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From The New York Times:
One of the more unsettling moments in “Hemingway,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, finds Ernest Hemingway, big-game hunter, chronicler of violence and seeker of danger, doing one thing that terrified him: speaking on television.
It is 1954, and the author, who survived airplane crashes (plural) earlier that year in Africa, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He agreed to an interview with NBC on the condition that he receive the questions in advance and read his answers from cue cards.
The rare video clip comes after we’ve spent nearly six hours seeing the author create an image of virile swagger and invent a style of clean, lucid prose. But here Hemingway, an always-anxious public speaker still recuperating from a cerebral injury, is halting and stiff. Asked what he is currently writing about — Africa — his answer includes the punctuation on the card: “the animals comma and the changes in Africa since I was there last period.”
It’s hard to watch. But it is one of many angles from which the expansive, thoughtful “Hemingway” shows us the man in full, contrasting the person and the persona, the triumphs and vulnerabilities, to help us see an old story with new eyes.
. . . .
Now “Hemingway,” airing over three nights starting Monday on PBS, comes along as American culture is reconsidering many of its lionized men, from figures on statues to Woody Allen. And there are few authors as associated with masculinity — literary, toxic or otherwise — than the writer who loved it when you called him Papa.
It’s tempting to say that Hemingway’s macho bluster doesn’t hold up well in the light of the 21st century, but it didn’t go unnoticed in the 20th either. He embraced manliness as a kind of celebrity performance. He fought with his strong-willed mother, who accused him of having “overdrawn” from the bank of her love. He married four times, finding his next wife before leaving the previous one, wanting each to give herself over to supporting him.
He clashed spectacularly with his third wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn (played in voice-over by Meryl Streep), who matched him well, maybe too well to last. A free spirit who resisted marriage at first, saying “I’d rather sin respectably,” Gellhorn would not sideline her ambitions for his. (You might find yourself wishing you were watching her documentary.)
. . . .
This is true whether we sit easily or not. “Can you separate the art from the artist?” is a heated and dogmatic argument these days. You must sever the two, in a spirit of see-no-evil, to preserve the precious product; or you must handcuff them together, so that any judgment of a life becomes the judgment on the work, and the work a forensic rap sheet against its creator.
“Hemingway” doesn’t separate art and artist. Hemingway didn’t either. He created a public “avatar” that sometimes overshadowed his work (and threatened to make him a self-caricature) and wrote his life into his art (sometimes with cruelty toward friends and peers). But the documentary also recognizes that life and art don’t always correlate neatly or simply.
The resulting biography is cleareyed about its subject but emotional about his legacy. It celebrates his gifts, catalogs his flaws (which included using racist language in his correspondence) and chronicles his decline with the tragic relentlessness its subject would give to the death of a bull in the ring.
The biggest compliment I can pay “Hemingway” is that it made me pull my “Collected Short Stories” off the shelf after years, to read his piercing, full-feeling work in a new light. This life story is not entirely a pretty picture. But to quote its subject, “If it is all beautiful you can’t believe it. Things aren’t that way.”
Link to the rest at The New York Times
Although it’s not fashionable these days, PG is inclined to separate the author from the books, especially if the author is dead.
Who or what the author was is a question that is subject to debate, post hoc analysis that says more about the analyst than the subject, the latest fashions in cultural heroes and villains, etc.
PG has known or met a few people about whom news reports or articles have been written and has never found the reality of the individual accurately reflected in the written descriptions of them. There’s nothing wrong with writing or reading or creating a story about a person’s life, but those who see that creation are not, in fact, seeing or experiencing the real thing.
One aspect of Hemingway, the man, is, however, concrete – the stories and books he wrote. Certainly an editor may have tweaked this and that, but here is something personally created by that individual. While it may not be an autobiography and may clearly be fiction, the creation did originate from the individual’s self.
For PG, Hemingway’s creations are quite excellent and enjoyable and he expects them to remain that way to others for a long time.
The man is dead and will be judged by God. (Or not, depending upon your personal beliefs.) In any case, while PG does not object to new assessments or insights (correct or not) of Hemingway, he still believes what Hemingway wrote is the closest PG can come to understanding who he was.