Ernest Hemingway

Book Review – Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died by Jim Bernhard

It seems like every person who’s ever written something famous has died at some point. So many have, in fact that (the still living) Jim Bernhard decided to write a book about it. A tome regarding such a macabre topic as death may seem morbid to some. The writer still managed to present an interesting and many times entertaining take on those who have gone before us while leaving a lasting legacy of letters in their wake.

The author structured the book by presenting short biographical sketches of various writers. He began with the Greek playwrights and concluded with the late film critic Roger Ebert. In order to liven, no pun intended, the subject matter, the author added these writers views on religion along with some witty epigrams regarding their lives and work. While not a scholarly reference book it did contain many witty and amusing anecdotes; as well as sound advice. A very engaging read resulted.

The theme of rampant alcohol abuse permeated the book. Imagine that. Jack London was an alcoholic by the age of 15, which could explain why he didn’t live past 40. Notables such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams all possessed a legendary fondness for the bottle. Mr. Bernard explored some others’ experiences with it. In fact authors’ affectation for potent potables could be traced back to Geffrey Chaucer. Mr. Bernhard wrote, “So highly regarded was he by Edward II that he was granted a gallon of wine daily for life, possibly as a reward for an early poetical work.” (Loc 586) When warned about the dangers of his alcohol abuse just prior to his death, Miguel de Cervantes said, “Many people have told me the same thing, but I can no more give up drinking for pleasure than if I had been born to do nothing else.” (Loc 655) James Thurber provided my favorite thoughts on the subject. “’One martini is all right,’ he said, ‘two are too many, and three are not enough.’” (Loc 3368)

The author also included some interesting facts about the various writers he covered. For one, I didn’t know that Thomas Hardy invented the “cliffhanger.” In an early serialized novel an episode ended with a character physically hanging off a cliff. (Loc 2580) Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the first use of the expression “willing suspension of disbelief.” (Loc 1445) Edgar Allan Poe only made $10 from “The Raven”. Dorothy Parker supposedly came up with all the following clichés: ball of fire, with bells on, birdbrain, face-lift, doesn’t have a prayer, scaredy-cat, the sky’s the limit, and wisecrack. (Loc 3319)

The myriad uses of humor impressed me the most about this book. The author provided an amusing take on Thomas Aquinas’ burial.

Thomas’ body was given to the Dominican order, and today most of it is in a gold and silver sarcophagus in the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France—except his right arm, which is in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and a bone from his left arm, which is preserved as a relic in the cathedral of Naples. Canonized in 1323, Saint Thomas now rests in pieces. (Loc 542)

Apparently, burials amuse Mr. Bernhard. He had comparable thoughts on Dante’s interment.

His body is buried in Ravenna, and the tomb erected for him in Florence in the Church of Santa Croce remains empty. Although the Florence City Council formally revoked his exile in 2008, there is no indication Dante plans to relocate. (Loc 578)

The book’s most entertaining passage described Voltaire’s deathbed.

On the morning of May 30, Gaultier and another priest came to his bedside to exhort him once more. They asked him if he believed in the divinity of Christ. Voltaire replied, “In the name of God, don’t mention that man to me again—and let me die in peace.” Asked to renounce Satan, Voltaire observed, “This is not the time to make any more enemies.” He expired at eleven o’clock on the evening of May 30, 1778. (Loc 1199)

Rabindranath Tagore (not covered in Final Chapters) wrote, “And because I loved life, I know I shall love death as well.” I don’t know that I’ll “love” it, but I sure enjoyed reading about it in Final Chapters. While witty, the book did include some serious thoughts on the subject. The follow from Marcus Aurelius seemed a fitting one with which to conclude this piece.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. (Loc 479)

Book Review – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

             It takes a true master of the craft to write a book about one character in a solitary setting. It takes an even better one to do so and to still keep the reader riveted through the entire story. It takes a virtual genius to do this with a story about fishing. Ernest Hemingway accomplished all of these feats in his classic The Old Man and the Sea.  For just such an achievement, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. The Nobel Prize Committee cited it by name when awarding the novelist that prestigious honor.

            While all of the above provide great reasons to read The Old Man and the Sea, the narrative itself serves as the primary purpose. Hemingway related an exceptional story regarding a man’s courageous struggle in the face of overwhelming obstacles. I interpret the tale as a metaphor for life. One passage read, “’Man is not made for defeat,’ he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’” (Page 103) While the protagonist reflected on what prevented him from achieving his goal he observed, “’Nothing,’ he said aloud. ‘I went out too far.’” (Page 120)

            In addition to the inspiring message, I also enjoyed Hemingway’s use of language. “The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.” (Page 13) I’m struggling to visualize this one, but I like the creativity. My favorite passage came when the old man prayed for help catching the fish. Hemingway wrote out the Hail Mary then had his protagonist add at the end, “’Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.’” (Page 65) I thought that an interesting thought on an adversary one asked for divine help in murdering.

            It’s quite a challenge to wax philosophical about fishing. I applauded Hemingway’s ability to do so in this book. The excerpt below provides the best example.   

I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are many people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.

But he liked to think about all things that he was involved in since there was nothing to read and he did not have a radio, he thought much and he kept on thinking about sin. You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more? (Page 105)

I never thought I’d see someone try to frame an epistemological paradigm for fishing. I have to give Mr. Hemingway kudos. Once more, he displayed great ingenuity.

            I mentioned earlier that I enjoyed the author’s creative uses of language in the book. I thought in some of the passages Hemingway’s muse “went fishing”, so to speak. As readers, no doubt, caught in the passage above, it contained a number of superfluous uses of to. My biggest issue concerned the myriad appearances of the word was throughout the novella. As any writer knows, was is the “mother of all tell words.” Wherever it occurs the author should replace with active verbs. In my copy of the book, all six sentences in the paragraph from Page 30 leading to Page 31 contained the word. I was going to re-print it here, but I realized that was not the right thing to do.  See how annoying overuse of that word can be for readers?

            I would have to say that The Old Man and the Sea ranks among my all-time favorite books. As this July 2nd will mark the 63rd anniversary of Hemingway’s passing, I thought it a good time to read it again. I’m glad I did; every time I go through it I like it even more. What a tremendous inspirational story about one man’s adversity in the face of daunting obstacles that keep coming at him. While the book didn’t inspire me to take up fishing off the Cuban coast, it did make me want to check out more of the author’s work. But first I think I’ll go to sleep and dream about lions.