True at First Light , by Ernest Hemingway. Scribner, 320 pages, $26.
“Honey, you are a little lion-wacky,” the narrator tells his wife. She answers: “Who has more right to be? Of course I am. But I take lions seriously.” This exchange of Tracy-and-Hepburn banter occurs roughly a third of the way through the new Hemingway book billed as a “fictional memoir” by its publishers. The midcentury insouciance is part of a blithe ribbon that intermittently surfaces, floating above a narrative driven by the usual high Hemingway esthetic. Consider these lines, which reveal the book’s setting and title: “In Africa, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.” As folk tromp around in mosquito boots, drink Campari and soda, and listen to hyenas in the distance, both the physical and imaginative worlds of True at First Light shoot for that brand of grandeur.
Some critics, however, have pretty grandly balked. Last fall Joan Didion, who usually doesn’t make arguments so much as drive them like Ferraris, maintained in The New Yorker that the appearance of True at First Light , in the scandalous tradition of posthumous Papa productions like The Dangerous Summer (1985) and The Garden of Eden (1986), contradicts Hemingway’s well-documented wishes never to have others tamper with and then publish his writing. In her dazzling New York Review of Books deliberations over Monicagate, Ms. Didion relied on Grand Prix cornering skills; here she simply stated: “You care about punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did.… You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.” A couple of weeks ago in The New York Times , Michiko Kakutani concurred–adding, of course, her constitutional distaste for Hemingway’s many and obviously nutty and very dated attitudes. ” First Light ,” she concluded, “never should have seen the light of day.”
Are these objections accurate? To anyone who cares about punctuation in these slipshod days, Ms. Didion’s piece was heroic. She and Ms. Kakutani, moreover, are right to argue that True at First Light compares mighty unfavorably with, say, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” or (good Lord) A Farewell to Arms . Even Patrick Hemingway–the author’s son, who edited an 850-page manuscript down to a long-seeming 320–doesn’t tout True at First Light as an authentic masterpiece. His efforts, he writes, have yielded “a child’s teddy bear,” presumably something collectable for him and other fans to cling to.
True at First Light is a great, long blowzy affair with moments and passages of mounting beauty and effect. It concerns hunting and women and other places and writers–all considered from the perspective of someone very close in sensibility to our lingering impression of Ernest Hemingway in Papa mode. The narrator is Hemingway, although not a strict autobiographical Hemingway untouched by the selective yet all-changing camouflage of fiction. In the book, he is writing up a storm but not always writing well. The plot is episodic and shifting, nothing especially well-storyboarded, never near the genius level of, say, one of William Faulkner’s ecstatic narrative messes. There is drama, although it seems often intentionally undercut, even slightly lampooned. And there is little of the taut poignancy that animates the characters of A Moveable Feast , Hemingway’s first “fictional memoir,” also published posthumously, three years after his 1961 suicide–but that was a great book, punctuated truly and well.
This crew seems vaporous. They’re on safari in Kenya. It’s 1953. The narrator has ascended to the position of leader in the party after the recent departure of Pop, his mentor, an older and more august white hunter. The narrator has become the fiancé of Debba, a young African woman who longs to be his first black mate alongside Miss Mary, the Minnesota-born wife he usually calls “kitten.” She has stalked a particular black-maned lion for six obsessive months, is keen to find and cut the right Christmas tree, and says, when feeling unwell, ponderously opaque things like “I’m not quite sure whether I’m here or not. It would be nice to find out.”
There are others, too: Africans like Mbebia, a cook, Mthuka, a driver, and Ngui, a gun bearer, as well as members of the British administration such as G.C. (“Gin Crazed”), the district’s Game Warden, and Willie, a pilot. The threat of violent conflict looms ominously between the Masai, whom the narrator dislikes, and the Wakamba tribes. (“The Wakamba hated the Masai,” he outlines, “as rich show-offs protected by the government”; and, earlier, pounding the famously macho Hemingway drum kit: “The Masai had been coddled, preserved, treated with a fear that they should never have inspired and been adored by all the homosexuals … who had worked for the Empire in Kenya or Tanganyika because the men were so beautiful,” and so on.) The narrator is sometimes critical and concerned, but more often he feels supremely confident. “I never knew of a morning in Africa,” he confesses right away, “when I woke that I was not happy.”
Certainly the publishers of True at First Light are putting on a happy face, advertising the link with the July centennial of the author’s birth, kicking off a national sales campaign they grandly christen “The Hemingway Century.” And indeed, no American writer better fits a marketing strategy entirely clad in Ralph Lauren bush khakis and cooled by whirring Pottery Barn electric desk fans. But what the publishers should have done was make available the whole 850-page elephant, an enormous authentic text for the David Foster Wallace era (hey, maybe throw in a few editor’s footnotes).
Hemingway, as Ms. Didion reminds us, would not have appreciated that any better than this. We might be more at home these days with baggy texts of whatever length, but unstitched monsters still trample the sacred precepts of the cult (authored by Hemingway in more ways than one) of the arduously well-written. Reading True at First Light , you think vaguely, “Oh, now he’s writing about people eating lion. Now he’s writing about treating venereal disease. Now he’s wondering how Henry James might have handled this material.” It’s not unlike clicking through a long and sloppy Web diary, lightly dozing here, coming to with a start there, knowing how much more stuff is on the way, some of it terrific. It’s nothing at all like being under the spell of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” entranced as if by literary hypnosis.
Although no rascally adverbs and only a few adjectives litter these sentences, True at First Light is interestingly loose, unworried as it stalks the natural safari profound. It could have been written by a top-notch just-have-a-go novelist instead of ultra-composed Ernest Hemingway. It’s more than a little lion-wacky.