Biography v autobiography? Mary Walsh Hemingway.


A week or two ago I paid a little money for a weighty tome on a local market stall: 'How It Was', by Mary Walsh Hemingway. This is part bio (Papa Hem), part autobio (Miss Mary). First thing to say about it is - I read it through. No, not as obvious as it sounds for I often begin a book and put it down unread, sometimes after just a few pages. Maybe the theme or subject matter fails to hold my interest or seems phoney (although it might well hold the interest of or seem less phoney to a million other folk) but mainly because the writing hurts. Just hurts.

Biography is difficult because for we human beings objectivity is well nigh impossible when it concerns our fellow Man. For this reason Adolph Hitler can be a virtual divinity to one as to millions or he can be the devil incarnate to one as to millions. So, the story of his life will be vastly different depending on who writes it, correct? The same must apply, whoever is the subject of a biography. For instance if someone were to write your or my biography (heaven forbid) you and I would both, if we were honest with ourselves, acknowledge the existence of one person who would write with pen dipped in acid and another who would write our lives in a golden glow (We would both plump for the latter of course, given a choice in the matter.)

Autobiography is just as impossible or even more so. That which we may suspect in the dark side of our fellow is that which we know in the dark side of ourself. Who amongst us would set down on paper the innermost secrets of his / her soul? Who would have the courage to admit their most scurrilous acts of meanness, cowardice or even criminality?

May Walsh Hemingway's book is a seven or eight hundred pages long act of well-written but highly selective journalism. It is interesting more from that which it leaves out than for that which she reports. I found the early passages of greatest interest, the ones concerning her relationships, for instance with Lord Beaverbrook, and the ones of the life she lived and everyone lived in wartime, blackout London.

But I bought the book because I have long been interested in anything and everything Hemingway. This is the biography bit of the book as opposed to Miss Mary's autobio. Her accounts of  their life together in Africa and out on the heaving Main in the fishing boat Pilar and in Paris or Spain at the bullfights and ... loads and loads more ... these were fascinating episodes for me.

I can see Hemingway standing at his writing table in the Cuban farmhouse called The Finca. I can see Mary assiduously typing out and re-typing, often in tears, (text-inspired emotion rather than pain!) his greatest work of literature, The Old Man and the Sea. I read this mini-novel when it came out and again after it won for him the Nobel Prize and again ten years ago and now, again. I've bought a nicely illustrated edition of it on Kindle. The Old Man is like any other of the greatest works of art. You can look at it many times and each time you can see the same wondrous beauty in the same thing, as well as in new and different aspects of the thing.

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