Hemingway's Chair

Hemingway's Chair

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by Michael Palin
     
 

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Monty Python's Flying Circus alumnus Michael Palin turns his hand to writing fiction. A mild-mannered English postmaster--who is obsessed with Hemingway--must decide whether to drift along passively or fight for what he believes in, after his small village postal office is privatized.

Overview

Monty Python's Flying Circus alumnus Michael Palin turns his hand to writing fiction. A mild-mannered English postmaster--who is obsessed with Hemingway--must decide whether to drift along passively or fight for what he believes in, after his small village postal office is privatized.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
June 1998

Hemingway's Chair is the story of Martin Sproale, a mild-mannered assistant postmaster who lives with his mother, has dinner with his would-be fiancee once a week, and bicycles dutifully to work every morning. Martin has only one unconventional hobby: He is obsessed with the life of Ernest Hemingway, his brilliant and macho alter ego.

His hobby, too, is tamely confined to collecting memorabilia and reading every biography he can find — until an ambitious outsider, Nick Marshall, is appointed postmaster over his head. Slick and self-assured, Nick steals Martin's girlfriend and decides to modernize the friendly local office by firing dedicated but elderly employees and privatizing the business. Suddenly, gentle Martin is faced with a choice: meekly accept his defeat as he always has, or fight for what he believes in, as his hero would.

Aided by an American scholar writing a thesis about the women in Hemingway's life, Martin begins to explore his own passionate side. As the pair delves deeper and deeper into Hemingway's own psyche and plots Martin's revenge, they learn that there is a man behind every mouse — and a little bit of Hemingway in all of us.

Filled with Michael Palin's trademark wit and good humor, this novel is for anyone who has ever dreamed of triumphing over the technocrats and backstabbers of the world. Hilarious, touching, and ultimately inspirational, Hemingway's Chair is a new landmark for an already monumental talent.

Kirkus Reviews
The Monty Python veteran's debut novel is a slight but engaging oddity: an affectionate portrait of a shy and disappointed man who's obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. Pale, rash-prone Martin Sproale has worked at the Theston post office for the past 16 years. He maintains a chaste flirtation with his colleague Elaine, and is unfailingly polite to the eccentrics and busy-bodies who swarm in on a daily basis. The only question is: When will his boss retire, leaving Martin to ascend to the coveted position of Postmaster? While he waits, Martin comforts himself by nursing his quasi-secret obsession: He devours biographies of his hero, savors trivia, packs his room with Hemingway memorabilia. But Martin's staid routine gets shaken. His professional ambitions are dashed when a young man from central headquarters is sent to manage his post office. And another Hemingway enthusiast arrives in his somnolent seaside town: Ruth Kohler, on sabbatical from a New Jersey university, is holed up at a local farmhouse, writing a book about Hemingwayþs women. The work situation rapidly degenerates: The new boss is keen on modernization, and indifferent to the role that the post office has traditionally played in the community. Longtime clerks are fired, computers are installed, finally the office itself is moved out of its grand headquarters and into the back room of a candy shop. Martin's only consolation is the attractive scholar: The two of them drink grappa, argue over the relative merits of the master's works, and get down to some serious flirtation. Egged on by Ruth, Martin attempts to organize resistance to the post office changes, and is unceremoniously fired. Boozyrampages, manic schemes, and some self-discovery ensue as the timid postal clerk gets in touch with his inner Ernest. The pairing of gentle satire and dead-on description of raw human pain is a bit disconcerting, but in all, Palin offers a lively, if slight, ride to nowhere in particular.

From the Publisher

“His book is well paced, his prose, carefully hewn, his characters fully developed and convincingly human. And his comic timing is impeccable.” —The Washington Post

“This book's strenghts are...its dry, deftly, understated wit, its careful plot and character construction; it's clever, on-the-money dialogue...Those pleasures carry you a long way.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Throughout, Palin's empathetic humor informs this perceptive tribute to the art of manliness.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Funnyman Palin brings a light touch to this yarn, treating his characters and their many weaknesses with an affection that will have readers rooting for his unlikely hero.” —Publishers Weekly

“The spirit of Hemingway is evident in Palin's prose.” —The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“This comic novel should enjoy critical acclaim while finding popularity among readers who can't distinguish a Python from a garden snake. It is a tale of frustration that is both gentle and snappy, human to the core.” —Library Journal

“Well crafted and witty.” —Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780413777430
Publisher:
Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date:
04/01/2015
Pages:
288

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Marsh Cottage stood a little way back from a road that led to a cliff top and then stopped. It had once run out to a headland where there had been a small village, but the sea had clawed away the soft sandy cliff and the houses had long since disappeared. Now, apart from Marsh Cottage itself, the road served only a pair of holiday chalets. It was neglected and full of potholes.

    On either side of the cottage lay flat countryside, tufty grassland on the landward side and on the other grazing marsh running a half-mile down to the sea. The house had been flooded several times since it was built in the early 1930s but more recently the local council had raised the sea defences in an attempt to create an extra beach or two, and since then it had been safe from the spring tides.

    Marsh Cottage looked what it was. The unsuccessful prototype for an abandoned housing estate. Redbrick walls two storeys high ran up to a pitched slate roof. A suburban bay window faced on to the road with the front door to one side. Beside the house was a detached garage alongside which a passage led round to the back. In the seventies a white-painted wood and glass extension had been added to the rear of the house and framed the old back door.

    On this Thursday morning in early September Marsh Cottage looked particularly vulnerable as it took a westerly wind full in the face. An unhealthy yellow sky offered worse to come as a bobble-hatted figure emerged from the garage, wheeling a bicycle. He secured the door of the garage behind him, patted the pockets of a sky-blue anorak, checked the fastenings on a pannier basket and, mounting the bicycle with care, negotiated the short, bumpy driveway and turned southwards in the direction of the town of Theston, two miles away. Martin Sproale had made this journey, on various bicycles, for most of his adult life. He was now thirty-six, a little over six feet tall, with a round, soft face and light reddish hair. His skin was pale and prone to rashes, and his hands were long and fine.

Elaine Rudge, who worked at the post office alongside Martin, was still at home. She lived in the centre of town and could walk to work, and in any case she didn't have the responsibility of opening up, which brought Martin in on the dot of half past eight. Hair-grip between clenched teeth, she was standing before the kitchen mirror, concentrating on herself and a vital quiz question on the Dick Arthur Breakfast Show.

    `The capital of Indonesia is Jakarta, Mombasa or Rio de Janeiro? The capital of Indonesia . . .'

    As the voice from the radio came again, Joan Rudge, a trim, energetic woman in a padded nylon housecoat, gave a short dismissive laugh. `Well, it's not going to be Rio de Janeiro, is it. That's in Brazil.'

    Elaine took the grip from her teeth and thrust it into the back of her head. `Mum, I'm trying to listen.'

    `Soft, these questions.'

    `You've still got to work out if it's Mombasa or -- what was the other one?' Elaine said, reaching for a piece of paper.

    `Jakarta, Mombasa or Rio de Janeiro?' repeated Dick Arthur obligingly.

    `Must be Jakarta.'

    `Well it'll not be Rio de Janeiro,' her mother said again. `That's definitely in Brazil. That's where Uncle Howard ended up.'

    Elaine bit her lower lip for some time and then wrote down `Mombasa'.

    She returned to the mirror and stood a little back from it. She'd chosen her clothes with more care than usual this morning, as it was a Thursday and she and Martin always had a drink at the Pheasant on Thursdays. The pink cotton blouse was simple but sophisticated, not figure-hugging but very feminine. She looked in the mirror and flicked the collar up. Then she flicked it down. She wasn't pretty, she knew that. She was a hefty, well-proportioned young woman, but on some days she could look oddly beautiful, the way Ingrid Bergman did when they photographed her nose right. Her thick head of copper-brown hair needed work but repaid the effort. She'd woken up with an ominous tenderness on her lower lip and was relieved to find on closer examination that it was nothing more than the tiniest of pimples which she would have no trouble in disguising. Unless of course Martin was in one of his touching moods. The other evening they'd been together down by the beach huts and he'd run his fingers very gently over her face, paying special attention to her lips. Elaine was curious to know where he'd learnt this, but didn't like to ask. She had concluded that it must have been from a magazine, or one of his books. She hadn't liked it much, as the tips of his fingers smelt of postal adhesive.

    The next question on the Dick Arthur Breakfast Show concerned nocturnal animals. `That's animals that only come out at night,' Dick Arthur added helpfully, though most of the question had been obscured by the noise of Frank Rudge's Dormobile pulling into the yard. Through the window Elaine could see him wince with discomfort as he slid the door open and extracted himself gingerly from the driving seat. Thursday was market day at Norwich and he'd been out on the road before dawn. Paul, his latest acquisition from the Youth Training Scheme, checked his spiky blond hair in the wing mirror and by the time he'd got down, Elaine's father already had the back open and was reaching for the first of the long, flat boxes of Spanish lettuce.

*

Theston post office was part of an uncompleted 1930S development in the centre of the town. It was the work of Cedric Meadows, the Borough Architect, who had left for Malaya a year later, leaving undisclosed debts. On a good day, when Martin cycled into North Square he saw the redbrick walls, the asymmetric stone-dressed tower, the steeply gabled roof and portentous curved steps up to the bulky oak front door as a rather splendid mess. On a bad day he barely saw the post office at all, his eye being drawn unwillingly to the neonbordered, poster-plastered window of the video store on its left and the jumble-sale jolliness of the Save the Children shop on its right.

    As he had done every morning, forty-eight weeks a year for the last sixteen years, Martin cycled around two sides of the square and turned into Echo Passage. If there were no unwelcomely parked cars he would slowly raise his right leg, transfer his weight to the left-hand pedal and, braking as he did so, glide balletically into Phipps' Yard, coming to rest, precisely, alongside the back steps of the post office. Ernie Padgett, the current Postmaster, a title he had privately refused to relinquish when postmasters had been officially renamed managers four years earlier, lived on the premises. He would normally have opened up and had some tea on, but recently he had been unwell and with retirement imminent had seemed to be losing interest in the job. Highly irregularly, he had entrusted his assistant, Martin, with a set of keys and these Martin had to use today.

As Elaine arrived there was already a brace of regulars waiting outside the main door. At their head was Harold Meredith, a small, sturdy man with a walking stick and a head of closely trimmed white hair, more often than not concealed beneath a tweed cap. He took care over his appearance and wouldn't dream of leaving the house in anything less correct than a hound's-tooth jacket and an Army Pay Corps tie. His pale, smooth-skinned complexion showed little sign of age, though he was known to be over eighty. Since his wife's death five years earlier, the post office had become his adopted home.

    `You're up with the lark, Mr Meredith,' Elaine called jauntily, because that was the way he liked it.

    `I'm up for a lark any day,' came the ritual reply.

    `I'm too old for you, Mr Meredith,' Elaine protested and fluttered her eyelashes as she reached the top of the steps and pressed the doorbell for Martin to let her in.

    Elaine and Martin refrained from any physical contact whilst they were on post office premises. Even when there were just the two of them in the back kitchen they only ever touched accidentally. Elaine had begun to entertain increasingly elaborate fantasies of coffee-break passion but Martin remained the complete professional and, once he was inside the building, his sole relationship was with the public. No enquiry, however fatuous or ill informed, failed to receive his full attention, nor was any irrelevant personal information treated as less than engrossing. Even Mrs Harvey-Wardrell, whom Elaine thought the most vile creature imaginable, could not dislodge his mask of professional affability.

    Pamela Harvey-Wardrell was the self-appointed queen of Theston society. She was a snob's snob, a woman of such epic and ineffable unselfconsciousness that, if born poor and unwelcome, she might well have been certified mad, She was another early riser. A keen ornithologist, she could often be seen on the marshes at dawn, glasses raised, scouring the reedbeds. She was over six feet tall and from a distance, in her deer-stalker, Barbour jacket and matching thigh-length waders, she could easily be taken for a small tree.

    Though she could wait for hours on a jacksnipe or a water rail she had no patience for humans and this particular morning her restlessness was almost tangible as Martin explained slowly and laboriously to Harold Meredith the intricacies of the Pension Income Bonds, something which he had to do on more or less a weekly basis. Mr Meredith nodded earnestly as he listened.

    `So would you like a leaflet?' Martin asked him.

    `Oh, yes please,' he returned, eyes lighting up.

    Martin leant down to the cupboard and, flicking it open with his right foot, withdrew a small pile of them. He detached one and handed it to Mr Meredith. `Here you are. Pensioners' Income Bond Booklet, Series 2.'

    `D'you want it back?'

    `No, you hang on to it, Mr Meredith.'

    `How much is it?'

    `Oh, for God's sake ...' came quite audibly from behind him.

    `Morning, Mrs Harvey-Wardrell.' Martin offered a placatory smile.

    She didn't seem placated.

    `I'm in a dreadful hurry.'

    `Yes, I'll be with you right away. That should answer all your questions, Mr Meredith.'

    `How much is it, Martin?'

    `Completely free. Compliments of the Post Office.'

    Mr Meredith's eyes swam with emotion. `I can remember when you could send a letter to Hong Kong for a penny halfpenny,' he said somewhat at random.

    Mrs Harvey-Wardrell exhaled threateningly. In paisley silk headscarf, thick-ribbed turtleneck sweater, body-warmer, tweed skirt, lisle stockings and lace-up brogues, she was looking about as feminine as Martin had ever seen her.

    `I could have walked to Hong Kong by now,' she snapped and, using her substantial weight advantage, began to edge Mr Meredith along the counter. Harold Meredith knew this tactic and had his own way of dealing with it.

    `Thank you, Martin,' he said, deliberately slowly. He gathered up his various documents, picked up his tweed cap, unhooked his walking stick from the edge of the counter and moved unhurriedly across the post office to the public writing desk. Here he set out his papers, then tried to engage Jane Cardwell, the doctor's wife, in conversation. Having failed to do so, he reread the latest brochures on Parcel Force rates, live animal export regulations and forwarding mail to a private address.

    Mrs Harvey-Wardrell began briskly. `What I need,' she announced in ringing tones, as if addressing an open-air rally, `is two postal orders. One for Sebastian who's just got into Eton with one of the highest Common Entrance marks they've ever had at Waterdene and the other for dear Charlie who's nowhere near as bright but I can't leave him out. Have you anything appropriate, Martin?'

    `Postal orders are all the same.'

    `No. I don't mean postal orders, I mean those sort of gift voucher things.'

    `Well, we've got these.' He withdrew two cards, swiftly and expertly, from his sliding drawer.

    `Those are ghastly,' said Mrs Harvey-Wardrell.

    `Well, that's all we have at the moment.'

    `They had dozens of them in Cambridge. All sorts of designs.' She looked down disparagingly at the two examples Martin had laid out on the counter. `I can't send a boy wrestling with the problems of adolescence a bunch of pansies.'

    `Geraniums, I think,' volunteered Martin.

    `And what's this one?'

    Martin examined the card. He wasn't too sure himself.

    `I think it's a ship in trouble.'

    `Artist in trouble, I should say. Who chooses these things?'

    `Well, Mr Padgett does the ordering.'

    Mrs Harvey-Wardrell lowered her voice to a whisper, which rang around the post office. `How is he today?'

    `Much the same.'

    She leant across the counter. There was something damp and musty on her breath, like the smell of an abandoned house.

    `The sooner there's some young blood in here the better, Martin. I'll take two ships in trouble.'

Everyone was waiting for Ernie Padgett's retirement. He had been Postmaster of Theston for twenty-three years and Assistant Postmaster for twenty years before that. `Padge', as he was universally known, had long been at the centre of Theston life, twice Mayor and, like his friend Frank Rudge, on and off the council for as long as anyone could remember. Half a dozen years ago, Padge and Frank had laid plans for a property business, a two-man Mafia to revitalise Theston's fortunes after the collapse of the local fishing industry. Investment was promised but all that was raised was expectation and, amidst recriminations, Frank Rudge became a greengrocer and Padge remained a postmaster.

    From then on expert Padge-watchers -- and there were many, for the relationship between post office and community is close and pervasive -- detected the start of a decline. He seemed to withdraw into himself, indeed on occasions to be downright surly. He developed a constant bronchial cough. He found the new, computerised systems no match for his voluminous memory, which he once boasted could retain the serial number of every new pension book issued over a six-month period. He relied more and more on Martin to get him through the last few years until he could retire and claim a pension for himself. But he was too proud a man ever to admit this and Martin remained in word, if not in deed, only assistant manager.

'They're sending three of them,' announced Padge in the lunch-hour.

    `Three what?' asked Elaine, glancing up from her cross-word, grateful for a respite from 14 across, `Hebrew prophet (5)'.

    `Three from area headquarters.'

    `What for?'

    Padge tapped the letter he was holding, impatiently.

    `For the -- you know -- for the farewell dinner.'

    `Dinner now is it, Padge?' asked Martin between mouthfuls of bread and cold chicken. `I'd heard it was cheese and pickles ... you know, something lean and mean and ready for privatisation.'

    Martin knew there was a dinner. He was the one who'd suggested it in the first place. Head Office had only offered sherry and a presentation, and now here they were muscling in on an occasion which was supposed to have been a surprise anyway. Padge took another look at the letter.

    `Still, three of them,' he said, with a touch of pride. `Shows they must consider it an occasion of importance.'

`Penny?'

    `What?'

    `For your thoughts? What's occupying that big brain of yours?'

    Elaine and Martin were sitting together in the beer garden of the Pheasant Inn, at Braddenham, a modest village fifteen minutes' drive inland from Theston. Its thatched roof and quaintly angled half-timbered facade dated back to the late 1970s when it was rebuilt after a fire. The beer garden was little more than an outside space, a lumpy slab of lawn confined by a quick-growing cypress hedge. Half a dozen metal tables hugged the wall of the pub for protection. They looked out towards swings and a climbing frame which were to Ron Oakes, the publican, a Kiddies' Grotto, and to most of his regulars another way of recycling old tractor tyres.

    But now autumn was approaching and families with young children came only at weekends. Soon the swing would be chained and padlocked and the wind and rain would see to the paint on the climbing frame.

    Elaine preferred to sit in the garden if she could. In her experience, once inside a pub it was hard to keep a man's attention. He would find other men and they would start to argue over things that were of very little interest to her, generally football or fishing or cars or the inexorable decline of standards in almost every area except pub conversation.

    Human relationships were what interested Elaine. They were such an endlessly rich and fascinating subject, an all-year-round phenomenon. A twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week phenomenon. Men could talk about passion and elation and despair if they happened within the confines of a league match, but for Elaine such emotions were too important to be squandered by football commentators. She was a romantic. She yearned and felt and sensed with an intensity which she had never yet been able to share. She had had boyfriends and they had said that they loved her, but she knew they loved go-karting and windsurfing just as much, and she wanted to be more than just an exciting evening out. Martin was different from the others. He wasn't gregarious, and he had no interest in sport.

    Though he was still reserved and uncomfortable in talking about his feelings, she was convinced that beneath it all Martin felt the same way she did, which was why she was attracted to him, why she persevered with the relationship. At least it was a relationship. Until the Christmas before last it had been two people sitting beside each other behind a post office counter. Now he touched her face and sometimes took her hand.

    Elaine watched him conduct some private battle with himself. He thrust his lower lip forward and drew in the muscles tight around his eyes.

    `You're quite pensive.'

    `I was thinking about the future,' he said.

    `Well, no wonder you were pensive. Which bit?' asked Elaine.

    `Which bit?'

    `Of the future.'

    `Oh ...' He smiled bleakly. `The nearest bit.'

    `Am I in it?'

    She knew this would irritate him and she was right. He took a studied sip at his beer and set the glass down before answering her.

    `As a matter of fact, no. Just me and a large public company.'

    `Beginning with P?'

    `How did you guess?'

    `There aren't many left to choose from,' she said.

    Martin smiled ruefully.

    `Are you not getting on well together, you and the Post Office?' she asked him.

    Martin's frown deepened. A shadow of a breeze came from somewhere and ruffled his fine, soft, red hair. `I don't know. That's the damn thing. I don't know. Padge is going in a fortnight and no one's written to me or got in touch with me. I mean, you'd think they'd have said something.'

    `Well, you know what they're like at Head Office. They've got lots on.'

    `Too much to bother with us?' Martin was indignant. `We work in a Crown office. Who runs it matters.' There was real anger in his voice, and it quite aroused Elaine.

    `You'll get it. I know,' she said.

    `You know, but what do they know? I know my job. There's nothing I don't know about running a post office. But oh no, that's not enough any more. Now it's all management training stuff. I hated that seminar in Ipswich. Role-plays. Making business plans. Couldn't think of a word to say.'

    To Elaine there was little more exciting than an angry man confessing a weakness. She grasped the remains of her pina colada decisively. `Look, let's finish our drink, go back via Omar's, get two cod and chips and take them down the harbour. It's a lovely night.'

    She watched Martin for a moment. The hairs in his nose needed clipping.

    `Kiss me,' she said.

    Martin glanced quickly round the garden.

    `Not here.'

    `No, here.' She pointed to the soft white skin at the bottom of her neck. `Here.'

    She thrust her chin high and pushed herself towards him.

    `I still think they should have confirmed it. They would in any other business.' He leaned across and put his lips lightly on the side of her neck. It smelt soapy.

    Elaine sighed. `Be nice if you could do that without having to look round first.'

    `I've got to be conscious of my public role. Specially when I'm Manager.'

    `It would be nice to have a drink from our own bar in our own living room without having to come out here every Thursday.'

    Martin nodded to himself. `I think I'll contact the union. Check the legal position.'

    Elaine reached in her handbag and brought out a bottle of cologne.

    `I'm thirty next year, Martin.'

    `There must be prior requirement of notification,' he said.

    `You know what I mean.' She dabbed the scent below her ears and around her neck. `Don't you, Martin?'

    Martin looked up warily. `You wouldn't want to be married to an Assistant Manager.'

    `No, you're right.' She leaned across and kissed his cheek. `But I wouldn't mind being married to a Manager.'

Meet the Author

MICHAEL PALIN is a comedian, novelist, actor, and playwright, well known from the Monty Python television show. Hemingway's Chair is his first novel. He lives in North London.

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Hemingway's Chair 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Why do you hate Rose?" I raise an eyebrow
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why wouldn't l?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Palin's Hemingway's Chair is perhaps one of the best novels I've read that accurately displays a sense of fanaticism and fantasy all at once. This book is a must for all Palin fans, Python fans, and to anyone that ever felt like they had an intangible connection with something very real. No doubt, Hemingway's Chair will make any child at heart nostalgic, and with Palin's magnificent detail, humor, and impeccable timing, the novel is precisely what any reader will be looking for, whether the reader be young or old, a fantasist or simply someone just dying the 'get away.' This book is PERFECT, just like it's author!
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are not an Ernest Hemingway fan--and I am not, having only read The Old Man and the Sea way back in high school-- you can still enjoy this book, as it gives you enough Ernest to keep his influence relevant, while concentrating on the real story, which is the effect of change on 'the little people.' The only misfit among characters is the American writer. Tell me again: Why does a New Jersey college professor go to East-nowhere in England while on sabatical to write about Hemingway, unless it was to ensure absence of distraction. Perhaps because it is cheap? More explanation would have made her role less gratuitous, as she is a critical catalyst to the actions of our protagonist, Martin the Assistant Postal Inspector. Rather than lampoon the 'going postal' genre with slapstick violence, Pallin builds a case for a uniqely English version of a postal employee acting out in resonse to changes in the system. A breath of fresh air compared to the bloodbath an American TV show or movie would have used. The middle of the book holds the richest treasure, as we figure out where the title originates, and as characters react in authentically human ways to a variety of stimuli. In a blessedly concise length, the story of Everyman is told with humor, love and just a touch of that eccentricity that Pallin used to such good effect as a Python stalwart. If the characters weren't all developed in great depth, at least those who needed to be were deep enough to recognize as real. Enjoy this one, there aren't enough like it.