Thanks to Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, a set of 30 unpublished letters and telegrams exchanged between Ernest Hemingway and her mother were released in 2007 by the Kennedy Library in Boston. Riva, had wanted the letters to be kept under wraps for 15 years after her mother’s death.
The American-German pair first met on the New York-bound liner Île de France in 1934 and went on to enjoy a lifelong friendship. Although their letters to each other were full of feelings for each other, they never became lovers, with Hemingway once calling them ‘victims of un-synchronized passion’. “Those times when I was out of love, the Kraut was deep in some romantic tribulation, and those occasions when Dietrich was on the surface and swimming about with those marvellously seeking eyes, I was submerged”.
In one of her letters, Dietrich addressed Hemingway as “Beloved Papa”, and continued: “I think it is high time to tell you that I think of you constantly. I read your letters over and over and speak of you with a few chosen men. I have moved your photograph to my bedroom and mostly look at it rather helplessly.”
Their letters reveal the insecurities and fears of both, and frequently touch on Hemingway’s lifelong fight against depression. “Toi and moi have lived through about as bad times as ever were,” he wrote in June 1950. “I don’t mean just wars. Wars are spinach. Life in general is the tough part.”
In her memoir Dietrich recalled, sitting in the window sill of her hotel room what he had said, ‘always remember, you cannot make the man you love happy –even if you fulfill all his wishes- if you are not happy yourself’.
Sixty-four years after its first publication, it appears that the day will never come when ‘Lolita’ [which tells the story of a stepfather serially defiling his adolescent stepdaughter] will not be considered, at least by some, as a not-disgusting book. And yet having stayed so petulant, it remains succulent as ever. To entirely relish its tenacity one must first recognise that it is not explicit. If you’re unable to work past Lolita’s splendour you will never be able to identify how appalling it is. And for all its beauty, for all its inventiveness and hilarity, one easily forgets how outrageous Lolita is. If you don’t believe me, then take a look: “She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipper-less foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa -and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty- between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock..” In a feeble attempt to shed light on Nabokov’s mindset one of his biographers quotes Havelock Ellis: “the individuality of each case is respected and catalogued in the same way that butterflies are carefully classified.”
Lolita is most commonly remembered as one man’s living poem to his own Mephistophelian waywardness, and therefore, is belauded by its emulators for its technical finesse and buoyancy, and misinterpreted by its disparagers as little more than a frost-adorned monolith to Nabokov’s own hauteur. In doing so, its true virtuoso is too easily missed. It lies in what Nabokov called the “nerves of the novel,” the “secret points, the subliminal coordinates by employing which the book is plotted.” In these, Nabokov has hinted at the life that exceeds the outer limits of Humbert’s contiguous fixation -at the inner lives of those others whom he so casually dismisses or destroys. It cost Nabokov, by his own admission, “a month of work” to write one sentence in which Humbert gets his hair cut by a barber who has never stopped mourning his dead son – a fact that hardly perforates Humbert’s ethereal advertence.
If not any thing else, Ernest Hemingway had meticulously programmed his death to be executed at precisely 7:00 am on Sunday 2 July, 1961. On that fateful morning Hemingway awoke in his house in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, rose from his bed, taking care not to wake his wife Mary, unlocked the door of the storage room where he kept his firearms, and selected a double-barrelled shotgun with which he liked to shoot pigeons. He took it to the front of the house and, in the foyer, put the twin barrels against his forehead, reached down, pushed his thumb against the trigger and blew his brains out.
Hemingway’s neighbours said that he had chosen from his wardrobe a favourite dressing gown that he called his “emperor’s robe”. They might have been reminded of the words of Cleopatra, just before she applied the asp to her flesh: “Give me my robe. Put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me”.
Hemingway, as the world knew him, had a thirst for adventure, he was a swashbuckling, hard-drinking pugilist who loved being in the thick of the action, whether in the front line of battle or within charging distance of a water buffalo. He also happened to be the finest writer around, disdaining the grandiose wordiness of Victorian prose for a clean, stripped-back simplicity, conveying emotion by what was not said as much as by what was. Wounded on the Italian front in the First World War, he was a handsome convalescent who fell in love with a pretty nurse and wrote ‘A Farewell to Arms’ as a result. In the 1920s, he was at the forefront of writers and artists like F Scott Fitzgerald who hung out in Paris, “being geniuses together”.
In the 1930s, he went to Spain to fight for the republic against Franco and wrote ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ In the Second World War, he was at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris. After the war he retired with his fourth wife to Cuba, where he fished for marlins and wrote ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, won the Nobel Prize, was lionised wherever he went.
In the years after his death, however, the jigsaw pieces of a counter-life gradually began to emerge. His war record, for instance. Hemingway was only 18 when he signed up for the First World War – but it was as a non-combatant. He had a defective left eye, inherited from his mother, which kept him out of battle. He went to Italy to man the Red Cross canteens and evacuate the wounded. Helping a wounded man to safety one evening, he was shot in the leg and hospitalised in Milan, with three other patients and 18 nurses. Though his dalliance with Sister Agnew von Kurovsky was unconsummated, he fell in love with European culture and manners, swanned about in an Italian cloak and drank wine in immeasurable quantities.
It’s easy to be spiteful about Hemingway. All his posturing, his editing of the truth, his cocky pretensions can obscure his undoubted bravery. He loved being in the thick of the war dodging bullets, watching men being shot to hell all around him. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that what he was doing wasn’t bravery, but psychotic self-dramatisation. And when you inspect the image of Hemingway-as-hero, you uncover an extraordinary sub-stratum of self-harming. You discover that, for just over half of his life, Hemingway seemed hell-bent on destroying himself.
It was about the time he was finishing ‘A Farewell to Arms’, in 1928, when he learnt his father Clarence had shot himself in the head with a Civil War revolver, that Hemingway’s life first began to crack apart. The most obvious external evidence was a succession of bizarre physical accidents, many of which were bashes on the head. One, in Paris, left him with a split head needing nine stitches, after he yanked the chain in the bathroom, thinking it was the lavatory flush, and pulled the skylight down on top of him. He became weirdly accident-prone. His car accident that occasioned his row with Martha saw him hurled through the windscreen, lacerating his scalp and requiring 57 stitches. Three months later, he came flying off a motorbike evading German fire in Normandy. He suffered headaches, tinnitus, diplopia, showed speech and memory problems for months. Back in Cuba after the war, he tore open his forehead on the rear-view mirror when his car skidded. Five years later, while drinking, he slipped on the deck of the Pilar, and concussed himself. Why, you’d almost think he was trying to emulate his late father, and his self-imposed head wound.
What was bugging Hemingway? Why all the drinking, the macho excess, the manic displays of swaggering? Why was he so drawn to war, shooting, boxing and conflict? Why did he want to kill so many creatures? Was he trying to prove something? Or blot something out of his life?
In an article published in the American Psychiatry magazine, titled “Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide”, clinical psychiatrist Christopher D Martin diagnosed the author with “bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probably borderline and narcissistic personality traits”. He noted that many in the Hemingway family – his father and mother, their siblings, his own son and his grand-daughter Margaux – were prone to manic-depression (Margaux’s was the fifth, or possibly sixth, suicide in four generations) and even went to the extent of suggesting that it was Hemingway’s manic episodes that drove him to his astonishing feats of creativity. But he ties the writer’s trauma to two childhood experiences.
It seems that it was his mother Grace’s habit to dress him, as a child, in long white frocks and fashion his hair like a little girl’s. It was a 19th-century custom to dress infants alike, but she took it to extremes. She referred to him, in his cute lacy dress, as “Dutch dolly”. She said she was his Sweetie, or, as he pronounced it, “Fweetee”. Once, when Hemingway was two, Grace called him a doll once too often. He replied, “I not a Dutch dolly… Bang, I shoot Fweetee”. But she also praised him for being good at hunting in the woods and fishing in the stream in boys’ clothes. It was too confusing for a sensitive kid. He always hated her, and her controlling ways. He always referred to her as “that bitch”. He’d spend the rest of his life in a galloping parody of masculinity. Dutch dolly indeed. He’d show the bitch there was no confusion in his head. “I shoot Fweetee.” The trouble was, he also wanted to shoot his father.
Clarence Hemingway was a barrel-chested, six-foot bully, a disciplinarian who beat his son with a razor strop. Young Hemingway didn’t retaliate directly. He bottled it up and subsumed it into a ritual, in which he’d hide in a shed in the family backyard with a loaded shotgun and take aim at his father’s head. Martin speculates that, when Clarence shot himself, Hemingway, aged 29, felt terrible guilt that he’d fantasised about killing him. Unable to handle this, he took to blaming his mother for his father’s death. “I hate her guts and she hates mine,” he wrote in 1949. “She forced my father to suicide.”
After Clarence’s death, Hemingway told a friend, “My life was more or less shot out from under me, and I was drinking much too much entirely through my own fault”. He suffered a chronic identity crisis. As a consequence, he could be warm and generous or ruthless and overbearing. His friendships were often unstable (he could turn vicious or cruel, even with supposedly close pals) and his relations with women were full of conflict. He sulked like a child when, on his first safari, his wife Pauline shot a lion before he did. And he was pursued, for the rest of his life, by a colossal death wish – either to join his late father, or to expatiate his guilt at his father’s death by mirroring it.
Death took up residence at the heart of Hemingway’s life, a constant spur to his creative imagination, a constant companion, a dark, secret lover. Themes of violence and suicide informed his stories from the start. His letters are full of references to his future suicide. And when not contemplating his own death, he was putting himself into danger and combat as though to hasten it. Wars, rebellion, bull-running in Pamplona, big-game hunting in Africa, fishing in Havana – they were all his way of throwing himself before the Grim Reaper. “I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish,” he told Ava Gardner, “so I won’t kill myself.”
And of course writing was his way of evading the need to die. He could polish his real-life experiences at war, in Italy, Spain, the Ardennes, and burnish his life in hindsight. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954 must have been a triumphant affirmation of his genius, but he worried that, after receiving the prize, most laureates never wrote anything worthwhile again. Luckily, after finding two trunks of notes from the 1920s in a Paris hotel, he was able to manage one more book: ‘A Moveable Feast’, his touching memoir of being young, poor and happy in the French capital, with his first wife and baby, before everything started going to hell.
After 1960, however, he found he could no longer write. The words wouldn’t come. Depression came instead, and with it paranoid delusions. He thought his friends were trying to kill him. When his car slightly grazed another vehicle, he fretted that he’d be thrown in jail. It was a sorry thing, to see the epitome of “grace under pressure” succumbing to dementia.
He was given medication and, horribly, a course of electroconvulsive shock treatments. In the spring of 1961, he was asked to contribute a single sentence to a presentation volume for John F Kennedy’s inauguration. Hemingway couldn’t oblige. “It just won’t come any more,” he said to his biographer A E Hotchner (Papa Hemingway), and wept. In April, his wife Mary found him sitting with a shotgun and two shells. He was sent to hospital in Ketchum, Idaho, his birthplace, but he tried twice more to end his life, once by walking into the path of a plane taxiing on the runway. There was a two-month period of hospitalisation and comparative peace and quiet, when he appeared sane to his doctor and deranged to his wife. He seemed to be acting, right to the end.
“The accumulating factors contributing to his burden of illness at the end of his life are staggering,” writes Martin, listing Hemingway’s bipolar mood disorder, depression, chronic alcoholism, repetitive traumatic brain injuries, the onset of psychosis. But it seems clear that the defining problem of his life was his experience of childhood. His confusion over gender, his Oedipal desire to kill his father for beating him, together led to what Martin calls “a retreat into a defensive façade of hyper-masculinity and self-sufficiency”.
Building and sustaining the myth of Hemingway the Man’s Man took courage and determination, but it was something he needed to do – and when it dwindled, along with the all-important capacity to write, he had no answer except to go the same way as his father. The image of his father, a moody, bullying, depressive man, but a role model nonetheless, haunted his life. He wanted to restore him, in order to release himself from the responsibility for his death. He wanted to be the big, strong, heroic man that the world could call “Papa”.
1) James R. Mellow’s ‘Hemingway’
2) Michael Reynolds’s ‘Hemingway: The Final Years’
3) A E Hotchner’s ‘Papa Hemingway, A Personal Memoir’
4) Christopher D Martin’s ‘Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide’ (article)
For the ordinary reader, a few lines in French literature are as famous as the opening of Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger”: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Stuart Gilbert, a British scholar and a friend of James Joyce, was the first person to attempt Camus’s “L’Étranger” in English. In 1946, Gilbert translated the book’s title as “The Outsider” and rendered the first line as “Mother died today.” Simple, succinct, and incorrect.
In later years ‘The Outsider’ gave way to ‘The Stranger’ and the first word of the opening to ‘Mommy’. A large part of how we view and ultimately judge Camus’s protagonist (Meursault) lies in our perception of his relationship with his mother. We condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits, but on our assessment of him as a person. Does he love his mother? Or is he cold toward her, uncaring, even?
The truth is that neither “Mother” or “Mommy” ring true to the original. The French word “maman” hangs somewhere between the two extremes: it’s neither the cold and distant “mother”, nor the overly childlike “mommy.” In English, “mom” might seem the closest fit for Camus’s sentence, but there’s still something off-putting and abrupt about the single-syllable word; the two-syllable “maman” has a touch of softness and warmth that is lost with “mom.”
We’re still juggling about the opening, then imagine what the rest hold for us.
It’s your call, after all.
I have given up on invading friends’ private space with chain-posts!
Nevertheless, allow me the privilege of bringing to light an anecdote involving Bertrand Russel and Joseph Conrad that appears well beyond my scope, yet for those who might find it interesting.
The general outline of the friendship between Russel and Conrad is known to most of their admirers. Russell’s tribute to the novelist appeared in his Portraits from Memory (1956) and again for a wider audience in the first volume of the Autobiography (1967). What has remained enigmatic, however, is the nature of the bond that could ally with such force two people who were ostensibly so dissimilar. But the greatest testimony of Russell’s respect for Conrad was reserved for the later years of his life. When his first son was born in 1921, Russel approached Conrad for his agreement in naming him of the novelist. Conrad wrote back saying he felt honoured for having received such a request from Russel. Russel’s first son was named John Conrad with having Conrad as the godfather. Russel’s other son who was born in 1937 was called Conrad Sebastian Robert. To both sons, Russell gave, through the example of their namesake, proleptic encouragement to overcome in their turn the natural condition of all men: that of orphans and exiles.
It is arguably the most subtle and evocative movie endings I’ve watched during the last couple of years. In an open playground in the obscure hamlet of Sonora (Mexico) a school children’s soccer game is on, watched mostly by the mothers of the players. When one of the boys, the son of a corrupt police officer killed in a shoot-out the previous day, dribbles past his opponents and is just about to score a goal, the sound of gunfire from a distance briefly interrupts the game, then continues.
The title, Cicario (2015), is cartel slang for “assassin” or “hitman”, evidently derived from the first-century Sicarii zealots of Judea, though the word is never spoken out loud in the script; screenwriter Taylor Sheridan defers the revelation of how it really applies here to the end of drama, and this disclosure ties up its attendant issues of justice versus revenge, idealism versus cynicism and how American justice is to be applied beyond US borders without anything as quaint as a formal declaration of war. The idea that the war on drugs might be won is not something anyone takes seriously. The only question is how the forces are aligned and who is enforcing the rules of engagement.
The action is viewed mostly through the eyes of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an F.B.I. agent. Blunt is impressively glum and intense, but Kate is a bit of a blank, on hand as a filter through which the audience can scrutinize Matt and Alejandro, who are far more intriguing characters.
The tenor and texture of the movie are established with that truly horrible scene at the very beginning where the FBI storm a cartel haven. It has its own sheen of horror, aided by the groaning orchestral chords in the musical score from composer Jóhann Jóhannson. The scene lays down a marker for the film’s status as something like a forensic thriller and in its way a procedural thriller, in which the covert procedure itself is the crime.
This is a real white-knuckle thriller, with screeching feedback notes of fear and paranoia, which plays out in a very satisfying atmosphere of pure nihilist ruthlessness. The movie asserts that the war on drugs has turned America into the very monster that they were trying to defeat.
After over three decades, some of us old buddies reconnected over the Internet. During the catching-up process, I found out that Gangadharan chettan (chettan: elder brother) was presently in Kuala Lumpur, trying to come to terms with his dementia. His condition suddenly worsened a couple of weeks ago, to the point where he could not recognize either of his daughters. Frankly, I did not wish to judge his daughters for moving their father into a care home; they might have had their reasons – perfectly valid grounds that I am unaware of. Time must’ve been taking its toll on me too, if not then how come I did not think about Vimala chechi (chechi: elder sister) before. I felt numb when I was told she was long gone.
When I was in class X in St. Joseph’s, she too was a regular, boarding the 4:10 pm Palkulangara bus from General Hospital junction. She was a resplendent young woman who always wore half-sarees of pastel shades with floral patterns and also a Kindergarten teacher at Holy Angels. There were days when Vimala chechi will be held up in teachers’ meetings, and reached the bus stop just in time, before the bus conductor sounded the double bell signalling to the driver that it was all good to take off. On such occasions, I would become all chivalrous and give way to her to board the bus before me. When it was time for me to get down and as I moved past her, she offered me a half-smile in acknowledgement, the rest of which she retained for herself or perhaps for someone more important. During Q2 of that year I left school, and my parents enrolled me in a university sixty-five kilometers away, as we shifted residence to our suburban ancestral home. With that, St. Joseph’s, Holy Angels, the bus stop in General Hospital junction, the olive-green Merc. & Leyland buses ploughing the Palkulangara route with the twilight recocheting over their front-glasses and …, and the rest faded into my past.
The next I heard about Vimala chechi was, years later, somebody in our group mentioning Ganngadharan chettan and her as a couple. I cannot recall why we did not attend their wedding. However, about a week after the ceremony, we invited them for dinner at Xavier’s restaurant opposite to Sivan’s Studio, between Statue and Pulimood junctions. Dinner was an elaborate seven-course affair. My previous escapade with knife and fork was confined to juggling between cutlets or omelettes in popular restaurants like the Indian Coffee House. When it came to meat, I began fumbling, mainly because I was holding the knife in my left hand rather than the right. Nobody noticed my dilemma except Vimala chechi who sat next to me. I still recall her reassuring smile as she looked at my plate and then my face. To my great relief, she then made a benevolent disclosure that her palate cannot relish good food unless eaten by hand and cast aside the knife and fork from her plate. When I got a chance, I gratefully squeezed her fingers under the table and whispered ‘thank you’. Her smile this time was not the old-half-smile, but one that appeared in full blossom as if newly sprung in June.
Our English teacher in classes IX and X was Fr. J C Kappen. He was quite candid in his approach and tried to implement modern teaching methods that didn’t quite go down very well among us. Yet he wielded a great deal of influence amidst his students. In the evening of the final English exam. I went to see him in his cubby hole office with an autograph book in hand. After going over the question paper with me, he wrote in the calico bound small rectangular book: ‘Always remember that there’s a very fine line between loving life and being greedy for it.’
O, wither smoldering embers.