Less Than a Treason

In ALONG WITH YOUTH: HEMINGWAY, THE EARLY YEARS (1985), PETER GRIFFIN covered Hemingway’s life from his birth, in 1899, to 1921. LESS THAN A TREASON begins in December, 1921, with Hemingway and his wife Hadley, newly married, embarking on the ship that would take them to Paris. The narrative concludes in 1927, with an epilogue moving ahead to 1929 and the suicide of Hemingway’s father.

In Paris, where he met Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a host of other writers, painters, and hangers-on, Hemingway came of age as an artist, crafting the distinctive style that made him one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. These were the years in which he wrote some of his finest stories and the novel, THE SUN ALSO RISES, that first brought him fame. During this period, too, Hemingway forsook Hadley for Pauline Pfeiffer, a married woman who was to become his second wife.

Hemingway’s memoir A MOVEABLE FEAST evokes these legendary Paris years, which have been exhaustively chronicled in many Hemingway biographies as well, not to mention group portraits such as Noel Riley Fitch’s SYLVIA BEACH AND THE LOST GENERATION (1983). What does Griffin have to add?

Aside from new evidence (there is some of that), it is Griffin’s approach that distinguishes his biography from such recent works as Jeffrey Meyers’ HEMINGWAY: A BIOGRAPHY (1985) and Kenneth Lynn’s HEMINGWAY (1987). As Griffin notes in his preface, “I do not analyze this well-examined life; I try instead to recreate it.” Without glossing over his subject’s flaws, Griffin attempts to identify with Hemingway, to narrate his life from the inside, instead of from the inquisitorial perspective adopted by Meyers and Lynn. Rather than compiling another massively documented treatise, Griffin has “told a story of Ernest’s Paris years.”

That’s an ambition to be applauded, and if Griffin only occasionally fulfills it—his sentences too often descend to merely banality, in a pale simulacrum of Hemingway’s deceptive simplicity—his book nevertheless is informed by an imaginative sympathy that makes it worth reading.