THOSE WHO FORGED THROUGH last year's biography by Carlos Baker may recall that Ernest Hemingway, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was engaged in writing three loosely linked narratives. Somewhat Delphically, he referred to them as The Sea When Young, The Sea When Absent and The Sea in Being. The first two apparently dealt with a famous painter named Thomas Hudson enjoying a Bahama vacation with his teen-age sons and then, later, hunting German submarines around the Caribbean in his fishing boat during World War II. In his sins, sons, sub chasing and syntax, Thomas Hudson greatly resembled another straight and true artist named Ernest Hemingway.
Hollywood Props. Hemingway later published The Sea in Being separately—as The Old Man and the Sea—and, largely as a result, won a Nobel Prize. But he never released the Thomas Hudson narratives. Now they have been made public by Scribners and Mary Hemingway, admittedly only after long deliberation. The decision may be challenged, for Islands in the Stream is in many ways a stunningly bad book. At his best, Ernest Hemingway the writer knew that Papa Hemingway the public figure was his own worst literary creation. One suspects he would have eventually got round to slashing Islands in the Stream back by a third or a half its present length. Yet for Papa watchers and Hemingway readers the book is welcome enough. Like the recent sale of backlot stage props from old Hollywood films, its publication seems a commendable act of commerce and nostalgic piety.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, called "Bimini," ends when Andrew and David, Hudson's two young sons by an estranged wife, are killed with their mother in a distant automobile wreck. (Patrick and Gregory, Hemingway's two sons by his second wife, were injured in an auto crash in 1947.) In "Bimini," though, Hudson's confrontation with this tragedy is mercifully kept brief. Most of the section is a summer idyll, drenched in martini golds and Gulf Stream blues, centered around the sons and an only slightly too epic fishing trip on what is clearly Hemingway's famous fishing boat, the Pilar.
Honest Lil. Section 2, called "Cuba," is Hemingway at his most expendable—navigating in full anecdotage without benefit of plot. We learn that Tom, Hudson's eldest son by his first wife, has just been killed over Europe in a Spitfire. footnote For one brief, delirious moment of pure fantasy, Tom's grieving mother appears and, after turning out to be none other than Marlene Dietrich, goes briefly to bed with Hudson. Such diversions, alas, are all but drowned in endless talk, mainly in Havana's Floridita Bar, where Hudson, now completely taken over by Papa Hemingway, holds forth to politicians, bartenders, soldiers and sailors and, yes, an elderly, wise, warmhearted prostitute named Honest Lil.
There was a time when Ernest Hemingway's pet name for his kind and enduring last wife, Mary, was "Pickle." Readers emerging from the Floridita Bar may briefly wonder if Mary Hemingway, by publishing the book at all, was subconsciously seeking some sort of subliminal revenge for "Pickle." Such uncharitable thoughts are banished by Section 3. Haunted by grief and premonitions of death, Hudson is at sea at the helm of his fishing boat—now decked out to look like a floating marine research lab in order to lure German subs to close quarters, but actually stuffed with grenades and automatic weaponry.
Something to Do. In 1942, Hemingway turned the Pilar into just such an impromptu Q-ship. But whereas he never caught up to the few subs he actually sighted, Hudson relentlessly closes in on the desperate crew of an abandoned Nazi sub, after hunting them across the Gulf Stream and into the intricate system of cays and channels that lace the rim of Cuba's north coast. Hemingway knew and loved these waters. He was always the era's best descriptive writer about military action. In expert hands, the reader, Thomas Hudson and his crew slide swiftly, even beautifully, toward disaster. "Just remember how they were," Hudson says to himself, talking tough to endure the loss of his sons and wife, "and write them off." Trying to make sense of what he is doing, he produces a characteristic Hemingway coda: "Be glad to have something to do and good people to do it with."
It will be clear from these proceedings that Islands in the Stream is not a novel in any well-made sense of the word. It is more like a muted literary son et lumière in which the aging author reviews and reflects upon the preoccupations of a working lifetime—death and love, work and action. It is all too easy, especially in the digressive anecdotes, to find him at his easy-to-parody worst. There are the mock heroics, which once led Max Eastman to say Hemingway wore fake hair on his chest. There is the self-indulgent garrulity that so often made a bad joke of Hemingway's perceptive early credo: "You lose it if you talk about it." But there is also the Hemingway who could sometimes sustain a moment of humor long enough for it to edge toward comedy, and the Hemingway who could write about the things of this world so that, without having to explain, he could convey his love for them.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway once wrote, the old fisherman felt "full of resolution but he had little hope." As a description of any reasonably thoughtful man in mid-20th century, this seems hard to improve upon. It was precisely Hemingway's preoccupation with ways of living in the shadow of defeat that earned him high praise from Edmund Wilson—in 1939, when he was being generally damned by leftish critics for lack of redeeming social purpose. He "has expressed with genius," Wilson wrote, "the terrors of the modern man at the danger of losing control of his world."
Magic Circle. The supreme example of lost control, of course, is death. Throughout his lifetime, Hemingway seemed to be rehearsing for his death like an actor fearfully trying to prepare himself for the mad scene in King Lear. Yet Hemingway's ways of coping with the idea of death were rarely effective artistically. His "Ernestoic" pronouncements seemed jejune because they were so often, so flagrantly fronting for self-pity. Only when he could escape his self-preoccupation, as in The Old Man and the Sea, could he be taken seriously.
In some ways, Islands in the Stream is a rambling family anecdote. Yet in it, Hemingway occasionally succeeds in escaping total self-preoccupation—through love. Only faintly disguised as fiction, Thomas Hudson's recollection of his sons, in life and death, is clearly an attempt by the author to weave some sort of protective magic around them. Hemingway was an openly superstitious man. But anyone with children will find that easy to forgive. What father does not secretly believe he can avert tragedy by imagining it in advance, or hope that he can protect his children by holding them steadily, faithfully in mind and heart?
Ernest Hemingway's eldest son John was missing in action for three months in World War II before being located as a prisoner of war. return to text