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Weekly Alibi The Truth About Papa

A Spate of Books Marks the 100th Anniversary of Ernest Hemingway's Birth

By J.M. De Biasi

JULY 26, 1999:  On July 21, the literati celebrate the centennial anniversary of the incongruity that was Ernest Hemingway with a flurry of new biographical releases and literary reprints. A bloodthirsty and blustering would-be hero, Hemingway also created one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written. He earned fame both for his inculpable ability to tell the truth through his fiction and his equally faultless ability to present lies as the truth in his day-to-day living. Two of the best of the new releases epitomize these contrasts, while two reprints help illuminate the constants of a man who was the first recipient of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and yet still despaired and died by his own hand.

In The Paris Pilgrims (Carroll & Graf, hardcover, $25), Clancy Carlisle introduces a 22-year-old Hemingway through the eyes of his adoring first wife, Hadley, and the expatriates of le generation perdue. In a stroke of genius, Carlisle crafts this very readable tome as a novel and not as a biography, thereby avoiding detailed arguments about what really happened in favor of serving up a slice of the surreality in which Hemingway himself lived. Whether dealing with his infidelity, his infamous temper or his position as the yet-undiscovered literary pet of Gertrude Stein, Carlisle neither lionizes nor vilifies Hemingway but helps a new lost generation access the life of a genius whose demons are often too close to their own.

An older and more philosophical, if not wiser, Hemingway graces the pages of his latest, and said to be last, posthumous manuscript. Where Carlisle's manuscript is biography posing as fiction, True at First Light (Scribner, hardcover, $26) is fiction posing as memoir. It was edited by the son who was part of the actual safari on which the manuscript was based. Ironically, although intended by Hemingway as only another cathartic fiction, portions of the rough draft manuscript were previously published as journalism in Sports Illustrated.

A womanizer in search of mythical romance, Hemingway was prone to fall hardest for unattainable lesbians and received a plethora of criticism for his written portrayal of the opposite sex. This book is no divergence from his norm. The signature myopic vision of women as shrews or sirens is interwoven with the Kenyan rebellion of the KiKayu, lion hunting and Hemingway's confessional commentary on the relationships between truth and lies. Although not his greatest work, it is the last of his acknowledged unpublished works, and its artistry justifies the hardback price.

A full and fascinating accounting of the feminine influences in Hemingway's life is available again with the reprint of The Hemingway Women (W.W. Norton, paper, $16.95) by Bernice Kert. Beginning with the love/hate relationship he shared with his mother, Kert moves on to cover Hemingway's novel creations and his four wives, as well as some of the minor feminine players in his life. Kert's detailed research through quotes, journals, letters and personal interviews occasionally overwhelms, but offers invaluable insights into an enigmatic man.

Hemingway was the most imitated American writer in our century and a man whose name has become synonymous with greatness -- as in "he thinks he's another Hemingway." Because of this status, the full canon of his published works are now available again in trade paperback. While all but the most hero worshipping of Hemingway biographies delve into the insecurities of his personal life, the heroes of the Hemingway canon present the world with the face he wanted us to see.

However, it is in a vignette presented by Stanley Karnow in the coattail reprint of his Paris in the Fifties (Times, paper, $14) that Hemingway himself stands revealed. Invited by his last wife, Mary Welsh, to the Ritz Bar where Hemingway held court each afternoon, Karnow reports, " ... soon Papa lumbered in. He was the spitting image of his Karsh portrait, his shaggy hair hanging over his wrinkled forehead, a grizzled beard shrouding his square chin, a charcoal turtleneck stretching across his barrel chest. ... As he rattled on, I gradually felt that the icon of my youth had devolved into a caricature of himself ... visibly fatigued and slightly tipsy, he stumbled to the telephone, rang up his wife in their room and slurred, 'For God's sake, come down here and rescue me.' "

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