘Even in interviews, Hemingway could not resist embroidering the story of his time as Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy, enlisting retrospectively in the Italian army and promoting himself to First Lieutenant.’ In his desire to present himself in the best possible light, Hemingway not only distorted his own experiences but also how the war was perceived. And this is not an isolated incident. A.E. Hotchner wrote in the preface of his memoir (about his time with Hemingway) that: ‘Part of the mystique about Ernest stems from the manner in which he blurred the demarcation between fiction and fact.’[4]  His intention is that we take this practice as a virtue — representing Hemingway’s fearlessness — as opposed to the actions of a desperate man.

It does credit to Hotchner that, though he was a personal friend of the Hemingways for over a decade, he still relates, in his memoir, his incredulity regarding some of Hemingway’s stories. My particular favourite is in regards to Hemingway’s assertion that he had slept with Mata Hari, that he had ‘fucked her very well.’ In response to this assertion Hotchner writes ­that ‘such an encounter could not possibly have taken place since Mata Hari had been executed by the French in 1917 and Ernest had first gone abroad in 1918 as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy.’[5] A rather tall tale. So what caused Hemingway to act in such a way? Was it a symptom of insecurity, a need to be revered? Or something more sinister?

The American women are leaving now. I can’t tell if they are genuinely pleased to have met my tanned old gentleman or whether they are just exceedingly polite in their farewells. Either way, he’s now sitting back down, alone again. He seems sad for a moment, but the emotion I see could just as easily be a case of transferal on my part. The truth of the matter is that it is almost impossible to tell how he is feeling. Impossible to truly know another person. At all times we perceive others through the skewed lens of our own understanding of reality. Perhaps this man is happy in his life and in his interactions with others. Perhaps his life is fulfilled. However, if he is not, if he was creating a persona for those women, then there may be true sadness in his life. That is the danger with creating fictions around yourself, they keep the people in your life at bay.

The issue with Hemingway is in some way the issues of all writers. We want to know them truly so that we can link their experiences to their work. For academics particularly, there seems a need to locate the source of inspiration for each piece of writing. However, in doing so, we create a one-dimensional character of the writer, without acknowledging the complexities of his or her character. This is particularly easy in the case of Hemingway because so much of his writing seems to follow the same lines as his life. Sandra Spanier writes: ‘Hemingway described his artistic method as inventing from experience’[6], this is no doubt true. It’s thus easy to say that such-and-such piece of writing is directly linked to such-and-such experience. The problem being that the experiences that we base our image of Hemingway on are often inaccurate. This leads to a sense of sadness and betrayal — especially in the case of a writer with whom we’ve spent much time, living in the worlds they’ve created in their writing — when we realise that the image we have in our mind is far removed from the truth.

This thought brings me back, back to my table, to the sun, to this place that is so foreign to me and yet so comfortable. In Cuba I feel I can re-invent myself; I can be anyone I want to be. Which is what Hemingway did. The distance offered by this island, both physical and otherwise, allowed him to project a cultivated version of himself out to the world. He did this primarily through his friend and companion, Hotchner, whom he first met at Hemingway’s favourite bar in Cuba, the Floridita.

The cult of Hemingway is still very much alive in Cuba, as I have noted, but no-where is it more apparent than at the Floridita, with its tacky glitz and glamour. We visited the place in the late morning, walking slowly down the bustling Rue Obispo after being dropped off at the hotel by our cowboy chauffeur. There were several tourist buses out front of the building but luckily inside it was relatively empty, insomuch as there was space to stand. We squeezed our way to the bar and were surprised and pleased to find two empty stools next to the bronze statue of the man himself. He was looking fat and old, partitioned off by a felt rope barrier and surrounded by framed black and white photographs. I was a little dismayed by the sight. When Hotchner — who in his memoir would be responsible for setting down the definitive image of Hemingway — visited Hemingway here, he was as Marlow on his journey to Kurtz’s tribe. He was the reporter sent to the sanctum Hemingway had created for himself on this island. Hotchner would have been sitting where I was, on a high stool next to a man whose writing he held in awe. He reports that as soon as he sat down he was given a drink (with double the rum, what is now known as a ‘Papa Doble’) which Hemingway presented as ‘the ultimate achievement of the daiquiri-maker’s art’ along with the boast: ‘made a run of sixteen here one night.’[7] Earlier on our trip I had toyed with the idea of aiming for seventeen, but after having had one I realised that it would be impossible. And it’s not like alcohol has not played a large part in my life. But there would be very little chance of going past six or seven. I wondered then, as I was constantly jostled by people lining up behind me to take photos with the statue, whether there was any truth to that boast. Somehow I found it hard to believe.

I take a sip of my current daiquiri, half the strength of the ‘Papa’. I’m four deep and already starting to drift, less able to follow a line of reasoning, more content and also more dissatisfied. Besides me Kirsten puts down her book.

‘How was it?’ I ask.

‘Good. Well written. And sad.’

I think for a while, reminded of the beauty that Hemingway can evoke with his words, of his grasp of the intricacies of human relationships and emotion. There is a distance, then, between the man and his work. I ask Kirsten if she wants another drink. She says yes and I order two more. We sit in silence for a while.

I wonder if I’ve learnt anything from this experience. Whether I know Hemingway any better. Somehow I feel as if I know less than when I started, but that I’m more aware. I had set out to follow in the man’s footsteps, and to a certain extent I did, but I’m not sure what I learnt. There was no haunting, no moment of clear revelation. If Hemingway’s ghost is present on this island, he is dumb; deftly protecting his masculine image. If anything, what I did learn was just how difficult it is to truly know another person. And how often the picture that you have of someone reveals itself to be false. Yet it always comes as a shock. To learn that our heroes are not who we thought they were. That, perhaps, we are not the people we thought we were.

Goodbye Papa, it was nice to sit in the sun.

[1] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2001), p. 233.

[2] Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Press, 2005), p. 66.

[3] Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2014), p. 88.

[4] A.E. Hotchner, ‘Preface to the Da Capo Edition’, in Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2005), pp. vii–xii (p. viii).

[5] Hotchner, ‘Preface to the Da Capo Edition’, p. ix.

[6] Sandra Spanier, ‘General Editor’s Introduction’, in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. xv–xxvii (p. xvi).

[7] A.E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2005), pp. 6–7.


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