2009.07.20: Micronesia RPCV Roland Merullo writes: The life Hemingway made

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Micronesia RPCV Roland Merullo writes: The life Hemingway made

Micronesia RPCV Roland Merullo writes: The life Hemingway made

I remembered finishing "A Moveable Feast'' as a 23-year-old and walking out onto a dark California beach in a hypnosis of yearning. The angry and gossipy sections were lost on me at that age, but the power of the book was not. I was swept up in the desire for a life like the one Hemingway described: commitment to one's art in the face of financial struggle; the simple pleasures of lovemaking, eating, and drinking, of European road trips with friends - these were the notes of a song sung to the deepest part of me. Over those years, countless people have confided in me that they, too, want to live the writer's life. At conferences and readings, via e-mail and letters, these men and women give voice to the same intense longing I experienced on the beach in Los Angeles. Some of them lust after fame and fortune. Some want their story to be heard or their thoughts to be taken seriously. Most of them, it seems to me, just want a meaningful life and work that truly satisfies them. There are, of course, millions of satisfied people who never put a word onto a page. And there has been no shortage of miserable, successful authors. Hemingway - born 110 years ago tomorrow - is on that long list, but what he left us, squeezed painstakingly out of his own difficulties, was the sense that, as Jake Barnes puts it in "The Sun Also Rises,'' he was living life "all the way up.''

Micronesia RPCV Roland Merullo writes: The life Hemingway made

The life Hemingway made

By Roland Merullo

July 20, 2009

I GUESS this isn't the old Key West anymore,'' a waitress told me not long ago, on my first visit to the island. She was referring to the paucity of tourists, but I could not help imagining Ernest Hemingway saying those words while paying a posthumous visit to a place he loved. Surely, in 1928, when he and Pauline Pfeiffer bought the two-story house on Whitehead Avenue, there weren't any shops on Duval Street selling thongs with "Slippery When Wet!'' stenciled on them. Surely there weren't tourist trolleys rolling through the hot streets, a guide rattling on about conch houses, gingerbread woodwork, and screeching tame parrots.

Shortly after we arrived in Key West, I started in on my fifth or sixth reading of "The Sun Also Rises,'' the remarkable debut novel that lifted Hemingway, at age 27, into the bright lights. And I paid $12 to take a tour of his house. It was light and airy, his writing studio in a building out back, cats everywhere, books, paintings, old photos: Hemingway in the Milan hospital; Hemingway with a huge marlin on the dock; Hemingway's sons; Hemingway's wives.

"I heard he was manic-depressive,'' one of the other visitors said to a friend. That was only part of it, I wanted to tell her. Depending on how much faith you put in his biographers, and what you read between the lines of his work, the other parts were an emotionally twisted upbringing, a tendency to mistake infatuation for true love, a mix of mean-spiritedness and generosity, an intense self-criticism that often spilled over onto others, and an ultimately unendurable load of physical ailment and injury.

I remembered finishing "A Moveable Feast'' as a 23-year-old and walking out onto a dark California beach in a hypnosis of yearning. The angry and gossipy sections were lost on me at that age, but the power of the book was not. I was swept up in the desire for a life like the one Hemingway described: commitment to one's art in the face of financial struggle; the simple pleasures of lovemaking, eating, and drinking, of European road trips with friends - these were the notes of a song sung to the deepest part of me.

Twenty-four years later, I was finally able to make a living from writing. During those years there were plenty of poor times, plenty of simple pleasures, and many months living in exotic locales. I have had one wife, not four; two daughters, not three sons; a tiny portion of Hemingway's success, a medium-sized portion of his physical suffering, and, from all available evidence, a larger dose of peace of mind.

Over those years, countless people have confided in me that they, too, want to live the writer's life. At conferences and readings, via e-mail and letters, these men and women give voice to the same intense longing I experienced on the beach in Los Angeles. Some of them lust after fame and fortune. Some want their story to be heard or their thoughts to be taken seriously. Most of them, it seems to me, just want a meaningful life and work that truly satisfies them.

There are, of course, millions of satisfied people who never put a word onto a page. And there has been no shortage of miserable, successful authors. Hemingway - born 110 years ago tomorrow - is on that long list, but what he left us, squeezed painstakingly out of his own difficulties, was the sense that, as Jake Barnes puts it in "The Sun Also Rises,'' he was living life "all the way up.''

When the group moved on, I toured the grounds of his house alone - the swimming pool and walking paths, the cat prints in concrete - in a mood of somber gratitude. There are ways in which Hemingway's life stands as a how-not-to handbook, a case study of the dangers of celebrity. At the same time, it was a life he made, not a uniform he fit himself into. Sometimes for the wrong reasons, he took the kinds of risks - artistic, emotional, physical - not many of us are willing to take. He reaped the benefits of that, and paid the price.

Roland Merullo's most recent book is the travel memoir "The Italian Summer.''




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