Review: True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway

I might be a little late for this party, seeing that True at First Light has been published for 10 years already and many thoughtful reviews have already been written. It may be an arrogance to think that I have something new to contribute, being neither a Hemingway scholar, nor a professional book reviewer. But I’ve found that people seem to experience Hemingway very differently, so whether it’s love or hate, everyone who reads Papa has something to contribute to the discussion.

I agree with most of the reviews I’ve seen that yes, this book is bad compared to his masterpieces and that it is unfair to compare it to The Old Man and the Sea or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Books written in his prime, with the advantage of time for editing and talented people who assisted in that task, are of course what make up the bulk of his legacy. Also yes, in True at First Light, there is very little plot to speak of, it rambles and proselytizes, and it occasionally makes no sense. And finally, yes, it is confusing to puzzle out what is memoir and what is fiction in this “fictionalized memoir.”

But this is all exactly what makes the book so fascinating. This feels like a rare glimpse into the belly of the whale itself. This is a peek into the writing and thinking process of one of the greatest writers of all time. We get to see a work in progress and in doing so, we get to see parts of his longed-for truth in art almost unadulterated.

Quick Synopsis. And I mean quick. There’s no real plot to summarize. There were things that happened but there was only the roughest of story arcs to speak of. Ernest and Miss Mary (Mary Walsh, his fourth wife) are on safari in Africa. They read. They drink. They go hunting. Miss Mary gets obsessed with killing a certain lion. There are a few false starts. She gets the runs. She finally bags the big cat, then becomes petulant because she’s convinced that Ernest shot first and killed her lion. She later kills another animal before anyone else did and feels better. Miss Mary then goes shopping in Nairobi and Ernest gets hammered and has sex with a local girl (that Mary already knows about). She comes back. They eat dinner and drink and go to sleep. The end.

This reads like a diary, really – a daily account of what happened, whether it is a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end or not. And that’s what a memoir is: a record of what has happened in a person’s life, be it an entire life or during a limited period of time. The problem is that published memoirs – good ones anyway –  still have a point, an arc, an overriding theme. Events are described and generally, comments on those events help develop the theme. The readers is left with some sense of why the person wanted to write a memoir, what message the author wanted to get across.

This didn’t really happen in True at First Light. Hemingway isn’t really prone to commenting to begin with; his descriptions are often so deceptively simple, yet loaded with meaning that commentary is, for the most part, superfluous. I’d even venture to say that his commentary in this book are some of the worst parts. They are the times when he sounds his most arrogant. Consider this paragraph:

“Africa, being as old as it is, makes all people except the professional invaders and spoilers into children. No one says to anyone in Africa, “Why don’t you grow up?” All men and animals acquire a year more of age each year and some acquire a year more of knowledge. The animals that die the soonest learn the fastest. A young gazelle is mature, well-balanced and well-adjusted at the age of two years. He is well-balanced and well-adjusted at the age of four weeks. Men know that they are children in relation to the country and, as in armies, seniority and senility ride close together. But to have the heart of a child is not a disgrace. It is an honor. A man must comport himself as a man. He must fight always preferably and soundly with the odds in his favor but on necessity against any sort of odds and with no thought of the outcome. He should follow his tribal laws and customs insofar as he can and accept the tribal discipline when he cannot. But it is never a reproach that he has kept a child’s heart, a child’s honesty and a child’s freshness and nobility.”

As frustrating as this paragraph may be, it is still easy to see how, pared down to its basic elements, Hemingway could have gotten his hidden gems. Here we have the seeds of what may have turned into one of the more thoughtful passages in the book. Hemingway had always maintained that he worked towards the truth of something, and here he may have been trying to do that, but he never had the chance to distill that paragraph down to find its truth. Instead, it was left to ramble, pronounce, and confuse with uncharacteristic bloat. It almost feels self-indulgent in a way his earlier and better writing never did.

Still, there were a few parts of the book that still rang true to the wonderful Hemingway of his earlier works. For example, his feeling for the majesty of animals and his profound respect for them was absolutely clear whenever he wrote about them. Here, he is reminiscing about hunting, presumably in the States, and he has just killed his own horse to use as bait.

“You had remembered how wonderfully he had always seen in the dark and how you had hung on to his tail with a bear hide packed across the saddle to come down trails when you could not see at all and when the trail led along the rimrock in the dark down through the timber. He was always right and he understood all new games.

“So you had brought him up here five days before because someone had to do it and you could do it if not gently without suffering and what difference did it make what happened afterwards. The trouble was, at the end, he thought it was a new game and he was learning it. He gave me a nice rubber-lipped kiss and then he checked the position of the other horse. He knew you could not ride him the way the hoof had split but this was new and he wanted to learn it.”

We understand the love and bond between man and animal, we smile at the tender memories, and we feel our hearts break because we know how much it is going to hurt. This is the beauty of Hemingway’s writing: at its best, it can transport you anywhere in the world and make you feel a dozen emotions in an instant, and it’s all done in what appears to be a simple description of a man and his horse.

Also of interest is that we get a few rare glimpses into his own thoughts about himself, a level of introspection that is not characteristic of his writing, possibly because those glimpses would have been edited out.

“There are people who love command and in their eagerness to assume it they are impatient at the formalities of taking over from someone else. I love command since it is the ideal welding of freedom and slavery. You can be happy with your freedom and when it becomes too dangerous you take refuge in your duty. For several years I had exercised no command except over myself and I was bored with this since I knew myself and my defects and strengths too well and they permitted me little freedom and much duty. Lately I had read with distaste various books written about myself by people who knew all about my inner life, aims and motive. Reading them was like reading an account of a battle where you and fought  written by someone who had not only not been present but, in some cases, had not even been born when the battle had taken place. All these people who wrote of my life both inner and outer wrote with an absolute assurance that I had never felt.”

True at First Light is billed as a ‘fictional’ memoir, though names and true details of their lives and social context are left unaltered. Hemingway wrote this memoir soon after the 1953-4 safari, but put it away to work on other projects, including A Moveable Feast, a memoir about the years 1921-1926 in Paris with his first wife, Hadley. In the preface to that book, Hemingway writes: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” The accounts were originally written in the 1920s, but he edited them extensively in the late 50s and was said to have a final draft prepared. After he committed suicide in 1961, Mary Hemingway did some more editing and the book was published in 1964.

Consider this description from an early chapter:

When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter, there was good wood for sale at the wood and coal place across our street, and there were braziers outside of many of the good cafes so that you could keep warm on the terraces. Our own apartment was warm and cheerful. We burned boulets which were molded, egg-shaped lumps of coal dust, on the wood fire, and on the streets the winter light was beautiful. Now you were accustomed to see the bare trees against the sky and you walked on the fresh-washed gravel paths through the Luxembourg gardens in the clear sharp wind. The trees were sculpture without their leaves when you were reconciled to them, and the winter winds blew across the surfaces of the ponds and the fountains below in the bright light. All the distances were short now since we had been in the mountains.

“Because of the change in altitude I did not notice the grade of the hills except with pleasure, and the climb up to the top floor of the hotel where I worked, in a room that looked across all the roofs and the chimneys of the high hill of the quarter, was a pleasure. The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarins and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and at the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of the day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put away the notebook, or the paper, in the drawer of the table and put any mandarins that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.”

When I first read that, I looked up from the book and felt completely disoriented, wondering why I was suddenly sitting on my bed in suburban New York and not in a cold, aromatic apartment in Paris. I am still quite unequal to the task of understanding or explaining how such spare prose evokes such a visceral experience. The closest I can get is to say that reading Hemingway at his best feels like he’s stripped away all the flesh of the matter and revealed stark, white bones. You can’t go further. The bones are what supports, gives structure and meaning, and he’s thrown a spotlight on them.

In the above passages, you move quickly from images and sensations of cold winter wind right into the warmth of their apartment, then brought back into the light of a Paris winter. You feel the same cold, the same love, the same enchantment that he does because he moves you along with him quickly, as if you are thinking at the same pace as he does. The words he uses are evocative and create layers of meaning. He talks about the “fresh-washed gravel paths through the Luxembourg gardens in the clear sharp wind.” You can imagine the care that goes into washing gravel, and picture neatly trimmed gardens that are clean and vivid in the “clear sharp wind.” This could perhaps also be interpreted as his clarity and strength of purpose, which was sharp and focused at the time. He’s talking about Paris and Parisians, about his work and his love for his wife. And speaking of his wife, note the absence of her name in the above passages, and yet she is always present. He talks of when “we” went to the mountains, and how distances seemed “short,” implying that the two of them could see far and wide together. Then he describes “our apartment” is described as “warm and cheerful” and you feel the love they had for each other in those days. In his office apartment, he drinks the kirsch they had in the mountains, and Hadley’s presence is felt again. His love for her feels like a constant yet unspoken thread under everything he does, which is conveyed simply by not writing her name.

In his last years, Hemingway was suffering from health issues, mental issues, and probably deep depression. If his body of work can be taken as at least semi-autobiographical, he had a lifelong fascination with death and suicide. These both became a reality on 2 July 1961 when he propped his shotgun against his head behind his house in Ketchum, Idaho and fatally shot himself. Had he lived, would he have finished editing his African memoir to remove the bloat and reveal the bones? Given the troubles he had with writing in those last years, it’s unclear if he would have been able to. One could only hope that he would have had a few more tricks up his sleeve to be able to produce a better final version of what might have been a fascinating memoir. However, we have to settle for a piece of work that may contain occasional flashes of Papa’s brilliance, but leaves us dissatisfied and unwilling to let this be the work we remember him for.

One thought on “Review: True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway

  1. Pingback: Retrospective. | As a Linguist…

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