The best line in this breathy, gossipy, here-we go-again-with-the-Lost-Generation exposé of the antics of the real people on whom Ernest Hemingway based his first big success, The Sun Also Rises, belongs to Zelda Fitzgerald. She called Ernest—not yet the white-bearded Cuban fisherman "Papa," but a hungry-for-success unknown reporter and literary wannabe in Paris—"a pansy with hair on his chest" and "a phony he-man." Ernest responded flatly that "Zelda is crazy," and history proved him right. History hasn’t been as certain about Zelda’s claims, though scholars exploded with speculation after the publication in heavily edited form in 1986 of his novel The Garden of Eden, where some gender blurring seems to be going on between the husband and wife characters and both are interested in the same woman. But it’s true that Hemingway had worked the "he-man" persona so hard many people assumed the author must be hiding something. Even if he wasn’t, the macho was turned up amazingly high. At the time, people ate it up. Now not so much.
In fact the author’s public persona is still the most interesting thing about Hemingway—that "Hemingway became Hemingway," as Lesley M.M. Blume writes. He was one of the last authors to be a celebrity in his own right, back when "manly" was a good thing. But in retrospect, Hemingway’s persona was a 20th century take on the 19th century adventurer in foreign climes, killing large animals in Africa, pulling them from the depths of the sea, or watching them die in bullfights. Or going to war, then as now a fantasy of young men not eager to lead a placid life of carpools, desk-jockeying, and picking up the dry-cleaning.
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But the Hemingway persona went over big, back then when we still talked about "the opposite sex" rather than of "gender," and when authors were expected to live the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving lives of their characters. That was also back in the day when men read serious novels. Now it’s a platitude in New York publishing that men read only military history and three-terrorists-hold-the-world-hostage thrillers, and literary novels are by and for women based around female relationships. As for gay or not-gay (Zelda’s "pansy" barb), the last sixty years have made that issue less pressing, and we’ve moved on to the far more interesting question of transgender people in restrooms. How far away Hemingway’s world now seems.
So Blume’s book is like an old trunk up in the attic, from which exhale the pickled smells of a bygone era, stale paper perhaps, camphor and a hint of something we can’t quite place. It’s all here, in case there are any readers left who haven’t already gotten over the myth of Paris in the 20s. Its characters are by now as stock as the commedia dell’arte, the same couple of dozen American expatriates who have been the subject of countless books and movies, including a recent one by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. The characters include Hemingway and his first two wives, Hadley and Pauline; and the always-good-for-a-cliché doomed couple of F. Scott and Zelda. There are also the Murphys ("living well is the best revenge": Gerald painted quite a nice wasp and fruit painting in the Museum of Modern Art); there is Ezra Pound, before he gave into his eccentricities quite so completely; and of course there are Gertrude and Alice.
Stein and Toklas, of course, Gertrude the free-associative "Mother Goose of Montparnasse" who, as Blume (never one to avoid a cliché—she writes for Vanity Fair) notes, "took Hemingway under her wing." "Stein and I are like brothers," said Hemingway. In the fragments Ernest himself wrote about this time and published as A Movable Feast," he is vicious toward Stein, reporting a sexual argument between the two women and making fun of her pretensions. But then again, Stein believed she had made him a writer, and he wasn’t going to let that version of things stand.
Here it all is again—though Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (her own autobiography, written as if by her lover and amanuensis Toklas, and all about Stein) is far more amusingly over the top, and A Moveable Feast far more plaintive and lyrical. Fitzgerald wrote about this time too, and its aftermath (the latter in the moving short story ‘Babylon Revisited’). And so has everybody else. Library shelves groan with unread books about these people. So why one more? Even its photographs are the standard ones anybody in the least interested in this world has seen before: Hemingway with legs astride with a moustache, Gertrude before she cut her hair, Scott and Zelda as the Golden Couple arm in arm.
The premise of this book is that the reader wants to know who the real people were behind the characters in The Sun Also Rises, sometimes concealed only with the thinnest of disguises (Lady Duff Twysden becomes Lady Brett Ashley, for example; Harold Loeb becomes Robert Cohn). The book apparently had an effect on them all. Most were horrified at the scabrous portraits of them Hemingway had drawn. Some saw the book as mere journalism, so closely did it report their affairs.
But few people nowadays read Hemingway outside of a class, especially after the feminists of the 1960s denounced him as an anti-female chauvinist. And English majors are a dying breed in most colleges and universities, certainly male ones. So it’s unclear who is supposed to read Blume’s book, high on its own chatty "so lovely to see you dahling" cultural air-kisses and shallow generalizations. Blume informs us, for example, that James Joyce’s Ulysses "had blown the minds of many postwar writers." She quotes the editor Charles Scribner, who said of Fitzgerald that he was fundamentally nineteenth-century in outlook, and compared him to the waltz king of old Vienna, Strauss. Blume’s zinger: "Hemingway, by contrast, was Stravinsky."
That’s twaddle. Hemingway was a one-note minimalist, whereas Stravinsky during his long and productive life produced some of the most sophisticated, varied, and intellectual music ever written. But Blume’s argument is that somehow modern literature all comes from the book she calls an "earthquake," so she has to go for a big comparison. Stein did the same thing, comparing herself to Picasso. Few people buy this comparison either.
Blume’s book, unlike Hemingway’s, is based on the conviction that we can’t access the novel without knowing who these people really were. Hemingway worked hard to make them characters in a book, deforming some, re-tooling others, being fairly kind to the character based on himself (Jake Barnes) though making him apparently impotent to give some sadness. But that isn’t enough, somehow. We have to undo all his hard work. Blume’s book is complete with "what happened to them after?" epilogue like the crawl up the screen on a "based on a true story" Hollywood blockbuster. The author’s insistence that we care more fundamentally about real celebrities than anything a mere author can do with them in literature is what’s of our age, not these heard-too-often strains of the last Charleston Zelda danced, or Ernest sitting in the Dome café trying to write one honest sentence.
But give credit where credit is due: Blume is undoubtedly right that we are obsessed nowadays with celebrities and real people. Fiction seems to have lost its hold on us. The big craze several decades ago in publishing was memoirs, true stories. Biographies—the people behind the legend—continue to sell well. And being Hemingway isn’t an option for us anymore.
Scribner was wrong: if Ernest was a 20th century writer, the life he sold as his persona—the bullfighting, the big game hunting and deep sea fishing, the boozing and the women—was already a commercialized parody of the great 19th century way to be a man, presupposing wealth and freedom from having to earn a living, and going Outside of civilization, whose discontents Freud had already made manifest. Now most of us are resigned to life Inside, especially as Outside seems pretty chaotic. And few people dream of writing what used to be called The Great American Novel.
Hemingway’s persona of hyper-masculinity: real or fake? That’s the question that haunts this book, as it haunts all considerations of Hemingway—to the extent that anybody considers Hemingway these days, or thinks masculinity something worth considering, rather than sniggering at or dismissing. (It happens to be the most important issue of our day precisely because it is sniggered at and dismissed.) American wannabe Hemingways can still pay exorbitant amounts of money to hunt lions in Africa—see the recent flap where a dentist shot a lion lured out of his preserve. But mostly the tourists, to the extent they are willing to go to Africa at all (crime and violence in Kenya and South Africa are big dissuaders), ride Land Rovers armed with cameras. We do still have wars that provide a sort of adventure (For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in the Spanish Civil War, and A Farewell to Arms in World War I) and a respite from everyday dreariness. But Iraq and Afghanistan don’t seem to have produced much benefit, or much worth calling literature, for that matter.
What’s the nature of modern masculinity? Nobody seems to know. So we go to movies about SEALs, argue over transgender bathrooms, and maybe go to rallies for political candidates who act out in public in ways we can never allow ourselves to do. Is it possible they are the new Hemingways? We haven’t solved the problem of how to be a man in the Modern Age. And Hemingway was a caricature of the last generation’s attempt to do so, as Donald Trump may be of ours.
But that leaves Hemingway’s books, still well worth reading. Try it sometime.