Thursday, February 25, 2016

The master off duty by Bruce Bawer

Reading a literary biography or a collection of some great writer’s correspondence, one tends to slog impatiently through the early pages—the childhood stuff—out of a sense of duty, often more than a bit numbed by the obligatory details about parents, siblings, schooling, and such, and itching to get to the good bits; later, much later, as the subject, now (most likely) jaded, world-weary, and in artistic decline, approaches the final curtain, one follows the post-climactic personal and professional developments with (at the very least) a faint sense of melancholy. What’s almost always most gripping in such books, by contrast, are the pages in which we see the author’s art and career come into full bloom­—those recounting the stretch of time during which the first major works are written and published, the public and critics begin to take notice, and the author, feeling, for a season anyway, that the sun is shining, that all the stars are aligned, and that the world is his or her oyster, plunges with hope and vigor into the glorious, still unmapped future.
As it happens, that’s precisely the period covered by this third volume of Ernest Hemingway’s complete letters.1 At the start, he’s an ambitious, energetic twenty-six-year-old from Oak Park, Illinois, who, after stints as a reporter at The Kansas City Star and Toronto Starand a dramatic interlude as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, has been living essentially hand-to-mouth in Paris for four years, throwing back drinks with some of the other promising young cultural figures of the day and contributing stories to little magazines known pretty much only to the cognoscenti; at the close, three years later, having just published a highly acclaimed novel, he stands on the verge of international fame, his apprenticeship, his youth, and his Paris idyll at an end. Briefly put, as the co-editor Sandra Spanier writes in her forty-page introduction, this collection of letters “traces the trajectory of a rising star.”
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