In 1921 a young journalist from Illinois arrived in Paris with a loving wife and a suitcase of tyro manuscripts. Seven years soaking up the avant-garde teachings of Ezra Pound and James Joyce turned him into the best prose stylist of his generation. Ernest Hemingway returned to America with a fresh literary approach, a book contract, and a younger, richer wife.
Most readers still associate Ernest Hemingway with the French capital, an image cemented by his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast. Guides do walking excursions round his old haunts for the tourists.
Richard Owen has other ideas. In a new book he makes the case that Italy, not France, was the place closest to Hemingway’s heart.
Hemingway first came to Italy in 1918 as a Red Cross ambulance driver to help the war effort. He fell in love with the country, the wine, the food, the girls with dark eyes and dark hair. Not even an Austrian trench mortar that nearly killed him on a visit to the front line could sour the romance.
He would return to Italy many times over a long life. Two novels got set there. A Farewell to Arms is a 1929 modern classic that romanticised his war service and abortive affair with a nurse into a moving but clean lined narrative. It was a best seller.
Twenty-one years later came Across the River and into the Trees, a more strained attempt at wish fulfilment that turned a real-life platonic relationship with a young Italian girl into hot and heavy melodrama. A fairly explicit love scene in a gondola embarrassed the girl, Hemingway’s wife Mary, and a lot of readers who took the book to be autobiographical. It’s not a great novel but the flashback structure shows Hemingway was still experimenting close to the end of his career.
Owen’s Hemingway in Italy does a good job of tracing the famous writer’s travels through the country from his war years to visits in the 1950s as a celebrity. He went hunting with aristocrats; drank himself stupid in Venice bars; admired and then didn’t Mussolini’s Fascists; wandered misty-eyed over old battlefields. The book mixes travel guide with literary analysis, history, and digressions into the nature of Hemingway’s Catholicism.
Italy may never displace Paris in the myth but Hemingway in Italy is a good read and an aesthetically pleasing physical book. Red cloth boards and a photograph of Hemingway in a gondola on the cover; unusual dimensions of 21 x 12cm. It feels good to hold in the hand and is part of an ‘Armchair Traveller’ series by bookHaus that might appeal to anyone who likes collecting a series. It appeals to me.
HEMINGWAY IN ITALY/ Richard Owen/ bookHaus/ 2017
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