A CHILD OF THE boomer generation, I grew up in the 1950s desperately wanting to be Ernest Hemingway. To run with the bulls in Pamplona. To hunt big game in Africa. To roam the streets of Paris with the Lost Generation. To live the adventurous life of Nick Adams. Years later, I would learn that I was hardly alone among young people of my age. We all wanted to be Ernest Hemingway.
Today, those of us who have survived can take great pride. We are Hemingway.
Sadly, though, we likely are the Ernest Hemingway that I’ve written about in my new book, Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights, and A Final Rite of Passage. It is the Hemingway at that age we all dread of being: Old, losing our train of thought, unable to do what once came so easily, too quick to show our frustration at our slowness but still holding on to the hope of one last glimmer of youth.
I recently read a quote – I can’t recall by whom (that thing about losing our train of thought perhaps) – that you can’t really face getting old without having the courage for it. And I thought that was such a Hemingwayesque thing to say: grace under pressure and that whole Hemingway credo about life.
And there was another quote, this one from Dame Muriel Spark, the Scottish novelist, that “being over 70 is like being engaged in a war — all our friends are going or gone, and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.”
Ernest Hemingway undoubtedly would have loved all that talk about war, the dead and those dying on a battlefield.
So you get what I’m driving at. Getting old was no more kind to the author of The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea than it is to most of us. And most of us still here are now older than Hemingway when he was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound in the head at his home in 1961, just 19 days shy of his 62nd birthday.
Looking for Hemingway is about the Nobel Prize laureate two birthdays earlier, set in Spain where he celebrated his 60th birthday in a magnificent celebration attended by actress Lauren Bacall and many of his other famous friends. He was, after all, the most celebrated literary figure of his time and few saw him as being in the twilight of his life. Hell, he was Ernest frigging Hemingway.
Hemingway was there on a quixotic quest to recapture the sentimental Spain of his youth in the 1920s when he had written The Sun Also Rises, his breakthrough novel that made him fabulously famous. His plans were to write an epilogue for a reissue of his bullfighting nonfiction classic Death in the Afternoon. But it turned into a summer-long extravaganza following the two greatest matadors in the world — the young, dashing Antonio Ordoñez and his much older brother-in-law Luis Miguel Dominguín — who were facing off in a mano a mano, a bullfighting World Series and Super Bowl rolled into one.
The adventure would be Ernest Hemingway’s last hurrah. And it would almost kill him — and possibly contributed to his end.
At 59 years of age, Hemingway had the stamina if not the strength of his youth. He and his entourage criss-crossed mountainous Spain numerous times traveling from one corrida to another, partying and drinking themselves to exhaustion each night, as he tried to pick up every pretty girl he met.
Hemingway was traveling with his fourth wife Mary, but you can sense he might have been looking for wife No. 5. He treated Mary cruelly in front of his friends who allowed it. Traveling across Spain, he forced her to ride in a following second automobile while he gave a seat in his car to the attractive young women who had joined his cuadrilla. By the end of the trip, Mary returned to America alone, seriously thinking of leaving him.
But she sensed what no one else did. That while Hemingway sought to catch an inspiring last taste of the past, he had a tragic short life ahead. And that is the unexpected twist of Looking for Hemingway as it became a portrait of a prismatic vision of the dying artist, a complex and profoundly dramatic story of a man’s extraordinary effort to stay alive.
For me, there has always been in the story of Hemingway and Spain an allure so sharp and fresh that there was never any question of writing this book. There was, from the start, the joy of rediscovering the world in which he walked and traveled, both in the 1920s and again in 1959. Here was a canvas as generous, colorful, and grand as any in Hemingway’s life. As the story pushed forth, there was at every turn the excitement of history never told, of connections hidden for decades, of old mysteries answered.
The story of Hemingway the icon was well known. The story of Hemingway the man on this last romantic journey had been largely buried. Getting that story was slow work. After a good while, I felt I had become the crypt of Hemingwayolé en España. As my patient wife Renee used to say (but seldom aloud – for which I thank her) about this project, great effort went in but nothing came out until now.
For me, too, as a child of the 1950s who read The Old Man and The Sea thinking I was the boy Manolin in the story, I suppose I have been looking for Hemingway all my life, and perhaps it seems fitting that I found him at an age when I now see myself in the novel’s old man Santiago. For some this is not an easy age to face, publishers in particular. More than a few just flat out said they didn’t think any readers, especially Hemingway fans, wanted to read about him as an old man, pathetic at times, feeble and paranoid.
Being a life-long Hemingway lover, I found that hard to believe, unless it’s just simply old age some of us don’t want to face, whether Hemingway’s or our own. For those who fear this life stage, I can only say that I found it inspiring in the research to learn that Pablo Picasso in his sixties was having affairs with gorgeous youthful women more than forty years younger – young enough to be his granddaughters.
Today, the aging, dying Hemingway is one I have come to love and appreciate as much as the young romantic Hemingway, for in his mortality lie the same fears, regrets and self-recriminations that all of us face in our own way as we reach that stage in our lives.
Hemingway’s final adventure would produce his posthumously published book The Dangerous Summer, and that mano a mano bullfighting circus proved to be a story made to order for the dying man’s need not to die.
Not surprisingly, Hemingway would end up creating the two brave matadors – and, by extension, himself — as more than just heroic. He portrayed them as immortals, of course, for isn’t that the way famous people avoid the reality of old age and death?
Tony Castro, a former political reporter and columnist, is the author of five books, the most recent being Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and A Final Rite of Passage (Lyons Press).