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Could Catholicism have made Hemingway a great novelist?

Hemingway travelling with US soldiers as a war correspondent in 1944 (Getty)

Ernest Hemingway was reared by church-going parents as a Congregationalist. His first son was christened in the Church of England. Then soon after his first marriage to Hadley Richardson had ended in divorce and he married his mistress Pauline Pfeiffer, he became a Catholic – supposedly after an intimate health problem was healed through prayer.

That, at least, was what he told his friend AE Hotchner more than 20 years later. And Hotchner seems to have accepted it. But then in the early days of their friendship, he accepted everything Hemingway said.

Actually Hemingway had already claimed to be a Catholic, if he was anything. Wounded while serving as an ambulance man in 1918, he “had extreme unction administered to me and recovered”, he wrote to his friend Ernest Walsh, “so guess I am a super-Catholic”.

True or false? Hemingway was such a habitual liar – fantasist, if you prefer – that little that he said is to be believed unless supported by evidence other than his word.

What we do know is that, unlike Evelyn Waugh, he never tried to have his first marriage annulled, and that his second to the “devout Catholic” Pauline also ended in divorce. As did his third to Martha Gellhorn.

Unlike other novelists who converted to Catholicism (Waugh, Greene, Spark), he had no interest in theology and no concept of sin. According to one biographer, Michael Reynolds, he “liked medieval cathedrals where prayer had efficacy. He liked the ritual, the mystery, the odours of age and incense.” This may be true.

Hemingway meant a lot to me when I was young. This was the case for many of my generation, still more for those who were young when his first books appeared. Does he have much appeal now, except to American academics? I suspect that books about Hemingway do better than books by him. He fashioned himself a public persona, something usually damaging for a writer. The artist was smothered by the public figure.

Hemingway wasn’t wholly to blame. He was pushed to write the Great Big Novel and, having little talent for construction and little interest in other people, he couldn’t bring it off. His Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was his attempt at a masterpiece. It was a popular success, but F Scott Fitzgerald’s verdict seems fair: “a thoroughly superficial book with all the profundity of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca”. One might add that Rebecca has lasted better. Much of the dialogue in this Hemingway novel rings false and is unsayable.

The early short stories retain their magic, sensation being translated into words. They are laconic, pared to the bone. “In Another Country” (1926) begins: “In the Fall the war was always there but we did not go to it any more” – a wonderful first sentence.

The young Hemingway was a true artist, a master of omission. He kept himself out of these stories even though the best drew on his own immediate experience. They are about innocence and corruption and the young Hemingway was good at depicting both.

The first novel, Fiesta, hasn’t lost its charm. Reading it again after Hemingway’s suicide, Waugh remembered that “it was a revelation to me when it first came out – the drunk conversations rather than the fishing and bullfighting. Rereading it I was still impressed by the writing but the construction is imperfect.”

Hemingway was only in his mid-40s when the Second World War ended, but he was already all but finished as a serious writer – even though, with admirable determination, he kept at it. Admittedly a succession of head injuries didn’t help. Nor did his fast-developing alcoholism. Even more damaging were his celebrity and wealth. Wherever he went, now always in grand hotels on his trips to Europe, he was surrounded by courtiers.

I have a weakness for his Venetian novel, Across the River and into the Trees, even while recognising that much of it is terrible tripe, steeped in self-pity and boastfulness. Thereafter there was the inarticulate and, to my mind, phoney novella about the Big Fish, which secured him the Nobel Prize, and rambling novels he either couldn’t finish or dared not publish, and which reposed in bank vaults. There are moments of the old magic in The Garden of Eden, posthumously cobbled together, but it was too revealing of hidden sides of his nature for him to bring it to a conclusion, and in A Moveable Feast, his sketches of his life in Paris when he was young. But even this book is disfigured by malice and jealousies.

In the end he could finish nothing. The Dangerous Summer, his account of a season following the bullfights, went on and on and on. The master of vivid economy had, at the age of 60, become a garrulous old man whose mind was wretchedly becoming a prey to demons.

Hemingway’s is a tragic story, and you can’t help wondering how different his life might have been if his conversion to the Catholic Church had been more than merely decorative.

Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer