Hemingway

By Michael Lederer

I first read Hem­ing­way at col­lege in 1978, an intro course called Mod­ern Exis­ten­tial Lit­er­a­ture. The Old Man and the Sea was like look­ing at an x‑ray to see how we are put togeth­er. The Sun Also Ris­es was a look at how we fall apart. It was also a siren’s call: “This way, fol­low me.”

Pho­to cred­it: Kata­ri­na Led­er­er: Michael Led­er­er with Hemingway’s stat­ue, Havana, 2013

In spring 1980, I had five hun­dred bucks, a Eurail Pass and a back­pack, and two months in which to see as much of Europe as I could. From Paris, fol­low­ing the char­ac­ters from Sun, the train took me as far as Bay­onne and from there it was thumb out. An old man named Jesus picked me up in a white car and drove me up the moun­tain to Pam­plona. As a boy dur­ing the San Fer­min fes­ti­val, he had shak­en Hemingway’s hand. When I got out of the car and he shook my hand, I was con­vinced if not a torch at least a spark had been passed.

At its best, youth is designed for see­ing the future bright­ly in that way. Hope, opti­mism, ego, not know­ing yet one’s own limits.

Not anoth­er inch before point­ing out, I hat­ed the isms. Racism, sex­ism, anti­semitism. Did the schmuck Robert Cohn in Sun real­ly need to be Jew­ish? The answer for Hem­ing­way was yes. One would not want to have brown or black skin in one of his sto­ries. And if your name was Martha Gel­horn, you clear­ly did not get what being a wife was all about. Still, where there are shad­ows there is light. Hem­ing­way fought against fas­cism, and not every­one then or now does that.

What to do, what not to do. He had both covered.

I want­ed to be a writer. He could do more with six words than any­one else could do with twelve, so I embraced him as my teacher. Boil the stock down until, the steam away, it is thick with the essence of a thing. It isn’t about doing it all but try­ing to, and the real sto­ry is in the try­ing. Not every hero gets a medal, cer­tain­ly not all who get medals are heroes. Even the fastest horse col­laps­es at the end.

He had the hunter’s eye for spot­ting things, the fisherman’s hand at catch­ing them, and the sherpa’s skill at guid­ing us to places where dis­count air­lines didn’t fly yet. Wher­ev­er he took us it was a fron­tier, even if that meant a taxi through Madrid. It was all nature, because peo­ple are animals.

Most of us make out pret­ty well in our own sto­ries. Even if we lost a thing, we were the hero­ic vic­tim and lost through no fault of our own. We are that old man in the sea, we tell our­selves. Even sharks are sur­round­ed by sharks.

I felt less lone­ly after ‘meet­ing’ Hem­ing­way. For some, Vir­ginia Woolf will do that. Or Dalí. Or DMX. Or Aman­da Gor­man. Res­o­nant fre­quen­cies. I loved places with peo­ple and places with­out peo­ple, and his sto­ries offered both. No false choic­es, full menu.

Over decades, Hem­ing­way was often an Amer­i­can abroad. My tribe if I have one. I first came to Europe as a two-year old in 1958, and have been back dozens of times. Not just to vis­it, but to live. Eng­land, Spain, Croa­t­ia, Poland, Aus­tria, Ger­many. Hem­ing­way under­stood that ulti­mate­ly it’s not the place you’re out to know as much as your­self, and that takes time.

In 1984, liv­ing in the fish­ing vil­lage La Her­radu­ra in the south of Spain, I fell, drunk, from my fourth-floor bal­cony over­look­ing the sea. Eight days then in a tired old hos­pi­tal in Grana­da. A year then in a cast with crutch­es, back on my bal­cony. Fish­er­men stuck torch­es in the peb­bled beach below me as they pulled their nets in before dawn.

I wrote my first book that year. To stretch our lim­its, we must first reach them.

I’ve made many of the pil­grim­ages. Walked up the Rue du Car­di­nal Lemoine at sun­rise try­ing to see, smell, hear, feel every­thing before the crowds came with their cam­eras. Made friends with a guide in Key West, Joe, who let me sit at Hemingway’s desk. And in 2013, my wife Kata­ri­na and I went to Cuba.

After read­ing my book Noth­ing Lasts For­ev­er Any­more, writ­ten in that fish­ing vil­lage where I had lived, the direc­tor of Hemingway’s house-now-muse­um, Ada Rosa Alfon­so Ros­ales, let me spend a full two hours inside his house. Just Ada, Kati, me, and the guard watch­ing our every move to make sure we didn’t pinch this or that. Hem­ing­way and Mary had left every­thing, expect­ing to return. Those real­ly were his pen­cils, his shoes, his postage stamps. Like any pil­grim, I felt the spirit.

After our vis­it, Ada offered me a job. Hem­ing­way had left behind some 9,000 books, many with his mar­gin­a­lia. Would I like to come stay a month or more and tran­scribe his hand­writ­ten notes into a com­put­er. Tempt­ing as that was, I declined. Mis­take. I was writ­ing my own first full-length nov­el then, Cadaques, about an Amer­i­can alco­holic writer in Spain who had noth­ing to do with Hem­ing­way, but every­thing to do with me. I didn’t want to stop my work to study some­one else’s. Not even his.

Aside from Shake­speare, no oth­er writer ever touched me as he has. Since I’ll nev­er have the chance to thank him, I do that here.

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His screen­play, Sav­ing Amer­i­ca, won the 2019 PAGE Screen­writ­ing Award. His newest stage play, I Have Seen the Mis­sis­sip­pi, is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II. Com­ments about this blog are wel­come on the author’s web­site: https://www.michaellederer.com/