Ernest Hemingway was one of the first writers I ever truly loved. When I was an undergraduate, many years ago, my ideal Friday night would consist of me buying a bottle of red wine or a six pack of Albanian lager from the Lidl round the corner and sitting in my room with folk music on and incense burning as I read my way through a Hemingway novel, chain smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
These days, the incense and the fags are long gone, but the facilitation of drinking and reading alone is still my primary objective when planning a perfect evening in. Or afternoon in. Or morning in.
So, in that heady smoke-filled room I read and wept at A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The First Forty-Nine Stories, A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, Death In The Afternoon and The Old Man and The Sea. I also read, towards the end of that Hemingway-heavy period, the disappointing Across The River and Into The Trees, by far the weakest of his books.
In the five or six intervening years I have probably read one Hemingway a year – Byline (his collected journalism), the two posthumous novels Islands In The Stream (actually pretty good) and The Garden of Eden (an idealised sexed-up reimagining of the breakdown of his first marriage), the first volume of his collected letters and now this, Green Hills of Africa, a memoir about his first experience of big game hunting.
Coming back to Hemingway after such an absence is strange, like (I imagine) the return to the coital embrace of a once-close but now distant lover; Hemingway lived inside my consciousness, in the maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice I poured into daiquiris as a young bartender, in the backpacking trip I made to Cuba, on my bookshelf and in my conversation. Still, to this day, A Farewell To Arms is one of the few books I blanketly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it. But Hemingway and I are no longer so close. I went to a bullfight a couple of years ago and didn’t see the appeal; I have little to no interest in meat or fighting or fishing or fucking, my interests are very far from those the adult Hemingway pursued. Yet, in (for example) The Old Man and the Sea he manages to make a story about fishing incredibly moving and universal, likewise with war in A Farewell To Arms and bullfighting in several of his short stories and The Sun Also Rises. But here, in Green Hills of Africa, the passage of time has rent too big a difference between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now. You can’t like a man who kills endangered animals for a laugh.
I find it very difficult to feel joy as Papa writes about himself killing rhinos, lions, buffalos, kudu; I find his descriptions, here, of the majesty of nature as it is shot to pieces by a tourist somewhere in Kenya (geography is never specific) a little lacking in empathy. The animals are there to be shot, they are always “game”, never animals. They are toys for men like Hemingway and Karl, a German who he bumps into at the start of his trip who has read his stories in a literary journal, to go killing, accompanied by “zany” and “characterful” natives.
Though Hemingway does name and develop and like the African characters he interacts with, there is a definite patronising tone, and the affection he holds for them is often evoked in the way one might expect the love of a dog to be written. He likes the men he hunts with, but they are different from him, with different ideas and different lives. He writes about giving the foam at the bottom of a bottle of beer to one of the trackers as if a genuine act of generosity. Hemingway does not come across well here at all.
However, despite the politics of the book really turning me off (and the unveiled writer as the subject reminding one once again that Papa really wasn’t a great guy, no matter how good his writing was), there were definite sections that made me remember why I had been so attracted to Ern in the first place.
His international, travelled outlook, his descriptions of landscape and his evocation of 1920s Paris, his discussion of books and writers and plans and writing, his crisp superciliousness and self-importance, his arrogance, his confidence, his belief in his own writing and his willingness to do what he wants when he wants, and his lack of apologising for anything he says or thinks.
Hemingway, here, shows himself as jealous and weak and reliant on other people as much as he evokes himself as a master hunter and tracker. He was a confused and hypocritical individual, famously gruff yet gregarious, a man’s man of letters who killed himself in a dressing gown. Hemingway’s writing, in places in Green Hills of Africa, in his writing of desperation, of joy and (the real highlight of the book) a rambling digression about the happiest bottles of beer of his lifetime, gripped me, made me feel that faint pull in my chest that his greatest works evoked the whole way through.
Hemingway was a writer, very much so, of a time that is passed. His booze-soaked books, with their unapologetic hunting, their misogyny, their well-intentioned but sometimes patronising descriptions of cultural differences, mark them as distinctly unmodern. But this is unfair, in my opinion, because the man’s greatest work, the book that won him the Nobel Prize, is a deeply moving novella about a fully-realised Cuban fisherman – he can write people that are not him, when he tries, though often he didn’t.
Hemingway risks being lost from the canon due to the objectionability of some of his opinions and all of his hobbies, but this would be a great loss. Hemingway at his best is a prose stylist of great value, and to disregard his work just because he was a bit of a bastard is unfair to him and unfair to the Papa-less reader.
Read A Farewell To Arms, read The Old Man and the Sea, if you haven’t, read The Sun Also Rises. Because these are classics, and they deserve to be. Green Hills of Africa, however… I’m surprised it’s still in print, to be honest. Interesting for a completist, but far from essential.
Unless you love big game hunting and Hemingway, I’d miss it out.