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Hemingway: The Final Years. Michael Reynolds. Norton. [pounds]19.95/US$30.00. 416 pages. ISBN 0-393-04748-2.

This book is the fifth and final volume of Michael Reynold's biography of Ernest Hemingway, published to coincide with the centenary of Hemingway's birth last year. It deals with the last seventeen years of the author's life and is instinct throughout with the knowledge of his final suicide. The theme of the hero's death and that of the author is linked structurally.

The book opens with an extended reference to the ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls, where the fictional hero, Robert Jordan, waits for a violent death'[ldots] he could feel his heart against the pine needle floor of the forest,' and concludes with a vivid re-creation of the author's suicide 'The taste of gun oil and powder solvent filled his mouth as cold steel made contact against his hard palate.' The two moments of the sense impressions preceding death are neatly parallelled.

This technique reflects the continual merging of Hemingway's fiction with his life and frequent inability to separate the two. All writers, he once said, were liars and with regard to his military service he lied on a grand scale. Although he had battle experience and had suffered serious wounds, he grossly exaggerated these. Mr Reynolds details Hemingway's claims that he had killed one hundred and twenty-two men in five different wars and that he had thirty-two 45 calibre bullets in his limbs and hands, been shot twice through the scrotum, in both knees, both hands, both feet and his head.

The writing of Across the River and into the Trees (or Across the Street and into the Grill as E.B. White retitled it) drew on his wartime experiences and seemed to merge his exaggerations with his fictional hero to the point of self-parody. Martha Gellhorn, his third wife, read the first instalment and realised how reality and fiction were blurred. She heard 'a long sound of madness and a terrible sense of decay [ddots] he will end in the nut house.'

Michael Reynolds identifies two repeated cycles in Hemingway's life. The first related to his marriages which began with intense romantic love. Once married -- he married four times -- his wives became resented mother figures. Each wife was left abruptly for her successor. The second cycle was that of the manic depressive, from the 'black-ass' phase rising to a euphoric peak and back again. These moods were exacerbated by heavy drinking, abuse of his medication and a hectic lifestyle. He cultivated a 'macho' persona which demanded groups of friends to accompany him on regular expeditions for fishing, sailing, big game hunting, shooting and bullfights.

Hemingway lived his life in a constant rehearsal for his shotgun suicide, programmed for such an end by his father's death. Although the final years described here did see the production of some of his best writing, culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, his descent into madness seemed inevitable. The ECT treatments for depression only accelerated his decline and his repeated efforts to shoot himself were finally successful.

Writing was the most important thing in his life, but it had become a laborious process. Concluding what he had managed to write was more difficult still. It may have been this realisation, that his career as a writer was over that decided his fate. It is possibly signalled in a short story in In Our Time where a boy questions his father about the reason for a suicide, receiving the laconic reply: 'He couldn't stand things, I guess.' Finally, my guess is that Hemingway himself couldn't stand things.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2000

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