THE LION, THE LEOPARD, AND THE BEAR.
There are other implicit and explicit literary resonances in the work. As in Hemingway's earlier Green Hills of Africa, discussion of the Hemingway safari's voracious reading habits constitutes several pages of True at First Light, suggesting an experiential enactment of Theodore Roosevelt's African Game Trails and A Book-Lover's Holiday in the Open. But whereas Green Hills of Africa integrated Hemingway's then-characteristic meditations on writing, True at First Light includes among its almost dreamlike, easily shifting foci that of the writer not writing, a subject that for Hemingway achieved sharp definition as the problem of his own aging.
Both problem and thematic focus are implicit in the subtitle A Fictional Memoir, a conflicted genre of which True at First Light is an especially troubled example: Hemingway left the manuscript unfinished; Patrick Hemingway provides no indication of how he chose to apportion the manuscript to remain within Charles Scribner's Sons' allotted length (given such limits, an editorial apparatus might have left readers with even less of the original text). The questions the book raises and leaves unanswered thus range from the textual ("Who really wrote this sentence?") to the generic ("Did they really break the bed that way?"). Such questions may yield truth, but only at first light. If the writing meets Hemingway's standard of being "any good" (GHOA 109), his words should provide some indication of his overall authorial project.
The allusive nature of the book provides a means by which to track that project. Just beyond the midway point, Hemingway pauses to invoke Dante in a backhanded aside about Mary's unwritten Africa poem: "Dante only made crazy people feel they could write good poetry." He continues, "That was not true, of course but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon..." (18 9). He then "proves" his own sanity by extemporizing bad (and rather vicious) poetry, "Now I lie me" (191), a poem suggestive of his 1926-27 story "Now I Lay Me" a story in which memory, "never true" (DIA 100), is pitted against the true fictions of waking nightmares. He then lets Dante drop.
At least for a few chapters. In what became Chapter 16, Hemingway embarks on a personal jeremiad, a solitary journey into the wilderness of the African night (271-72). This night walk cannot be, for the elder Hemingway, a young man's rite-of-passage, but does offer the older man a momentary, separate peace. Although his references to Dante suggest that this passage inward may yield understanding of the infinite, Hemingway deploys allusive detail toward a different end. Like Dante's pilgrim in Inferno, he walks beneath a Mountain--not Purgatory, but Kilimanjaro (associated both locally and authorially with death). While walking, he wishes for a "good big dog" (271), just as the pilgrim anticipates the coming of the Greyhound to remove his own weakness, the impenetrable barrier to his attainment of rest. Like the pilgrim, Hemingway encounters the three animals of Jeremiah 5:6, albeit in reverse order. The she-wolf of Avarice (Canto I: 1. 49) becomes the feeding hyenas, a species that Hemingway associates with death and the feminine in "Snows of Kilimanjaro" his mistrust of the ravenous, materialistic female being legendary. The lion of Ambition (I:45-6) cannot be Mary's, which is already dead; the ever-competitive Hemingway hears another on the Old Manyatta (271). Finally, the spotted panther of-Worldly Pleasure (I:32-3) appears as the leopard hunting the swamp. The leopard's location, in a moment of stream-of-consciousness, leads via the death of Mary's lion to sensual thoughts of her Nairobi haircut (272), confirming his earlier conclusion that for them both, "so far, all had been worth the price" (271). The details from Inferno thus do not mark Hemingway's progressive rejection of the secular world. Instead, they mark the nodes at which he tests his relationship to it. He concludes that life is "expensive," but, because he has proven himself still capable of providing and appreciating material and physical pleasure, he decides that "so far, all had been worth the price" (271).
Nonetheless, he is still being stalked. The scarred foot of Mary's lion combines with Hemingway's secularization of Dante to suggest deliberate allusions to Faulkner's "The Bear," and perhaps to the story's author, whom Hemingway considered his greatest living rival. "The Bear" was published in 19 3 5, the year Hemingway shot himself in the leg and was correcting the Green Hills of Africa proofs. The bear, like Mary's lion and like Ernest Hemingway (not to mention Achilles and Oedipus), sports a scarred foot that renders tracking him deceptively easy. Like Hemingway's big dog and Dante's Greyhound, Faulkner's blue dog Lion (initially misidentified as both a panther and a wolf) is the only animal with enough power to confront the death animus that awaits in the dark, swampy forest. Part-Native guide Sam Fathers's identification with the bear (he collapses at its death) resonates with Hemingway's identification with Mary's black-maned lion, with his two lionesses, one fertile, one not. Fathers's name plays neatly into the "Papa" icon and Hemingway's allusive architecture, and not only linguistically--questions of paternity underlie both narratives. Even Hemingway's own possibly strong identification with the bear is likely, given the shot from old wounds that remained in his own leg and the shot that is found, by hunters, in the dead bear's pelt. With the "Ernest" lion dead, but with another roaring within earshot, Hemingway may have mapped onto Faulkner his keen anxiety about not writing. That anxiety would allow him only temporary respite in the sensual, and would finally contribute to his suicide.
For unlike Faulkner's young Ike or Dante's middle-aged pilgrim, the aging Hemingway, like Sam Fathers, knows both instinctively and with the wisdom of age that death lurks in the curiously named "swamp." Unlike Ike and the pilgrim, but very like Nick Adams in "Big Two-Hearted River" Hemingway defers the swamp to other "days coming" [CSS 180]). The "game" that awaits has always been ,his own death: the only end to the expensive tensions of self, icon, and author, to the pursuit of pleasure, to providing for his family and public, and to the stalking of and by literary ambition.
True at First Light offers readers a seemingly easy but, by noon, brutal intimacy with Hemingway, an aging writer for whom writing is becoming increasingly difficult, in the moment of writing about the not-writing writer, Who is but a written version of an earlier, younger, remembered Hemingway. A difficult description, perhaps, but such is the nature of Hemingway's particular paradox, never more evident than in this "fictional memoir." In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway tells his readers that "[W]e have been there, and where we go, if we are any good, there you can go as we have been" 109). Even if, in this latest book, "there" is simultaneously a "where" (Africa), a "when" (late in life's journey), and a "what" (tracking the elusive Hemingway through at least seven circles of allusion). Unlike Hemingway, his readers may well wonder if, as they read, they are in a dark place, "the straightforward pathway ... lost" (I:3)--because this is the work of an aging and injured Hemingway who, like Achilles, knew that his greatest vitality and vulnerability was where his mother had touched him--in his art--and who, like Oedipus, had long been becoming his father, who had ended his own life before Hemingway's first trip to Africa.
The terms of the aging Hemingway's contract with time pit his constant desire for experience, the raw material for his writing, against his fear of his decreasing abilities to garner that experience and to transform it into the quality of work he and his public expected. Time holds the eventual upper hand; in True at First Light, Hemingway admites this ultimatum. That this book is merely a fictional memoir is an illusion, for Hemingway, like Mozart, has presciently given us his own Requiem.
References to Inferno are from the 1867 Longfellow translation, an edition owned by Hemingway. I wish to thank Joe Johnston for his insightful contributions to this essay.
HILARY K. JUSTICE University of Chicago
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|Title Annotation:||'True at First Light'|
|Author:||JUSTICE, HILARY K.|
|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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