The classical scholar Sir Ronald Syme so immersed himself in the works of Cornelius Tacitus that many critics felt his prose style came to resemble that of the Latin author. When Syme’s Tacitus was released in 1979, critics joked: “What is the difference between the style of Tacitusand the style of Tacitus’ Annals?”; to which the answer was: “No difference at all. They are precisely the Syme.”
Imitating the style of their subjects must be a great temptation for literary biographers. In Michael Reynolds’s Hemingway: The 1930’s, sentences are often as concise and striking as those in the novelist’s own works: “Martha Gellhorn, not yet twenty-nine, was not a tender of men, nor did she require much attendance.” At times, Reynolds even ventures close to parody: “More arena afternoons, more blood and sand, and afterward a warm hotel room with too much noise outside in the street, and, later, a meal of several courses not ending before midnight. . . . The summer is finished: time to leave.” In the work of a less accomplished biographer, such passages would merely be distracting. However, Hemingway: The 1930’s is the fourth volume in an excellent series by Reynolds that includes The Young Hemingway (1986), Hemingway: The Paris Years(1989), and Hemingway: The American Homecoming (1992). Since Reynolds is also the author of two specialized studies, Hemingway’s First War (1976) and Hemingway’s Reading (1981), it is no wonder that he can reproduce the master’s style almost without trying.
The strength of Hemingway: The 1930’s lies in its detail and thoroughness, not in its unexpected revelations. This is not at all a revisionist biography. The author provides no shocking new information about Hemingway’s life, and the book details its period without a single major surprise. The result is that Reynolds neither attacks his subject’s genius nor engages in uncritical adulation, producing simply a more complete look at the Hemingway we already know. Reynolds sees the novelist as a figure of deep but fleeting passions. Hemingway burns with enthusiasm for each new interest—a budding romance, a newly discovered sport, a favorite part of the world, a preferred companion for travel and conversation—that intensifies until it seems to be of consuming importance, only to fade away quickly when the next interest comes along. For instance, Hemingway’s preoccupation with bullfighting—so all-consuming that it results in the novelist’s first work of non-fiction—is cast aside in favor of marlin fishing almost as soon as the book is published. Love for Spain is replaced by love for Cuba, until Cuba yields to Africa and Africa to Spain yet again. Pauline Hemingway, the “other woman” in the novelist’s life, who, at the start of the book, has just usurped the place of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, is herself replaced in his affections by the writer Martha Gellhorn. (They, too, will marry in 1940 and then divorce in 1945.) The portrait that emerges fromHemingway: The 1930’s is that of a man who loves easily and bores easily, who must always search for a newer style or more perfect literary form, who continually exchanges old passions for new in a never-ending search for that still-richer mixture of danger, romance, and adulation that he feels compelled to pursue in every aspect of his life.
Hemingway’s unquenchable thirst for adulation is another of Reynolds’s repeated themes. No matter how successful each of Hemingway’s new publications may be—and they often sold many times the number of copies sold by other works regarded as “best-sellers”—the praise received by the author was never enough. In what became a tedious ritual after the appearance of each...
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