This is the story of me falling in love with Ernest Hemingway. The facts here have been pulled from diaries and personal essays over the years, which means it might not be very interesting, but it’s true. We’re going to start about six years ago. Of course, this isn’t some complete retelling of the last six years of my life, because no one wants to read that. This is just the parts that had to do with Hemingway.
I was homeschooled, which I have mentioned many times, but in case this is the first time you’ve met me, I’ll explain it. My mom and I worked together to plan my education throughout my high school years and we managed to graduate me. If homeschooling has one flaw, it is that the opinions of the parent often affects the student. For example, my mom didn’t like Hemingway. So I graduated high school in June of 2011, and I had never read more than one short story by him. By this time I had read almost everything Fitzgerald had ever written, but Hemingway never made the cut. I think I had tried The Old Man and the Sea once. No one should be introduced to Ernest with The Old Man and the Sea. I feel like his writing can only be truly appreciated if they’re read chronologically, but I didn’t figure that out in 2011.
I started college at Borough of Manhattan Community College in January of 2012. In my freshman English class, taught by Professor Tom Moran, we were given the classic Compare and Contrast essay to write. For this assignment Professor Moran gave us two short stories by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They were stories from later in the authors’ careers, both about their dealings with their children, both clearly torn from the pages of life. I really liked the assignment because my professor drove home again and again that these stories had probably really happened. The Hemingway story, “A Day’s Wait,” centers around a silly misunderstanding his son had while ill, thinking he would die. It’s such a sad and silly story, and the feelings of the son are so vivid, it’s hard to believe Hemingway wasn’t inspired by something his real son said. I liked this idea, that I would be writing a literary analysis essay on something that a little boy had said to his had over fifty years ago. But once that class ended it didn’t occur to me to try a Hemingway novel. I read a lot of really good books that summer and in general had a really great year, but no Hemingway. I was very busy being a soccer coach and having a boyfriend and trying to transfer to a four-year school.
This is the year things got really interesting between me and Ernest. In my spring semester at BMCC I took my second and last collegiate English course. I read exactly one thing by Ernest Hemingway that spring and again, it wasn’t a novel. Professor Elizabeth Whitley, assigned us “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Previously, I didn’t think highly of Hemingway for no real reason other than the impression I had of his “man pain” novels. While researching a short paper on Margot from the story, I grew oddly fascinated with her and with Hemingway. Articles on the story I was reading mentioned the possibility the story was written as part of Hemingway’s literary feud with Fitzgerald, where Margot was Zelda. I still had no real experience with Hemingway as an author, but I was becoming interested in him as a man. I was so fascinated by what I was reading, that Professor Whitley let me revisit the topic for my term paper. It was a monstrosity of research titled “Under Lock and Key: Roman a Clé in Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’” I think the original assignment was seven pages and I handed over fifteen. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it started in me a weird obsession with this guy’s life. While I researched my essay on roman a clé for my paper, I started softening to Hemingway. It was like feeling new sympathy for a villain in a movie once you learn their backstory.
I believe almost every novel is a tiny little bit of a roman a clé, except for maybe Lord of the Rings. All novels come from the author, which means every novel has some sort of “key” needed to be understood. I don’t stand by The Author is Dead theory. Hemingway is super dead, but for an author who wrote as personally as he did, you can’t love his works without loving him. I don’t always read with the author’s intent in mind, but I do believe sometimes it is necessary in order to, if not fully understand, at least fully appreciate the work in question. A lot of modern, critically acclaimed works are vaguely autobiographical. (Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat). Some sort of grounding in the author’s experience isn’t necessary – but it makes the story richer. Hell, even The Fault in our Stars is sort of a roman a clé. I read differently after this class with Whitley. I did not only read differently, I tried to understand my own life differently, thinking about the novel that might come out of me someday.
I did not read any actual novels by Hemingway that spring. But I read so many articles, reviews, responses, pieces of novels, and short stories, that when I look back on those months, all I really see is Hemingway. In June I went to Austria and Switzerland with my friend Rachel. I did not read much, but I thought about books a lot. I thought about Heidi and Treasure of the Snow. Switzerland is wonderful. You can stand in the alps, thousands of feet in the air, walking across the face of a mountain, surrounded by nature. No person to be seen. And then suddenly you’re in a village in a valley. I thought about Ernest Hemingway. He spent a lot of time in the alps and he wrote about them a lot. He went there with his first wife, Hadley, and their baby Bumby, before his first divorce. Later, I wrote a short story inspired by my time there, trying to mimic Hemingway’s style.
I got back into Hemingway accidentally by reading The Paris Wife. It was one of those books I read “blind,” found at the library with no prior knowledge. The picture on the cover is a woman wearing a 1950’s dress, so I definitely wouldn’t have thought it was about the 1920s. I open it and it turned out to be the story of Hadley. “Oh, shit,” I thought. I had forgotten about Hemingway again. I’d had a very busy summer reading the five A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but Ernest seemed to be very upset that I was ignoring him, so I read on. It wasn’t a good book. So much of it was antithesis to what I had researched and studied, not to mention that the writing was absolutely awful. I knew the novel I was reading was grossly fictionalized and totally out of wack, so I set out to find the truth. I realized in all those hours pouring over Ernest, F Scott, and Zelda for my paper, I’d barely even gotten to know Hadley. Who was she? What did she do to Ernest?
Next I found a biography of Hadley, Paris Without End. It was incredible. It was one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read, fiction or nonfiction. Sometimes while reading a biography you realize that what you’re reading about really happened. That might seem like an obvious thought, but it happens to me. I wondered why anyone ever writes stories, when so many strange, narrative-friendly things happen in reality. And when you look at Hemingway’s stories you see that not all stories are really stories. Hemingway lived. Why did that surprise me? I had already spent so much time researching him, that it was odd that I was so shocked by this fact. If he was real, then he had had real motives and reasons for his fights with F Scott, for his fights with Zelda. For why he left Hadley. So next I read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own memoir about his Paris years. The segments in Switzerland tugged at my heart. I loved reading his descriptions of the passes. The memoir seemed so true, except I had written a whole damn paper on roman a clé, and I knew how these memoirs worked. Even words from Ernest’s own mouth weren’t always reliable. According to Fitzgerald, the whole scene in A Moveable Feast where Fitzgerald shows up drunk was made up by Hemingway to make his ex-best-friend look bad.
Other parts of the memoir seemed heartbreakingly real. “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully, and Mr. Bumby standing with her, blond and chunky and with winter cheeks looking like a good Vorarlberg boy.” I love this quote, but written so late in his life, it was probably more sentimentality than actual feelings that caused Hemingway to write it. There are actually two versions of A Moveable Feast. Published posthumously by Ernest’s last wife Mary, she apparently left out many of his nicer memories of Hadley and Pauline, including the quote above. Hemingway’s children reedited the memoir more recently, to put their mothers back in. Both versions are skewed, but both were written by Hemingway.
How could you not fall in love with the idea of these people? I began to think that perhaps I read too much fiction, if I was so genuinely surprised that real life can hurt as much as a story. I began trying to view my own life as a narrative, finding the synchronicities, looking for foreshadowing to my own future. At that point in my life I was going through a lot of change and conflict. Most of it was normal, young adult growing pains, but something about Hemingway made me feel like I had more control over my life. I returned to the old Fitzgerald-Hemingway feud. I read Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days. By now I was disagreeing with my thesis in the paper I wrote earlier. I didn’t think Ernest had ever been into Zelda. I thought he really hated her. I read The Sun Also Rises next. I found a charmingly old copy at Alabaster Books in the East Village before dinner with some friends in October. We had overpriced Indian food. Having read extensively about the real events Hemingway experienced in Spain which were put into the novel, reading the novel itself was refreshing. I opened the used copy from the 70’s in Alabaster Books and I saw “To Hadley” on the first page. I remember standing in the bookstore and having an overwhelming feeling of loss, reflecting on how Hemingway has given up on his first wife. It was the first actual novel of his I’d read, and I was annoyed at myself for waiting so long.
Next I read Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow by Ruth Hawkins, a biography of Pauline Pfeiffer, the woman Hemingway left Hadley for. By this point my family was sick of Hemingway. Once, during this time, my family was playing Apples to Apples. My little brother had the Hemingway card. “I am saving this for the next time Sarah judges,” he said. Everyone laughed. I was becoming emotionally exhausted by someone else’s life, so I took a step back. I had real research to do for a real degree and real papers to write for real classes.
The last Hemingwayish books of 2013 doesn’t quite count. I read Z, the fictionalized novel of Zelda’s life. It wasn’t very good, though I hadn’t expected much. But I needed to read it since between Z and The Paris Wife, new casual readers were being introduced to the story I had been contemplating for months. I wanted to see what people were reading. Z made Zelda out to be an too level-headed, too willing to be walked all over. It didn’t ring very true. I did some further research on Zelda, on her botched abortions and hysterectomies, trying to find the truth about her disorders, her surgeries, and her insanity. But eventually I gave up, unable to find a biography that looked solid, and running out of articles and essays. I gave up on Hadley, Ernest, Francis, and Zelda before finals and Christmas. I left their story with a strong desire to go to Paris and drink absinthe.
I spent the first week in January, 2014 in New Orleans with Rachel. I saw a signed, first edition of The Sun Also Rises in an antique shop on Royal Street. It was $2,000, if my memory serves. When I got home, life got weird for a long time. I was newly single and busy with college and my jobs. I’d also recently lost a close friendship, so I felt doubly-broken-up-with. In January I read the complete Nick Adams stories, a collection of some of Hemingway’s earliest works. I read the volume in Whole Foods one day between classes while eating mac’n’cheese. A few months later, in June, I accidentally found another fictionalized account of his wives, Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood. I got it for free at BookCon at the Penguin booth. I wasn’t looking for it. It was an interesting book because it tried to cover all of Hemingway’s wives, and still seemed to skirt the biggest issue in all of their marriages – which was Hemingway himself. His moods, depressions, and infidelity. Around this time, Hemingway started to find me again.
That summer I was sitting in one of my favorite restaurant, wearing my Colombian jersey, watching the World Cup. The Colombia part doesn’t have much to do with anything, except for I had a weird crush on a Colombian guy I worked with at that time. I glanced down at the bunch drinks menu and saw “Death in the Afternoon” staring right back at me, with a little Hemingway quote underneath the cocktail description. It was funny because they spelled it “Hemmingway.” I ordered it, even though no one should drink absinthe at 11:30am. I felt like Hemingway was not done with me, since I kept getting free books about his wives, and finding his name screaming at me on menus. So I answered his call and read A Farewell to Arms. I think it’s my favorite of his novels. His ability to romanticize and rewrite his own failures, turning his darkest and dumbest moments into gorgeous fiction… He had a bizarre talent but he used it well. “But life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose,” he wrote once, which is hilarious because he had so much to lose, and managed to lose literally all of it.
Hemingway also once wrote, “There isn’t always an explanation for everything.” I figure he must be right, because in August I went to Germany for five weeks, for a language exchange program. Kassel was an incredible experience, albeit one that had very little to do with reading. There was a bar in Rathaus, which I saw my first day exploring. I literally laughed out loud when I saw it was called The Hemingway Club. The décor was Cuban, the music soft Hispanic instrumentals, and it had nothing to do with Hemingway other than that there were quotes of his in German on the menu. I also passed a restaurant Casa Colombiana every morning on my commute to my class. One night near the end of my trip I decided to go there for dinner. I looked down at the drinks menu and, surprise, surprise, there was Ernest Hemingway’s name staring back at me. Grapefruit juice, white rum, lime juice, maraschino liqueur. It was fashioned as “Hemingway Special” on that menu, though in the states it’s normally a Hemingway Daiquiri. I ordered it, of course. Hemingway in Kassel of all places, a small and forgotten city that never recovered from the WWII bombings, where he had never once lived or wrote. Yet there he was. On trend with unexplainables, a few weeks later I packed up for a spur of the moment trip to Cartagena, Colombia over my Rosh Hashana break. I don’t think I had any Hemingway cocktails while there, but I did find a German restaurant, sporting a sign for “spaetzel con goulash.”
To finally make some sense of this repeating Colombian theme, when I got back from Colombia I had dinner with that Colombian guy I had a crush on. We never agreed it was a date, though we’d gone out twice before. I sat in a cab at 2am and my cab driver asked, “Long night?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “You should stop going out on Thursdays.” I thought this was amusing because every date I’d had with Juan had been on a Thursday. I had absolutely no idea what to do next. We’d never talked about it. We just kept going out, and then not talking. I didn’t really want a boyfriend but I really liked this guy and I felt like there were all these “signs.” At this point, Hemingway was almost a religion for me, because he kept popping up, everywhere, and always seemed to have his piece to say. I do remember sitting on the subway a few weeks later, after some half-hearted texting with Juan, feeling like it was time to let it go. But Hemingway had said, “Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.” But I didn’t know how much Juan really mattered to me. I didn’t really think he was worth it. It came to a head at a Christmas party where someone stole my tights. I had a resigned moment where I looked at Juan and gave up. And then I had to walk into December cold without tights on. Thankfully I ran into some friends on the subway, and they drove me home from the subway. In other words, 2014 did not end gracefully. I love Hemingway, but he gives bad advice.
So, in early 2015 I was reading the eight Outlander novels and I got very distracted for a while. But in March I read through a Hemingway short story collection, In Our Time. I love his early stuff because it reminds me of the part of his life that I know so much about – his Midwestern upbringing and Paris years. I was not as interested in his Africa years, his Cuba years. His later writings begin to develop the “man pain” voice that I find disagreeable. There is a gorgeous clarity to In Our Time. The story “Cat in the Rain” is one of my favorites.
At this time I coached soccer at the 92Y. In late March before work one afternoon I stopped at Barnes and Nobles on 86th and bought How the Scots Invented the World and Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin off the bargain book table. I noticed a small display, and the name Hemingway caught my attention. Mariel Hemingway, the granddaughter of Ernest and Hadley, was doing a talk there on a Wednesday in few weeks. I jotted down the date, but after insanity of getting into the Jennifer Lawrence signing at Barnes and Noble at few years before, I wasn’t sure if I’d have the time. The day of the event, Wednesday April 8th, I stopped by Barnes and Noble again to see how to get tickets. I was really quite easy. I bought a book and got a wristband and was told to come back later. So I went to work and came back later. I found myself in a small room that seated only about 80 people, ten feet from Mariel Hemingway herself, being served San Pellegrino water, coffee, and little chocolate biscuits. Most of the other people there were retired couples and groups of older women. I think I was the only college-aged person there. To be honest, I had gone simply to see in the flesh the product of Ernest and Hadley’s marriage. Their story was so real to me and so important, and I got to see proof of them, of their realness, in Mariel.
But the talk itself was also very special. Mariel had two sisters, who both struggled with depression and mental illness. Mariel grew up trying to be to balance the “bad” of her sisters by being behaving opposite, over-correcting into a bossy control-freak. As I sat there, I forgot she was the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and I began to relate to her on an more personal level. I have found myself in a similar position in my family, trying to be the “sane” one to the point of my own insanity. Her two books, Out Came the Sun and The Invisible Girl (one for adults, the other a children’s book) are both really great books about handling not just mental illness personally, but handling a family history of it. After her talk, there was a signing. She signed my book: “Sarah, bless you. Mariel Hemingway.” I told her a bit about my own family history. She told me seriously that she was so glad to hear that her talk resonated with me. I told her that, though I obviously adored her grandfather (Yes! I referred to Hemingway, the namesake of this essay, as “your grandfather!” to his granddaughter!) that I was so impressed with her story, and thought she had something unique and important to share. She said, “that means the world to me.” And then she hugged me.
I don’t like talking about the problems my friends and family have. None of that is really mine to share, and yet it is mine, since it affects my life as well. It’s the main reason why I’ll probably never write a memoir, because I can’t bear the thought of exposing the lives of those close to me. And I could hardly write a memoir without mentioning my family or friends. Most of the bad things (other than deaths) in my life haven’t even been mine. They’ve been someone else’s, and I’ve been peripheral to it. That was the story Mariel was telling, and it was very interesting to hear the perspective from someone else.
In June I went to Paris. I went because I had a friend who was living there, and she invited me to crash in her dorm in Compiègne. I think there are two sorts of people: people who are disappointed in Paris and people who fall in love with it. I fell in love. It wasn’t what I had expected. I was very circular, almost claustrophobic, but not in an unpleasant way. My friend had classes during the day, so I spend my days wandering Paris alone and my evenings partying in Compiègne with a thousand international students. I visited Shakespeare and Company, though its current location is not in the building where Ernest met Sylvia Beach. I bought a copy of Torrents of Spring, Hemingway’s first proper published book. I didn’t read it right away. I saved it. You can see Norte-Dame from the current location, while the old one was closer to the Luxembourg Gardens. Paris! It was so real. I was there! The city of the Sun King!
When I went to see Hemingway and Hadley’s apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. I took a selfie in front of the building. Hand to God, a young French man carrying multiple baguettes saw me and said, “Ah! Un petit selfie!” He laughed at me in a good-natured way and took my picture in front of the building with a proper camera. There is so much history and so many stories in Paris that I couldn’t just focus on Hemingway. I tried to immerse myself in everything I possibly could. When I saw the gardens of Versailles I cried. Then I flew from Paris to Edinburgh, but that’s another story for another day.
In the second half of 2015 I started my senior year and moved to Queens from Brooklyn and started a new job. Over Christmas I’d heard there was a Hemingway exhibit at The Morgan Library in the city. I really wanted to go, but the holidays got crazy, as they always do. And besides, I was reading the twelve Poldark novels so I didn’t have a lot of time. I managed to squeeze it in the day before the exhibit closed. I went in late January, on a very, very cold day. I went with my friend Amanda and as I slowly walked through a room of pictures, letters, and manuscripts, I was hit by that feeling again. He was real. It still surprised me. There was a copy of his passport, the original photograph of Ernest with Agnes, photos of Bumby in Switzerland, of F Scott and Ernest together in Paris, pictures of Pauline and Hadley. The letters were displayed in such a way that they were readable. I stood over each case and read the letter in Hemingway’s hand.
One of the greatest things there was a manuscript of Hemingway’s, typed on a typewriter. And in the margins were incredibly sassy notes by Fitzgerald. I didn’t take a picture of it, so I can’t remember what it was referencing, but Fitzgerald wrote, “what an ass” in response to a passage of a first draft of The Sun Also Rises. I got to see some of the original and controversial 40+ endings to A Farewell to Arms, including the “Nada Ending,” my favorite, handwritten in sprawling words. “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” His handwriting was so big it’s amazing to me there was enough paper for him to write his first drafts on. Seeing these things first hand – it was the culmination of my love affair with him. It was the final realization of his realness that I needed.
In August I finally read The Torrents of Spring. This summer people started talking about Cuba again, and I started googling Hemingway again, planning a dream trip from the Florida Keys to Cuba, where he spent the middle-to-late years of his career. I watched Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, which I didn’t love, but it was very interesting. I wonder why no one has done a proper biopic of Ernest yet. His life was so rich and weird. Amazon Originals is doing that series on Zelda, which looks interesting, but I think they’re going to miss the mark again. Midnight in Paris was fun, but the incredible casting of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds was wasted on such small roles. The more I read about the Lost Generation, trying to piece together their reality, the more skeptical I am of novels or tv made about them. Their lives were infinitely more complex than we could ever imagine and history has not been so kind to their memories. The drunken Gatsby-esque glitz and drama is so interesting we don’t even want to see the humans underneath.
This whole thing with Hemingway has been akin to reading a really long series of novels, where the books come out one at a time, forcing you to wait and savor. Hemingway was revealed to me slowly. I still haven’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’m saving it. I want Hemingway to be a part of my life for years to come. I was afraid the last few months that he’d left me all together, but right after Thanksgiving I was at a German restaurant in Brooklyn on a date, eating a pretzel with fancy mustard. And on the menu were the happy words “Hemingway Daiquiri.” So I ordered it and felt that little moment of sympatico between myself and Ernest. I hope he keeps sending me weird signs and quotes, even though he often gives really bad advice. I’m just not ready for it to be over.
I might read The Old Man and the Sea this year. We’ll see.
Sarah V Diehl