It was August of 2018. I was in Nainital, sitting in a cafe by the lakeside, sipping on an espresso, making new friends, and reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Whenever you are reading a book, you subconsciously try to emulate the writer’s lifestyle. This also happens in other forms of entertainment like movies and plays, but in books, it is more intimate because there is only one person to connect with - the writer. You won’t notice your connection at first but during the course of your reading, you do things that you otherwise would not do. I had never had an espresso before, nor had I sat in a cafe to read a book and ponder over life. But here I was doing exactly what Ernest Hemingway did during his time in Paris. Espressos, reading, and writing.
I enjoy reading Ernest Hemingway because of his realistic prose. But I also feel that he is somewhat ambiguous when it comes to his opinions on wars. Though Ernest Hemingway drops explicit hints of the ugly realities of the war in “The Sun Also Rises” in the form of infecundity of the protagonist, he turned a blind eye towards Stalin’s brutal communist regime. Unlike George Orwell or Aldous Huxley who wrote against the totalitarianism of the communist nations, Hemingway saw them as a wonderful adventure. In his book “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, the hero is fighting on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan spends his time trying to woo a Spanish senorita and running around with a bunch of avowedly Bolsheviks who are busy trying to turn Spain into a socialist paradise.
It was because of Hemingway’s adoration for romanticism that Soviet KGB was able to recruit him as a spy. Though Hemingway, now serving under the codename “Argo”, did not divulge any intel to the Soviets, his frequent visits to and adoration for Cuba made the surveillance on him stricter. Throughout his stays in Cuba, he worried about money and his own safety and was under the constant radar of the then Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover.
Though he wasn’t much of a spy, he remained on the list of the Communists and the life he lived is akin to a James Bond movie. And much like Bond dedicates his kills to his Bond girls, Hemingway dedicated a book to each of his four wives.
This is not the only interesting aspect of Hemingway. Like a Bondesque spy, he would continue to have many near to death encounters that would leave their physical and mental marks on him. Needless to say, he would live through them all. In the end, all attempts of nature to put him to a tender sleep forever would be futile and it would be left to him to act as his own executioner.
During World War 1, Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in Italy and was seriously wounded by mortar fire. Despite his wounds, he continued to assist Italian soldiers to safety. For his services, he was decorated with the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor.
Following the famous D-Day landing of the allied forces on June 6, 1944, Hemingway led a small band of resistance forces composed of French villagers to gather intelligence on the Nazis. But according to the Geneva Convention, non-military persons are not allowed to lead troops and thus he was accused of war crimes, which were later cleared.
He also survived 4 car accidents. In 1954, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was almost killed in 2 plane crashes that happened on consecutive days. He got out of these accidents with a broken body - he ruptured his spleen, liver, kidneys, several limbs, dislocated shoulder, a crushed vertebra, first-degree burns, and cracked skull - the latter left him with a lifelong ringing sound in his ear and constant migraines. To combat the pain, he started to drink more heavily. This would later cause cirrhosis in his liver and leave him bedridden for months.
Over the course of his life, he had weathered malaria, dysentery, skin cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, multiple concussions which left him with headaches and mental fogginess.
Hemingway also had untreated hemochromatosis, a hereditary disease that creates an overload of iron in the blood, causing painful damage to joints and organs, heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Living with this disease is painful, which partly explains why suicide also runs parallel to this disease in his family. His grandfather, father, brother, sister, and granddaughter were patients of his disease and they all killed themselves.
When a man is living with this much pain, he can find solace only in himself. Take that away from him, you take away his sanity and his life. For Hemingway, writing was the only way of being sane. In his final years, he went into depression and paranoia and could not write anymore. He was no longer able to find meaning in his life and his words and this left him in tears. He was hospitalized twice but the electroshock treatments only worsened his mental health.
He was constantly monitored by his friends to keep him from harming himself. But before being admitted into the hospital a second time, he managed to stray away from the company of his monitors and rushed over to his guns, chambered a round into a shotgun, placed his finger on the trigger, and was only seconds away from blowing his brain. Thanks to his friend who tackled him and physically restrained him, he survived this duel with death. After he was released from the hospital, he was on a plane to his hometown in Idaho. Once the plane took off, he twice attempted to jump from the aircraft.
In the end, despite having a plethora of encounters with death, no force of nature, external or internal, was able to kill Hemingway. When a man has had to bear so much pain and suffering and is staring at his ever-growing insanity, it is only left to him to do the deed. Death was finally going to get the better of him. Though he landed safely, the next morning, he unlocked the basement storeroom where his guns were kept and shot himself with his favorite double-barreled shotgun.
Like an admirer of literature, I envy the lives of writers who had produced works that would define the literature of their century. Ernest Hemingway was one such. His concise, direct, unadorned, and realistic writing style was a departure from other writers of his time. But if I were to have an opportunity to live Hemingway’s life, traveling Europe, enjoying Parisian cafes, and producing literary works for the generations, and suffer all the pains as he did, will I take the chance? I don’t think so.
To sum it up, Ernest Hemingway lived a life of extraordinary stature and extraordinary pain. To quote him,
“Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
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