Summer reading and Hemingway’s suicide.
I’ve set myself the task of doing nothing but turning pages, in my garden, of The Sun Also Rises during the evening as the sun also sets in Toronto. A glass of chilled pinot gris in hand. No bars, no bulls, but Eddy-the-cat prowling dead-headed petunias and sniffing beneath the muddy planks of our deck where a racoon family awaits to awaken. Once they stir, the cat and me and Hemingway’s classic will retire to the house. Beginning in six hours.
Hemingway killed himself fifty years ago. I’ve kind of avoided reading him but now is the time. I’m particularly inspired by an obituary I just read at the excellent obit.com website, a piece written by fellow obituarist Robert Roper: “Hemingway: Has his death eclipsed his art?” I’m gonna vote no and test my theory.
But first: highlights of Roper’s essay for you to ponder.
- Hemingway left us right at the cusp, with John F. Kennedy, a Hemingway fan, fresh in the White House and symbolizing something new. February 1961, supporters of the electric new president asked the eminent novelist to contribute a handwritten tribute, and Hemingway struggled for a desperate week to write three or four sentences, weeping tears of anguish and frustration. He had just returned from the Mayo Clinic, where he had been treated for paranoid depression with many sessions of electro-convulsive therapy. Afterward his memory was gone. He was finished as a writer; for him, that meant he was finished.
- Hemingway’s decline began at 18, with a wound suffered on the Italian front in World War I. He took over 200 pieces of shrapnel in his body and endured a massive concussion that rearranged his brain. The concussive wounds continued at an alarming rate. There were car-crashes, falling skylights, fistfights, bad falls on slippery boat-decks. His biographers count six major brain traumas, with others suspected. In 1954, returning from an African safari, he was in a small plane that crashed. The next day, being rushed to a hospital for treatment, he was trapped when that plane also went down, in flames. To save his wife and himself, Hemingway headbutted them out of a cabin window.
- When he turned 60, he had a diseased liver, high blood pressure, bad blood cholesterol levels, type II diabetes, kidney infections, eye trouble, chronic headaches, and insomnia. Finding he lacked the old pep sometimes, he asked the doctors of his acquaintance to help him out, and they prescribed many medicines just then coming on market, such as Oreton-M, a synthetic testosterone that “stimulates the development of male sexual characteristics,” according to the Physicians’ Desk Reference of 1947. The doctors also put him on Serpasil, a sedative; Doriden, a tranquilizer; Ritalin; Seconal and Eucanyl for insomnia; plus heavy daily doses of vitamins A and B for his liver.
- Profoundly polluted, the writer managed to awaken at dawn every day and go to work. In his last decade, drinking for the finish line and taking all those drugs in insane combination, he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees, The Dangerous Summer, The Old Man and the Sea (Pulitzer Prize), A Moveable Feast, and three long late novels, published posthumously as Islands in the Stream, Clear at First Light, and The Garden of Eden. In 1954 he won the Nobel Prize. As long as he could work he could live – wanted to live.