“Ernest was dedicated to the proposition that each day should be rewarding in some way and if he made you part of his plans you had the most exhilarating experiences of your life.” – A.E. Hotchner
Thanks once again to the angels in Laser, I found what I consider to be the Holy Grail; a documentary on Ernest Hemingway called “Wrestling with Life“. It’s narrated by his granddaughter Mariel Hemingway, and extracts from his novels and letters are read by actor Scott Glenn. Although I know a great deal about Hemingway’s life and have read many of his novels, this documentary is very comprehensive, containing interviews with his sons and friends, and gives a detailed portrait of the great writer.
Hemingway’s public image was that of a masculine, athletic, cultured and often taciturn man. He was also a conflicted father, who adored his children but unfortunately operated on an “out of sight, out of mind” policy. His writing took precedence above everything including his parental duties, and he was inadvertently neglectful. He was however a loyal friend and in the documentary his friends remark on what a wonderful listener and fun companion he was – filled with energy and appetite for life and naturally charismatic.
In an interview with the Paris Review Hemingway said “the best writing is certainly when you are in love”. Although he didn’t explain what he meant, I believe that he found a security in love that allowed him to focus all his energy completely on his writing. Hemingway had four wives and often his relationships overlapped. He was a man who needed a wife and who needed romance, and if his current wife didn’t provide the romance, he looked for it elsewhere. His faith in love was sometimes tested. For example, his first wife Hadley managed to lose all his manuscripts and copies on a train journey traveling to visit him. It is testament to Hemingway’s belief in love that he managed to forgive her. Personally I would have found the nearest mountain and thrown her off it.
Hemingway worked tirelessly to become the best writer he could, writing every single day. His accounts of his early days as a struggling writer in Paris in “A Moveable Feast” and his interview with The Paris Review are a great insight into his working practices. While others were busy carousing in Paris cafes and talking about writing, Ernest was locked in a freezing room actually writing. It is important to remember that although he had a reputation as a drinker, writing came first and he dedicated himself to his craft completely. His spare prose style became the most imitated of the 20th Century and his influence is far-reaching. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer in 1952 for his seminal work, The Old Man and The Sea.
Hemingway struggled with depression for much of his life. It was an illness present throughout his family and many of his relatives committed suicide, including his granddaughter Margaux Hemingway, his sister Ursula, his brother Leicester and his father. Of course his alcoholism didn’t help his illness and this combined with many injuries he sustained throughout his lifetime meant that he was a very ill man, physically and psychologically, by his mid-fifties. He received electroconvulsive therapy for his depression but it destroyed his short-term memory and made it impossible for him to work. Feeling that he had reached the end of his working life and unable to go on, Hemingway committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot at the age of 61.
For anyone interested in Hemingway this is a brilliant documentary that treats its subject with great warmth and affection, while still showing that he was a flawed and complex man.