America has a rich literary tradition of rogues and frauds: some comically sinister, such as the King and the Duke in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); others Satanic with cosmic implications, such as the shape- shifting protagonist of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857). In Hemingway’s Suitcase, MacDonald Harris’ contribution to this tradition is Nils-Frederik Glas, who may or may not have found a long-lost suitcase containing early works by Ernest Hemingway. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exposes the deep- rooted malaise of a slave-ridden society; and the chicanery in The Confidence Man reveals universal uncertainty. Nils- Frederik, by contrast, is engaged in mischief for profit, thereby bringing to light primarily his own monstrous egotism. Of less- than-classic proportions, Hemingway’s Suitcase is nevertheless a fascinatingly enigmatic novel. It is also, in common with much of the literary fiction of the late twentieth century, almost unrelievedly dark.
The accident which made Hemingway’s Suitcase possible occurred in 1922, when Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, packed up his manuscripts to take from Paris to where he was staying in Lausanne, Switzerland: the green suitcase containing everything he had written up to that time, twenty or more stories and the opening of a novel, disappeared at the station. It has never resurfaced. Almost certainly the manuscripts were destroyed, but no one can confirm that they were, and it is the ever-so-slight chance of their reappearing that gives Harris’ character his opportunity.
In order to gain anything beyond scholarly notoriety from producing the stories, Nils-Frederik, paradoxically, must be able to cast doubt on their authenticity. Any demonstrably genuine Hemingway manuscript would be the property of the Hemingway estate; for the finder of it to attempt to publish it independently, or even to withhold it, would amount to theft and lead to both civil action and criminal prosecution. Nils-Frederik has a way around that, however, for he is himself a writer. He has published with Salamander Press—a hybrid, apparently, of literary publisher and vanity press—a novel in the manner of Henry James. If he can imitate James, then certainly he can imitate the much simpler style of Hemingway. He is, moreover, a fanatical student of Hemingway: Nils-Frederik knows everything about Hemingway’s life and has, for example, memorized most of A Farewell to Arms (1929). Thus, the stories might not be genuine, but on the other hand they might. Nils-Frederik is a world traveller who could, as he cryptically hints, have stumbled on a distinctive green suitcase in a remote Belgian farmhouse.
The real challenge of writing Hemingway’s Suitcase, however, lay not in imagining this set of conditions, but in making Nils-Frederik’s plot, and the other characters’ responses to it, believable. In that, Harris has succeeded brilliantly by writing, and sprinkling through his text, five “Hemingway” stories. Four are set in the Paris of the early 1920’s and one in Michigan, and all feature Nick Adams, a recurring figure in Hemingway’s early short fiction, as protagonist. In style, characterization, milieu, and vision, they are thoroughly convincing. Moreover, they are thoroughly enjoyable and worth the price of the book in themselves.
The “Hemingway” characters’ moral drift, egotism, and failures of self-knowledge parallel the attributes of Harris’ own characters. Hemingway never wrote anything like the tricky plot of this novel, but he would have recognized the flavor: Los Angeles in the late 1980’s, like Paris in the early 1920’s, seems to be the haunt of a lost generation. Whether Harris’ version of Hemingway would fool an expert (or even whether it contains subtle deliberate mistakes as clues to its inauthenticity) is a moot point: It carries the plot. Nils-Frederik’s plan is to spread rumors about the stories, then publish them with no authorship ascribed—simply as “edited by Nils-Frederik Glas”—and let the American public’s credulousness and fascination with celebrity do its work.
The twists and turns of Nils-Frederik’s plot, all worked out in meticulous detail, add up to an intriguing crime story. Nils-Frederik enlists his son Alan, a failed poet and submarginal literary agent, and Alan’s friend Wolf, a book dealer, as his initially ambivalent but progressively committed accomplices.
Nils-Frederik gives a party at which he leaks hints of his find to the press. From the typescripts he has written on his word processor,...
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