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A Serious Man
Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out.
Hemingway, the Paris Review interview
For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and our world islanded in its stream of stars.
Sailors who have studied celestial navigation remember the first time they worked on a complicated navigational fix and their calculations actually came out correctly. Three lines drawn on a chart and derived from the angles of three stars intersect at the same pinpoint, and the navigator knows his exact position in the universe. The pleasure of the moment comes in part because the process of measuring and plotting is not that easy, at least not when you are new to the business. But there is pleasure also in the poetry of knowing you are precisely in this place because the stars have said so. You are at the juncture of three streams of light that began their travels millions of years ago. It's a moment for humility and, at the same time, for a kind of pride of place and an affirmation of self, which is both satisfying and comic, given that you are miles from land and at the complete mercy of that very universe in which you have so accurately and skillfully placed yourself. In calculating where you are, you are reminded that your ship is very small. And you, star plotter, even smaller. Still, you are at the center of it all, "islanded in its stream of stars," and you know it. It is a wonderful conceit. A fine and complicated moment. Full of irony and whatever the opposite of irony is. These moments are fleeting, of course. After all, even the best star fix is accurate only for a short time, for the ship moves on, as do the stars. And that brief period, when everything comes together, just right, passes quickly.
In 1942 Ernest Hemingway must have experienced a similar moment of recognition that he was just then at the top of his arc, that vectors from many different directions had come together his writing, his physical well-being, his professional reputation and success, his three sons, his friendships, his pastimes and pleasures. All these major forces had joined to place him at or near his personal and professional zenith. Of course, from the zenith there is only one future direction, and the emotion of the moment would have been complicated by a rueful reflection or two. Still, Hemingway had every reason to savor his position. He had a talented and attractive wife, international acclaim, a farmhouse outside Havana within easy reach of his well-loved Gulf Stream and near also to the little port town of Cojimar, where he kept his fishing boat, Pilar. His most recent novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, had been published two years before and had been a smashing commercial and artistic success. A six-figure offer to do a film script was in the works. Though his country was at war, he was in his early forties, still vigorous, but too old to be expected to fight. As with most people and especially artists, his life was not uniformly serene and satisfying; he still had his dark moods, fits of temper, and worries now and then. And Hemingway and his wife, Martha Gellhorn, had periods of tension. But those times aside, it was all just about as good as it could get, just then, in Cuba, and he could hardly be criticized for sitting beside his swimming pool, relishing his achievements and enjoying the view from the heights. Certainly he was justified in saying to himself, "Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy it all while it was there and it was good."
But from the summer of 1942 through the whole of 1943, Ernest Hemingway did not spend much time resting on his considerable laurels. Nor did he do any writing of consequence. Instead, he spent a great deal of his time cruising in his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, Pilar, along the north coast of Cuba and out into the Gulf Stream. He was looking for German submarines. U-boats.
That sounds like something he would do. It's certainly in line with the popular image of the man, an image created partly by the author himself and partly by the media, for whom he was good copy, always. But this was no publicity stunt. While Hemingway was ostensibly trolling for large fish, he was actually looking for even larger and infinitely more dangerous quarry during a time in the war when the U-boats were winning and America's resources to fight them were absurdly thin. The patrols were his idea, but they were sanctioned by the local American embassy and done in cooperation with the military, both in Cuba and America. In short, this was a serious business.
It's also important to understand that Hemingway was hunting U-boats at a sacrifice to his work and his income. He could have ridden the wave of critical acclaim in any number of ways. But he did not. He set aside his work to volunteer. And not writing was more than a simple matter of losing revenue, for as he said later, "The time to work is shorter all the time and if you waste it you feel you have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness." He was at his best when he was working and he knew it; writing defined him. "Writing is a hard business...but nothing makes you feel better." Even so, he gave that up for a time a long time and went looking for U-boats.
But Hemingway's quest does raise a number of questions, and the most fundamental is if he ever actually found a U-boat, what did he expect to do with it? It seems like looking for a wolf to grab by the ears. Had he suspended his imagination to the point of foolhardiness? (As he said in Men at War, "Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.") Or was his imagination actually in heroic overdrive, like that of some modern Don Quixote? More likely it was the latter. And certainly the project appealed to Hemingway's artistic sense. U-boats were unpredictable, ruthless, impersonal, and fearsome, and as such they were a particularly appropriate metaphor for Hemingway's view of the universe a universe that alternated between indifference and sudden violence. To Hemingway, Pilar versus the U-boat was an irresistible and compelling representation of man's fate: a small wooden boat confronting an iron-and-steel machine of industrial war, knowing the odds against success or even survival were long, but confronting nonetheless, for dignity lay in making the attempt.
But the U-boats were real. The shells and bullets they would be firing were not metaphorical, and wood versus steel is an interesting literary trope but a decided mismatch in battle. To imagine a story is one thing; to go in search of an immensely more powerful enemy is something else. And so it's fair to ask was Hemingway really serious? If so, was this just part of an ongoing and well-advertised death wish? Who went with him and how did he convince them to go along? Why did he go looking for U-boats in the first place? Was he gathering material for fiction? Does this period tell us anything about the man as artist? Or the man himself? And how many U-boats were in the area, really? Were the occasional sightings merely random, or was this area of the Gulf of Mexico an active theater of the war? Did Hemingway think deep down that the odds of encountering a U-boat were infinitesimally small and that he could therefore broadcast his intentions, knowing that he would never be put to the test? Was it all just bravado, a farce, an unintentional opera bouffe, the product of a blustering middle-aged man playing at war while actually just fishing? Some thought so; his wife, Martha Gellhorn, for one especially when she was angry with him. Those who were not his admirers, and there were many, characterized these patrols as little more than self-aggrandizing stunts. Was there any truth in this?
Some, perhaps. But not much. Instead, it's much fairer, and closer to the truth, to realize that Hemingway, like any sailor at the start of a patrol in wartime, did not know, could not know, what lay ahead. And this not-knowing constituted an act of if not bravery at least a kind of mental and physical fortitude that is, in itself, worthy of respect. His experiences during World War I and the Spanish Civil War provided hard lessons in the inherent uncertainty of war. As he wrote in the introduction to Men at War, "War is the province of chance." Things rarely go the way you think they will; and a great many things could go wrong during a search for a U-boat. And yet he went to sea, not once, but repeatedly from June of 1942 until the end of 1943, each time putting himself, his boat, and the friends who went with him potentially into harm's way. It's easy to look back on history, knowing the outcomes, and make judgments about the way things happened and the way people acted. It's not so easy to be in the moment, when those outcomes are not guaranteed or even fully imagined.
Undoubtedly, Hemingway was thinking over many of these same questions as he guided Pilar out the channel of Havana harbor, past the fortress of El Morro, and out into the open water in search of the enemy. The flying bridge of a fishing boat is a fine place for introspection. And when that boat is also a ship of war, and you are in command, responsible for the vessel and crew, the bridge is where your thoughts become most truly serious. It is not a place for illusions. Or self-delusions.
And perhaps in the waters north of Havana, the captain of a U-boat was standing on his own bridge, similarly thoughtful. Copyright © 2009 by Terry Mort