A Letter to (Or How I Came to Forgive) Ernest Hemingway
by Jody Kennedy
I got to thinking about you while on a recent visit to Aigues-Mortes, a place you loved, and not so far from where I live now with my husband and kids. I suddenly missed you despite that falling out we had those many years ago and was whisked back to the beginning, to the time when I was sixteen, and how I had, in those initial moments upon discovering (via my now ex-stepfather) The Nick Adams Stories, a profound and visceral (bordering on spiritual) experience, most especially with Indian Camp, The Battler, The Last Good Country, Big Two-Hearted River and The End of Something and though I never loved you for your physicality (like I never loved Henry Miller or James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald—except Zelda maybe, but that's another story), how quickly I clung to those hidden parts of you and to those seen parts, namely the drinking/depression/suicide and how those parts and those stories made me feel less alone and strange stumbling through adolescence on my middle-class island in the Midwest.
The darkness felt like a whalebone in me. How even before I met you (at ten-eleven-twelve-years-old) I'd disappear into the woods not far from our apartment complex, running from my father's depression/suicide threats/soon-to-be drinking and follow the creek down to County Highway M or going in the opposite direction, would end up at the pond where my brother and I used to catch bullheads and sunfish and where I was once swallowed up by quicksand in that marshy place just off the path when I was alone and despite the mind-numbing panic I was able to grab hold of a low-lying branch and pull myself out. (You'd have been proud of me, I think.)
Did you know there's a street named after you in Aigues-Mortes now? From your street (Rue Ernest Hemingway) it's just a short walk to the old town center following the Canal du Rhône à Sète until you reach the Porte de la Gardette and those lovely ramparts with, as you remember, their impressive towers and lookouts and views of the salt marshes and the sea in the distance.
I never intended to follow you to the South of France (after following you to Paris). Admittedly, I was a bit of a throwback compared to other kids my age, always dreaming of Paris, of the Lost Generation, and of getting away from that middle-class island in the Midwest. When I finally got to Paris it felt like a homecoming, like the missing piece to the puzzle of my confusing life. I could breathe in Paris and at some point further on in the story, I'd fall in love with my future French husband and after marrying, we'd end up a tiny village near Nîmes (and the Roman amphitheater and the Hôtel Imperator whose bar is now—surprise, surprise—named after you and also, a long way from Oak Park and River Forest High Schools, there's the Lycée Ernest Hemingway). It was spring when my husband and I arrived in that tiny village near Nîmes and sought shelter against the incessant mistral and made love in secluded olive groves on hikes from above Saint-Bonnet-du-Gard to the Pont du Gard and how I desperately hoped for a baby to replace one of the babies I'd lost somewhere along the way (I don't know why I'm telling you this except to say that it's a bittersweet memory for me) and how within months I'd be so homesick that I, a bona fide city dweller, would be begging to leave that tiny village near Nîmes (but that's another story) and how sometimes you want something so badly (to stay in France/to be French) and when you get the thing you wanted, you realize you maybe didn't really want it so badly after all.
How, in the opening chapter of The Garden of Eden, Catherine bikes north along the Canal du Rhône à Sète from Le Grau-du-Roi to Aigues-Mortes to get a boy haircut at a barbershop there and how we, like Catherine, wanted to be loved for our androgyny and our beautiful minds, but at the same time how we wished to be noticed (for the shape of our lips when pouting, our half-moon manicures and our flapper dresses) by certain men (and women) because of that distinct need to be special buried deep in our psyches like some archetypal mother/father/God wound.
Remember how I went deer hunting those couple of seasons with my ex-stepfather? The one who introduced me to The Nick Adams Stories? How, despite my killer temper, I turned out to be a lousy deer hunter like I was lousy at fishing. How I couldn't stomach baiting the hook, taking the fish off the hook (worse if the fish had swallowed the hook) or cleaning the fish (my brother did all of those things and more for me). Still, I wanted to be tough, tomboy that I was, carrying what I imagined to be past life memories as a Native American living off the land. Remember how I spine shot that doe? Remember my horror at seeing her, eyes wild with fear, frothing at the mouth and trying to pull herself up by her front legs? Remember how I ran towards her, getting closer and closer until, point blank (her beautiful eyes), I shot her again and then fell to my knees and sobbed as I watched the life go out of her and how you called me a coward for crying, the same way your father had called you a coward when you were Nick in The Nick Adams Stories.
From Aigues-Mortes, we drove (instead of riding bikes) the ten minutes or so to Le Grau-du-Roi. The Hôtel Grand Pommier, where you (as Catherine and David) stayed on your honeymoon, is no longer there, and the local church, Saint-Pierre, has been replaced by a modern one making me think of America and its often dull and anti-Garden of Eden architecture. I had no desire to fish though we saw plenty of fishing boats in the old port reminding me of how much you loved your 38-foot Pilar, the only woman who never stopped being fun, like Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises and Marjorie in The End of Something had stopped being fun. The sky that day was a brilliant blue. Do you remember those South of France skies? A blue you would have painted beautifully, I'm sure, had you set down your notebook and pencils and picked up a brush.
At least you were an honest man instead of pretending or actually believing you were, as it's said in today's lingo, a woke feminist man, who might later let it slip (during a relaxing day at the beach with friends, for example) that he has a fondness for young girls in short (short) skirts and tall leather boots, or French maid uniforms and high (high) heels, followed by, “And so what's wrong with my private stash of porn? I don't get it. It's not hurting anyone.” And how some of us women immediately understand because we once played those games but now we silently surrender another man to the matrix of men (all of us, really) still lurching toward adulthood.
Luckily writers aren't supposed to be saints, like our parents aren't supposed to be saints though we still like to try to saint them like I tried to saint my father (the original wounded king) and how I wanted so badly for him to be something more than a broken human and how, after his various crimes and eventual fall from grace, I practically (years later) killed myself trying to save him until I needed to let go (to save myself) and how he was whipped and battered on the rocks before finally landing in a safe place until his death (from pneumonia, not suicide) and how I finally came to understand that the only person we can save is ourselves and then how, in the forgiving of our wounded kings, we forgive ourselves and our same human brokenness.
At the Plage de l'Espiguette in Le Grau-du-Roi, I imagined Catherine tanning on the sloping dunes as David swam in the sea and David, coming up from underwater, seeing Catherine darker and darker against the almost gray sand and how I loved to sunbathe when I was younger, my skin, for a few short months in summer, not my own. And who among us hasn't dreamt of changing places sometimes, of being the other, of having been another like William Butler Yeats (I have been many things / A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light / Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill / An old slave grinding at a heavy quern / A king sitting upon a chair of gold) like how Catherine and David stained their already deeply tanned faces with berry juice trying to pass as Gypsies during the festival of Saint Sarah (patron saint of Romani people and of travelers) in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. And how the first time I was in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, it wasn't for the festival but on a pilgrimage to Saint Sarah to honor one of those children I'd lost somewhere along the way (a daughter, I imagined, and not at all the puff of air followed by the certain happiness you talked about in Hills Like White Elephants) and though I didn't rub my face with berry juice, I did light a candle for my daughter in the lower chapel at the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer and afterward, I waded in the sea and imagined Vincent Van Gogh once painting there.
Speaking of our falling out: I realized it was over when I tried but finally couldn't get through Green Hills of Africa. I was sober then and the problem wasn't the writing (not at all) but the realization that I didn't want to go out drinking or big game hunting or to bullfights in Pamplona with you anymore. There's a saying in recovery circles about how if you hang around a barbershop long enough sooner or later you're going to end up with a haircut. I was done hanging around in barbershops, I guess, and needed to walk away to save myself.
Last spring, I thought of you while we vacationed near the Massif de l'Estérel and how we hiked under those towering eucalyptus trees and had sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea from up high and later, descending a narrow path through pine trees, we discovered a small, isolated cove, and how I wondered if it might be one of the coves where Catherine and David and Marita had swum and sunbathed in The Garden of Eden. We were alone for a long time until a group of German-speaking tourists arrived and how one of the young men, probably in his late twenties, with dark hair, a wide handsome face and strong shoulders, stripped down to his suit and dove into the crashing waves with such raw machismo (trying to impress one of the girls) that all I could think of was there you were, that's exactly how you would have cut into the waves trying to impress your fictional wife Catherine and later, your fictional lover Marita, and then how, on leaving the sea with your hair smoothed back and wet, you kissed Marita's breasts and drank Tavel from the bottle and ate artichoke hearts dipped in mustard sauce prepared by Madame, the owner of that rose-colored hotel where you were staying in Mandelieu-la-Napoule.
Ketchum, Idaho, is a long way from Le Grau-du-Roi and Aigues-Mortes. What happened, Ernest? Why couldn't you get this thing? (Don't ever accuse an alcoholic of being weak.) What happened between the time you were young and beautiful crossing the Mississippi River for the first time or up in Michigan (Lake Walloon) before Italy and the war before Paris and the Left Bank and Hadley (the women who loved the man were mirrors of the man) and Bumpy and the apartment on Notre-Dame-des-Champs above the old sawmill before Key West and the six-toed cats and your father's suicide before Cuba and Finca Vigia and the shoring of the Pilar before those cold, snowy winters in Ketchum, Idaho, snowy and cold like Austria and The Hotel Taube at Schruns before the alcohol took you before... I have been in that dark place before, face pushed up against the wall, throat so full of fear that breath only comes in short, quick animal panic heaving like a spine-shot doe whose eyes are a thousand times more beautiful than a long-barrel W. & C. Scott & Son shotgun on an early summer morning in a kitchen in Ketchum, Idaho. Ernest, put the gun down. (Put the drink down.) There is another way out. (Follow me.)
A few months ago, at a thrift shop in Aix-en-Provence, I found a 1950 first British edition of Across the River and Into the Trees and how something felt oddly serendipitous about buying that book (one I'd never read) in that thrift shop in France and since it had been published when you were still alive, it seemed as if I was holding a very real piece of you in my hands. It's like how, after the death of a loved one, we choose certain belongings of theirs to remind us, like how I chose my father's antique Rolleiflex New Standard camera and his clarinet. The dust cover of Across the River and Into the Trees is gently worn around the edges and the yellowed pages carry that faint, sweet smell of old books and used bookstores. I still haven't read it yet, though once in a while I'll open to the first page and begin: They started two hours before daylight, and at first, it was not necessary to break the ice across the canal as other boats had gone on ahead, and it feels like I'm returning to the woods not far from our old apartment complex only this time not running but slowly following the creek and gathering up a few more broken off pieces of myself.
Best always and Godspeed, etc.,
Jody Kennedy's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, DIAGRAM, Tin House Online, CutBank's Long Way From, Long Time Since and The Woodshop, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She lives in Provence, France. More at her website: jodyskennedy.wordpress.com
Visit Jody Kennedy’s previous work at CutBank:
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Note: the William Butler Yeats quote is from “Fergus and the Druid”, Wikisource.