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Talk About Your Hemingway : THE TRUE GEN by Denis Brian (Grove Press: $19.95; 228 pp., illustrated)

February 14, 1988|Barnaby Conrad | Conrad is the author of the 1952 best-seller "Matador," soon to be re-published, and "Hemingway in Spain," due in the fall from Chronicle Books

Another book about Hemingway?! There are more than 500 books already on him and his work--is there room for still another? Especially after Kenneth Lynn's splendid, monumental biography last year?

The answer is an emphatic yes, for this is an eminently readable and informative book with a unique format. It is set up like this: A chapter heading such as "First War, First Love, First Wife" establishes the topic, an aspect of Hemingway's life or personality, then several people in a position to know comment as though they were all sitting around a living room chatting about an old friend or enemy or relative or spouse, depending upon who is talking. It might be Truman Capote or Hemingway's widow, Mary, or son John or Lauren Bacall or any one of the other 100 people Denis Brian talked with about Hemingway over many years. Brian, a Welsh-born biographer who lives in Florida, acts throughout as interlocutor and devil's advocate. The technique works well and makes for a lively Rashomon-style, often contradictory portrait of an often contradictory literary titan.

It is amazing how one man can be viewed in so many different ways. Some random samples from the book:

William Walton: "He was a masochist, too. He was asking to be crucified in many of the acts of his life, exposing himself to the danger of gunfire, of being hit. Oh, he was bucking for sainthood."

Denis Zaphiro, the hunter who spent several months with the Hemingways in 1953, said: "Ernest was probably drunk the whole time though he seldom showed it except by becoming merrier, more lovable . . ."--and more full of hot air. But when he wasn't drinking, Zaphiro found him to be depressed, morose and silent.

Vincent Sheean was a great admirer of Hemingway, but his wife thought he was domineering and argumentative.

Denis Brian: "Did Hemingway ever actually slug you in the dark?"

Henry Strater: "Sure. He knocked me cold one time when I was dead drunk. He was a real S.O.B."

On the other hand, there are these comments from all walks of life--generals, ex-wives and his sons:

Joseph Dryer: "There was also an extremely gentle side to him . . . ."

General Lanham: "In war he was magnificent. And in peacetime he could really be insufferable."

His sister Carol says: "He was my hero, don't forget."

William Walton: "He was enormously shy. . . ."

John Carlisle: "That was one reason I liked him: He seldom talked about himself. . . ."

Thomas Shevlin: "He was very, very intelligent and read copiously. He was constantly reading a book when he wasn't writing one. He read everything from Sartre to James Bond."

John Hemingway: "Anyway, I held my father in such high esteem I could see him do no wrong."

People were drawn to him, fascinated by him. Robert Cowley said that the only other man he met who matched Hemingway's magnetic personality was John F. Kennedy.

Martha Gellhorn says so well about her ex-husband: "He was a genius, that uneasy word, not so much in what he wrote as in how he wrote; he liberated our written word."

This is the kind of a book you pick up intending to read only a couple of pages, and half a day later you find you've gobbled up the whole thing. It is a valuable contribution to the already groaning shelf of Hemingwayana.

Oh, and about that unfortunate, hard-to-remember title: Apparently it is a Royal Air Force expression meaning "the real thing," and it was a favorite of Hemingway's. Pity.

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