In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath


Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.














A review of TS Eliot A Short Biography by John Worthen.

This was an impulse borrowing from my local library. It’s not bad and the fact that it’s reasonably short adds to the appeal for anyone looking to learn a little more about Eliot’s life but who doesn’t want to get too in-depth (and as a lot of Eliot’s life was quite  a troubled affair that can be no bad thing). As a basic primer on Eliot’s life, and as a means of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the composition of his key works, it’s quite a useful volume.

Several years ago I read Peter Ackroyd’s 1980’s biography of the poet, which notably cites none of the poems since permission was not granted by Eliot’s widow and executor Valerie. Nonetheless, that remains a superb biography and I can heartily recommend that if you want to put gentility aside and ‘dig deep’. Worthen’s book, by contrast, quotes liberally from the poems but is shorter and more limited in scope. What Worthen seems to do is to quote the poems as a means of trying to explore how the poems reflect Eliot’s life and key preoccupations at the times of composition. Of course he also touches on some of the wider themes present in the poems, but for the most part this is quite a traditional literary biography in that it doesn’t get too technical in its exploration of the verses, and assesses them for the most part in terms of the basic context of the author’s life.

Along the way he touches on several of the controversies that inevitably crop up when discussing Eliot’s life, work and ideas. Just how bad was his first marriage? Unsurprisingly Worthen concludes that it was a disaster all round, but like others he contends that Eliot’s torrid marriage acted as a catalyst for some of his greatest work. Was Eliot gay? Worthen concludes that he doesn’t think so because there’s not enough evidence to prove it. Was Eliot an anti-Semite? Yes, he undoubtedly some poems whose tone is anti-semitic, and yes he was anti-semitic to a degree, but, he contends, that doesn’t mar the whole Eliot canon or make it as over-archingly anti-semitic as others say it is.

After reading Worthen’s book I went back to the poems once more and quickly realised that, as far as I am concerned, there’s far, far, far more to a poem as vast as-say-  The Waste Land than we can account for by inferring what was going on in Eliot’s head and heart at the time of its composition. I guess it is possible for the literary equivalent of a detective or psychologist to relate most if not all of it to what we know of Eliot and his life. But for me that is to place a limit on what the poem is capable of expressing. So on one level it is one man’s ‘rhythmical grumbling’ (to use Eliot’s phrase). But on so many other levels it is so much more. Take lines like these: “On Margate sands./ I can connect nothing with nothing.” Alright, so for some it might conjure the image of a sad Eliot in a deckchair in said seaside town trying to get his head together, but that is only one of many possible meanings that these rich lines spark in the mind.

To his credit a writer as good as Worthen knows this. As Eliot himself also stated (which is a fact he seemed to revel in) no-one, least of all the poet himself, can possibly account for the sum total of a poem’s meanings. So a decent little primer on Eliot then, but like al criticism it’s certainly not the last word on the poems themselves. Instead it serves as a good inspiration to go back to the works themselves.








William Burroughs’s most entertaining book? A review of Letters 1945-59.

The letters in this book- written mostly to Allen Ginsberg with some to other notable recipients like Jack Kerouac and Brion Gysin scattered among them- are amongst some of the most entertaining and well written by any writer that I’ve come across.

They cover a key period in Burroughs’s life, commencing in the mid 40s when he was trying to make a go of being a family man and a farmer. Odd to think of this latter day scourge of authority and conservatism worrying about how much his carrot and cotton crops will fetch, but he did all the same. Then comes the move to Mexico, the fatal ‘William Tell routine’ gone wrong when he shot his wife Joan, and the years of addiction and wandering, first through South America, and then to the Continent and North Africa.  All of this is fully documented here, at length and in fascinating detail.

If you want to learn more about what made Burroughs the man and the writer he was, and how his later world view developed, I think a lot of the answers are in these letters. Certainly without the letters I don’t think he could have been the writer he was. In fact on a very real level I don’t think he would have progressed as a writer at all without these letters as the initial spur to get his thoughts out and onto the page. They were his lifeline- at one stage he comments on how much he needs an audience, and for a long time Ginsberg and Kerouac fulfilled this role- at a time when he was effectively serving his writing apprenticeship, looking for things to write and still without an audience. The letters effectively kept him going and gave him a chance to develop. Also, we see his world view change and mature and by the end of this book we’ve seen him come to terms with his status as an outsider.

From would-be farmer worrying about how much his crops will yield, to a fully-fledged avant-garde artist in 15 years is pretty good going, Along the way there’s a lot of hardship, a lot of moaning about his lot and above all some genuinely funny passages. You can gain a lot from reading these letters in their own right, and if you’ve always been left cold by Burroughs or put off him, they will help you understand a lot more about why he wrote as he did and where his particular sardonic take on the world came from.

In a similar vein, the William Burroughs ‘reader’ called Word Virus is well worth a look.

In effect, this is Burroughs for slackers and lazy readers like me. I have had my copy for a fair while now, and I still regularly dip into it. While I think he’s a great writer, I have to admit that most of his work after Naked Lunch is a bit of a trial to get through. For example, whole novels written via the cut-up method are just too much for me to wade through, I’m afraid, even though I will readily admit that it can be a really exciting and often illuminating way of writing.

This is why this anthology is so valuable, in that it gives you tasters of everything of note he ever published. There is some stunning work in here, including samples of the very readable 1950s letters mentioned above, excerpts from early works like Junky and Queer, and also excerpts from Naked Lunch. There are also some stand alone gems collected in the book, like the chilling “Last Words” and also “Remembering Jack Kerouac”, a heartfelt and wise memoir of his friend and colleague, which manages to reveal a great deal about Burroughs himself, as well as his whole psychological approach to writing.

An extra bonus the extended biographical notes that link each section. These not only explain a lot of the work and put it into context, but they also fill you in on the key points of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary writing life.

This is perhaps all the Burroughs you will ever need, at least until you pluck up courage to get to grips with the individual texts in their entirety.



Review: The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye (Penguin single volume) by Raymond Chandler.

For one reason or another, on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago I picked up my old dog-eared Penguin triple volume of Chandler. I think I’ve read each novel at least once (some twice) but the last time must have been some years ago, since I could not for the life of me remember much about the plots in any of them. Just as well then, because it felt like I was reading them again for the first time. By the following Thursday I’d read all three books.

The Big Sleep is a great crime novel and a great book full stop. It is quite complicated, so I won’t try to summarise all the plot here, but what I do think is that if it isn’t Chandler’s best book, then in many respects it’s his calling card as a writer. While the plot can be tricky to discuss and get your head around, what comes across crystal clear is the evocation of the seedier side of pre-war Los Angeles, the general atmosphere of the place, and of course Phillip Marlowe himself.

Probably my favourite novel out of the three collected together here is Chandler’s second to be published, Farewell My Lovely. Take the seedy LA of The Big Sleep, add a cast of misfits, drugs, alcohol, a murder hunt, a missing person case and what have you got? A book that satisfies on the plot level, and which also sees gallant old Marlowe working in tandem with the law to being to solve a case. Brilliant stuff.  

Is The Long Goodbye Chandler’s best book? He seemed to think so and is on record in a letter to a friend as saying so.

Either way, I think that this book, the penultimate Marlowe novel published in Chandler’s lifetime,  shows off the immortal character of Phillip Marlowe at his wise-cracking, sharp, cynical but essentially gallant best.

Here’s the plot: One night Marlowe quite by chance makes the acquaintance of Terry Lennox, the politest drunk he’s ever met. One thing leads to another and the two strike up a friendship which mostly revolves around drinking cocktails in the early evening.

Then things are turned completely on their head when Lennox arrives very early one morning at Marlowe’s Laurel Canyon home. Lennox needs to get out of Los Angeles and fast. Marlowe knows Lennox is in trouble (part of him knew from the off that Lennox WAS trouble) but in that typically hard-but-fair Marlowe way, he agrees to help his new friend by driving him to the airport, where he can catch a plane for Mexico. The only proviso is that Marlowe doesn’t want to know what Lennox has done.

This is only the beginning of a plot that becomes more and more complex once Marlowe is engaged by the wife and publishers of an alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, to make sure that the scribe stays off the bottle and on track to finish his latest blockbuster novel.

I’ve described Marlowe as gallant a couple of times now, but that is a key adjective when trying to fathom this cynical, wise-cracking, tough but essentially decent man. Why he’d want to put himself through hell for £25 dollars a day plus expense (and sometimes for free) is beyond me. ”

“Well if I don’t do it, no-one else will, pal,” would probably be his reply.

I am now well into the companion volume to this, which collects three of the other most highly regarded Marlowe books in one. I will blog about this when I’ve read it.

For the moment though, if you have never read any Chandler then I can heartily recommend him. Though he remains not just a standard writer of crime novels but also a touchstone one, his books are not always kept in stock in new book shops in the UK at least.  Good independent retailers can always get them, however, and there’s always loads of them available second hand. Ebooks also seem to be readily available too.


Raymond Chandler interviewed by Ian Fleming.

Well perhaps interviewed is not the right word. Rather it’s a chat between two respected thriller writers, who have an obvious liking and mutual respect for each other.

I’ve been inspired to post this gem after having read at breakneck speed three of Chander’s classics in the past few days (reviews to follow).

Below is  part one of the interview (which starts a few minutes in at 5:47, after the inevitable lengthy BBC-isms at the beginning).

Among other gems to be heard in the Fleming- Chandler encounter are Fleming asking his pal “Ray” how long it takes to write a book. “It takes me two months” says Fleming. “Two months? I couldn’t write a book in two months,” replies Chandler. “Ah but you write better books than I do,” says his English friend.

Lovely stuff. I’ve posted part 1 of 4, so subsequent parts hopefully should show up in your browser or can easily be tracked down on Youtube directly.




A Very Wise Guy: A review of “A Man Without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently re-read this book by Kurt Vonnegut. In fact it was the first book of his that I ever read, and though I’ve naturally gone on to read most of the others, this is a book I keep coming back to because it is a bitter-sweet delight.   It only takes you a couple of hours to read, but I think Vonnegut’s thoughts and ideas stay long in the mind afterwards.

Subtitled “A memoir of life in George Bush’s America” this book will delight those who still revile that odd character who did impressions of the President of the USA.

There’s much more to this book, however, including as it does Vonnegut’s wry, cynical, exasperated and very funny observations on everything else worthy of ridicule, from the more vapid aspects of culture (in both his native US and elsewhere), semi-colons, Western man’s love affair with fossil fuels and even the pros and (mostly) cons of early Saab cars. In fact the passage on Saabs had me coughing and spluttering with laughter as much as the engines in these cars. There is a man near me who drives an old green Saab of a certain vintage, and every time I see it I can’t help laughing. People passing me at the time must think I’m odd, but I don’t care. You see, at those moments I’m with Kurt, and he makes you laugh at the absurd in life, and that’s a very good thing.

Written in a delightfully laconic and earthy style, this is the equivalent of passing a lovely afternoon with someone older, wiser and far funnier than yourself. It reminded me of Spike Milligan at his best. Like Spike, Vonnegut is a master of adopting an unexpected perspective on things, in order to expose some of the absurdities of life and thereby prove that, in Milligan’s phrase,  “nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”.

HP Lovecraft: bigger, badder, weirder.

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1, published by Wordsworth Editions. 


I have been aware of Lovecraft’s name for a long time but had never properly got round to reading any of his stories. Then I came across his story “The Call of Cthulhu” in an anthology of classic American supernatural fiction and I was hooked. The trouble is, there are quite a lot of Lovecraft editions out there, so where to begin?

A central aspect of his work is the “Cthulhu Mythos”, and in this volume Wordsworth Editions get right down to brass tacks by collecting together the main stories that fall into this category.

Downsides to this edition? Well if you like Lovecraft, after reading this you’ll probably render the book redundant as you’ll want to get the collected work. But Wordsworth books cost far less than the price of a packet of cigarettes or even a pint in some places, so this is hardly money wasted. There’s also the fact that the earliest stories in this volume are also among Lovecraft’s earliest work, so they’re not perfect and rehash certain narrative ideas and imagery.

A lot of what I’ve read by Lovecraft so far calls to my mind other writers. These are purely personal associations. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, and I don’t even know if he read all of these writers. However, Poe is one who seems to loom large over a lot of Lovecraft’s work. He’s even mentioned in “At the Mountains of Madness”. But even simply in terms of being a writer who was unafraid to pitch things at the same high, nerve-wracking level, Lovecraft seems to have seen Poe as someone who threw down the gauntlet.  Little wonder Lovecraft’s work inhabits the same emotional landscape, and then gores even further.

MR James is someone else I like a lot, and who comes to mind when I read Lovecraft. Like James’s, many of Lovecraft’s characters have a scholarly background. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dunwich Horror” share the (M.R.) Jamesian device of scholars and other seekers of arcane knowledge go too far in their pursuits, thereby unleashing terrible forces. Like James as well, Lovecraft seems convinced that it is only the learned and well-versed who are truly capable enough to either a) solve the problem at hand (as in Dunwich) or b) at least make sense of it and to therefore warn others ( as in those ‘mad’ mountains).
H.G. Wells seems somewhere in the mix too, since the ultimate fate of the OLd Ones at the hand of their former slaves, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, has echoes of the future as foretold in “The Time Machine”. Then there’s the whole concept of malevolent forces arriving uncontrollably from outer space, a concept which exploded into the popular consciousness with “The War of the Worlds”.
I’m not at all trying to bring Lovecraft down a peg or two by highlighting what I find similar in the work of others. On the contrary. Whether he consciously borrowed from these men or not is by the by. What I’m trying to illustrate is how he took what already existed in horror/ supernatural fiction before him, and built massively built on those foundations. If Poe ramped up the horror and tension, Lovecraft proved he could go even further up the scale. In like manner, M.R. James’s gentlemen protagonists always seem to be scholars of independent means. If they are full-time academics their alma mater is barely alluded to (though the implicit assumption must be that they are Cambridge men). Lovecraft, however, went one better and created an entirely fictional educational institution, the wonderfully named
Miskatonic University, itself based on Brown University.
Also like James’s characters, Lovecraft’s are often well read and steeped in all manner of arcane lore, but the American weriter again adds a whole new extra dimension to this in his stories. This is by means of consistent reference to the secrets that many characters have learned by reading the dread book The Necronomicon by that “mad arab” Abdul Alhazred, printed in Spain in the sixteenth century, and now only found carefully guarded in a few select libraries. I love everything about this fictional book. There’s the idea f it being written by a demented oriental scholar,and the implicit pun in his name. (If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, total knowledge will drive you mad, it seems to imply.) There’s the book’s contents, which are so terrible that Lovecraft’s narrators can barely even allude to them. Then there’s the notion that the book was printed0 blasphemously so to use a key Lovecraft adverb- in a hostile place at a hostile time, Spain during the era of the inquisition. Then there’s the implication that those brave enough to dare its pages have their minds altered by its contents forever, such are the terrible secrets it tells of…
Great stuff, and just the kind of reading for a cold winter evening.
The supposed existence of The Necronomicon  gives greater weight to the whole cosmology of Lovecraft’s work, the macabre backdrop of the ‘Old Ones’ who were on Earth millions of years before mankind, and who wait patiently for a chance to re-enter our dimension to reclaim and dominate what is rightfully theirs. Such a massive fictional canvas makes ‘The War of the Worlds” in its way look like a little local skirmish.
If there’s a potential downside to all this for me, then it’s the fact that it’s on such a vast scale that it can seem overblown and silly. Yet that’s only if I cease to suspend my disbelief, and if I do that when reading this kind of stuff it’s fatal. I read these things for the thrill, and because ultimately it’s great entertainment. Besides, there’s the whole aspect of adventure and scale to his work. Take “The Call of the Cthulu”. If ther’s one short story that could claim to be epic in theme and setting that’s it.
By entering the gloriously mad fictional world of HP Lovecraft and suspending my disbelief, all I can do is cling on as best I can.

Poem for the day: Gary Snyder “Changing Diapers”

gary snyder

The great Gary Snyder: Never a man to be afraid of kicking up (or even picking up) a stink.

Gary Snyder’s a poet that I don’t read enough of, but I really ought to. His work can be serious, since it covers a lot of weighty and complex issues (for instance he was in the vanguard of writers who were taking up themes of environmental concern). However, I’ve always found the dominant tone in his writing to be a good humoured openness, which allows him to convey the significance of everything from the wonders of nature to more domestic joys. Here’s  good example which I picked at random today. It’s called “Changing Diapers” (or ‘nappies’ where I come from).

What I like most in this poem is that it deals with an everyday domestic occurrence in tender language. In so doing this allows him to subtly convey his underlying serious point about how you define being a man.

He knows that if you want to make a convert, you’ve got to make them laugh and smile first.

Changing Diapers

How intelligent he looks!

on his back

both feet caught in my hand

his glance set sideways,

on a giant poster of Geronimo

with a Sharp’s repeating rifle on his knee.

I open, wipe, he doesn’t even notice

nor do I.

Baby legs and knees

toes like little peas

little wrinkles, good-to-eat,

eyes bright, shiny ears,

chest swelling drawing air,

No trouble, friend,

you and me                and Geronimo

are men.

Is “To Have and Have Not” Hemingway’s worst book?


Papa made sure that the next time Social Services called to check on the kids’ welfare he’d be ready…

I know received opinion is that Across the River and Into the Trees is the nadir, but I wish to make a case for To Have and Have Not

The 1930’s saw Ernest Hemingway get more overtly politically engaged. If For Whom the Bell Tolls was the high water mark of this mode of writing, then To Have and Have Not must rank as the low ebb. This, his third novel (fourth if you include The Torrents of Spring) is not an unmitigated disaster, but if any book epitomises his uneven 1930’s output then this is it. On the one hand it’s Hemingway at his most fluent and slick. But on the other it’s a lumpen, stodgy and unedifying affair. 

I read this book first in my late teens. After re-reading part one of the novel this time around I was thinking that the book wasn’t quite as I remembered it. By the time I’d finished I realised that I hadn’t remembered it at all. For a start I seemed to recall that it was just about main character Harry Morgan, a gruff anti-hero of the sort who is initially hard to like, but who shows himself to have some sort of moral compass when there’s a choice to be made between self interest and the common good.

In truth, what I’d remembered was Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Harry Morgan in the book of the film. By contrast, the Harry Morgan of Hemingway’s book is an out-and-out sociopath. What’s worse is that while Morgan’s story makes for a simple enough tale of action, exciting in parts, what force it has is diluted by Hemingway’s burying it amid heaps of social commentary and invective as the book wears on.

At the risk of over-simplifying things (but then again this is a pretty over-simplified novel) I suspect this book was written during Hemingway’s fishing and drinking phase, when he lived in the Florida Keys but was also feeling the pull of Cuba; when he spent a lot of time on his fishing boat; and he liked a drink or ten at Sloppy Joe’s and other establishments of that kind. Since even some of the great writers stick to the dictum of  ‘write about what you know’, it’ll come as no surprise that the novel is set in the Florida Keys with the odd Cuban interlude; that Harry Morgan is skipper of a boat; and that virtually everyone in the book likes a drink or ten in the kind of cavernous establishment where they now hold Ernest Hemingway lookalike competitions.

The book does get off to an exciting start. Part one is set in Cuba and is narrated in the first person by Morgan. It’s the Depression era, and he is in dire financial straits.  Previously he made a good living chartering his boat to rich tourists for fishing expeditions. Now he’s reduced to getting money any way he can. This means grubbing a living by hiring the boat to dud clients who can’t fish and don’t pay; agreeing to get illegal immigrants in the US; running guns and alcohol; and finally (and unwittingly) acting as skipper of a getaway boat for Cuban revolutionaries who have robbed a bank.

But then in part two things take an odd turn. The novel’s action shifts to the Florida Keys, and with it the point of view. With the exception of one chapter ‘guest narrated’ by Albert, sometime mate on Morgan’s boat, things are now told in the third person. From here the story of Morgan’s run of bad luck continues through a series of increasingly dangerous and illegal jobs. But the whole thing takes an abrupt left turn with the arrival of  a new set of characters who come with their own emotional and intellectual baggage, which Hemingway’s new narrator goes into at length. These people are in the main tourists from elsewhere in the US, chief of whom are a Professor, a writer of socially engaged novels, and the novelist’s wife. I couldn’t help get the feeling that Hemingway parachuted these characters in to juxtapose them with Morgan, as if to say “look at this poor son of toil trying to make an honest living in a dishonest world, while these pampered intellectual types get into trivial romantic tangles of their own making”.

To give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt, it wasn’t as if he lost all sense of the structure of his book from part two onwards. I think what he was attempting to do was use shifting points of view in order to provide insight into the lives of different kinds of people at all levels of society. This could even have worked if the plots were more carefully woven together. However, given that the book started out as basically a thriller, such a change of gear is grating. It’s as if Raymond Chandler had written part one, given up and handed it over to John Steinbeck for part two, who in turn let  John Dos Passos do some experimental narrative tweaking. There’s even a bit of sub-Joycean internal monologue type stuff going on, but mostly this consists of Morgan and then his wife musing on how horrible their lives are, and what a drag it is to have daughters.

It doesn’t help that  Hemingway seems to have been writing from a position of scorn and spite when it comes to the Professor, the writer and others in part two.  Had he certain people in mind when describing these characters?Perhaps it’s no surprise that this novel was among the first to contain the disclaimer that any resemblance to any person living or dead was purely coincidental.

The paradox of this book is that the fabled Hemingway style, which gave his best writing such strength, actually lets him down here. In his earlier books he made virtues of carefully choosing words to vary the amount of detail for maximum emotional effect.  He also wrote razor sharp dialogue that avoided extraneous description. And of course he mastered withholding information so that maximum power was released as the reader imagined what was going on for themselves.

To Have and Have Not is terse and we still have scenes largely driven by dialogue. But the effect of all this is rather flat, since the plot is not as strong as his previous novels and stories, and he tries to hard and to obviously to make political points. We also get a lot of clunky interior monologues. If you want a better example of how he wrote about the kinds of people he did not like, try “The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber”. If you you want a great example of how he wrote of the interior world of a character, try The Old Man and the Sea.

Luckily, Hemingway was to come back to the concept of the honest man trying to make a stand in a dishonest world in his next novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, where he cut the pseudo intellectual content, wrote from the heart and consequently made a far better job of it.  As for “To Have and Have Not”, I’m tempted to say that had Hemingway spent less time in Sloppy Joe’s he’d have written a far less sloppy novel.

The verdict: Nasty, brutish and thankfully short.

Papa Hemingway- A review of the 1966 memoir by A.E. Hotchner

Based on the author’s friendship with the literary legend in the last 13 years of his life, is this a serious portrait or a just another exercise in analysing the tortured Hemingway psyche? 

I could have gone down the cliched route by giving this review a title like ‘the lion in winter’. There is a melancholy and defeated air hanging over the final chapters of this book, mainly because they consist of Hotchner’s version of seeing his friend’s personality disintegrate and his life-force drain away.

Yet the resounding minor note on which Hemingway’s life and therefore this book end doesn’t completely drown out the happier tone struck elsewhere. In fact Hotchner’s portrait does a good job in adding extra levels to our understanding of Hemingway. He remained dedicated to his craft, for instance, and personally it seems that although his final decade and half of life had a lot of deep lows, he also enjoyed great highs. For all the physical and mental struggle, it’s reassuring to know that he remained productive until the final year or so.

Hotchner was a friend of Hemingway’s in the final 13 years of the author’s life, beginning in 1948 when as a  young journalist Hotchner was sent to Cuba to doorstep the man who was his idol. From there a friendshi devloped, and the book’s remaining chapters are accounts of the times when the two got together in various parts of Europe and the US.

Hotchner portrays himself as a close and admiring friend, and it’s a self portrait that rings true. To that extent this book succeeds in putting Hemingway centre stage because Hotchner was obviously in a position to observe him closely and record all he said of note. Although the tone is perhaps overly respectful at times, Hotchner’s intentions seem to be honest and true, resulting in a book that is more a tactful ‘the author as I knew him’ type of work, rather than a trivial and exploitative ‘reveals all’ hack job.

At the very core of the book are conversations with Hemingway. There’s plenty of incidental colour and detail, such as what they did in Venice together, or who they summered with in Spain. Ultimately, however, this book reminded me of a traditional book in the ‘table talk’ genre. It’s essentially Hemingway talking: reminiscing on his life, revealing things about himself, analysing the world around him, opining on things and most interestingly musing on the writer’s life and giving words of writerly advice.

Perhaps some might feel uneasy at the thought of Hotchner exhausting the detail of a personal friendship to turn them into a book. Make no mistake though: this book is a tribute rather than a simplistic cash in. And anyway, 47 years after the book’s first publication, and 52 years after Hemingway’s suicide, Hotchner’s homage  seems a paragon of restraint in our modern era, when the Hemingway name sells everything from furniture to rum.