A Visit to Hemingway’s House in Cuba
Back in the olden days when I was in college, I did not have, as George Saunders said of himself at the Key West Literary Seminar, a boner for Ernest Hemingway (it’s a guy thing). I preferred Faulkner and the girls: Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield. But In Our Time did make a lasting impression on me. While I have forgotten so much over the years, I have never forgotten “Indian Camp,” and I hope I never do. The boy Nick has just experienced birth in the agonizing delivery of a baby at a primitive island Indian camp by his doctor father, and death in the form of the suicide of the woman’s husband who could not bear her screams of pain. At the end of the story, as they row back home, Nick asks his father some questions.
“‘Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?’ Nick asked.
‘No, that was very, very exceptional.’
‘Why did he kill himself, Daddy?’
‘I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.’
‘Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?’
‘Not very many, Nick.’
‘Do many women?’
‘Don’t they ever?’
‘Oh yes. They do sometimes.’
‘Where did Uncle George go?’
‘He’ll turn up all right.’
‘Is dying hard, Daddy?’
‘No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.’
They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.”
I remember the perfection of that ending as if it were yesterday—though it was when I was in college or perhaps grad school. And I remember the first two sentences: “At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.” I learned from that you don’t have to start at the beginning. Start when things are already underway.
I also loved “Big Two-Hearted River” – with its emotional pain tamped down under the surface, unstated but permeating Nick’s solitary fishing trip after he has returned from the shattering experience of war. I was amazed at what was being expressed by NOT being stated. Towards the end of the story, the emotion almost breaks through as Nick contemplates going into the swamp. To me this is Hemingway at his best:
“Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”
Okay, I know some of you are sneering and making fun. I know his writing became a caricature of itself, and that he was a major jerk. I know all that, but I’m not going to go there. I’m going to his house in Cuba.
I had been to his Key West house, a pretty lame experience. There’s not much there, really, except a bunch of six-toed cats. But the Cuba house – now there was an experience.
Finca Vigia is about ten miles outside of Havana, and is a government museum. The Cubans totally get what a tourist attraction it is or will be, and have restored the house, refurbishing it with Hemingway’s possessions to the extent that it feels as if it’s the fifties and Papa has just walked out the door. Tourists can’t actually go into the house. If so, his thousands of books would probably disappear pretty quickly. Not to mention all the animal heads. Prepare yourself for a lot of heads. But you can stand at all the windows, which are open except for a low Plexiglas sheet to keep you from reaching in to snatch something, and take photographs galore. If you want more information on the restoration, you can watch this CBS report and visit the house that way: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/06/18/eveningnews/main5096418.shtml
Hemingway first visited Cuba in the 20s when he was living in Key West, and then moved there with his 3rd wife, Martha Gelhorn, in 1939. He lived at Finca Vigia until 1960, when he returned to the U.S. for medical treatment. The next year he committed suicide. I wonder if when he wrote about the husband in ”Indian Camp” he could have imagined that one day he too wouldn’t be able to stand things.
He wrote The Old Man and the Sea there, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. It was his last major work, and was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to his receiving that award in 1954. He donated the Nobel Prize to the Cuban people, and was reportedly glad when Batista was overthrown. He met Castro in 1960, when Castro awarded him some big game fishing awards, but he didn’t live to see Castro become a Communist.
His boat, El Pilar, is at the house, as is the empty pool where Ava Gardner swam nude. After watching her, Hemingway ordered that the pool was not to be emptied.
I found it fascinating to see the house and grounds, to see Hemingway’s typewriter, which he stood at to write, to see his toilet (I’m kidding! Though I did see it), to try to imagine his life.
He was a mess, granted, but he was also an artist, at least part of the time, who worked hard at his craft. Supposedly he changed the style of English prose more than any other writer in the twentieth century—at least that’s what the dust jacket of my library copy of The Old Man and Sea claims. Unfortunately Murphy chewed up the upper half of the dust jacket back, and now I’m going to have to pay for the library book.
Visiting Finca Vigia prompted me to reread The Old Man and the Sea. I thought I had probably read it in high school, and as I began to read, it did come back to me. I wanted to read it as if I were coming to it without all the Hemingway baggage or boners, to just see how it read.
At first I found it almost laughable. The dialogue! Hadn’t he heard of contractions?
“The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.
‘No,’ the old man said. ‘You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.’
‘But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.’
‘I remember,’ the old man said. ‘I know you did not leave me because you doubted.’
‘It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.’
‘I know,’ the old man said. ‘It is quite normal.’”
It sounded like Dick and Jane. But I persevered, and after awhile I wasn’t laughing. I was reading, if not with baited breath (heh heh) I was definitely on board. What a story!
It’s so elemental.
There is the old man. There is the big fish. (Am I sounding like Hemingway?) Their battle goes on and on, with the old man feeling that the big marlin is his brother, almost as if they’re interchangeable. Great respect for his opponent.
Sounds corny, I know. Go ahead, snigger if you like. But there is something so primal about the two of them battling to the death that I got caught up in it. It does read like a huge parable of endurance, perseverance, and when the old man has won, and is carrying his trophy home lashed to his skiff, the sharks come and he has to battle them for the body. It’s full of fight, victory, defeat, blood, pain, suffering, fatigue beyond imagination, and losing but kinda winning, too, because you fought the good fight. It’s sentimental and pulls on the heart strings, but it makes for a damn good story.
Still, it was written in the 50s and feels like it. I found that interesting, too–just as I did the old cars in Havana, just like Finca Vigia itself. You wouldn’t want to live there now, but it was fascinating to visit.
Tags: Ernest Hemingway