Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream

 

Hem 1This Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is about Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. He is a giant of American literature, and of masculine writing. He wrote men’s books about manly subjects: war, bullfighting, deep sea fishing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Islands in the Stream was published after his death, in 1970. It was put together from three fragments of novels found in his bank vault in Havana after his death. They were intended by Hemingway to form a larger work, but his widow and literary executor put the pieces together. You’d never think it was cobbled together at all. It’s a stupendous novel, and I loved it.

Hem 2It’s also chillingly tense. Hemingway’s narrative style is famous: he called it the iceberg technique, or something like that, because all the work was done below the surface of the words. So we have plain, pared-down prose, no words wasted, nothing exuberant or decorative, which gives the rare instances of enthusiasm, passion, pleasure, etc, real power, because they stand alone without fuss. The effect is similar to encountering a large rock in the middle of a desert plain. It gives the impression of being bigger than anything else around, because it’s the only one of its kind, but if it were surrounded by equally large-sized rocks, we wouldn’t pay it any particular attention. The effect of such restraint in the writing is that we really feel the undercurrents of emotion. More importantly, we can feel the stuff that’s not being said, and the approach of terrible things a long way off. The tension mounts, and it just keeps on mounting. But because Hemingway’s writing is so controlled, you can feel sure that the catastrophe won’t be sprung on you out of the blue. There will be warnings, and you will have to wait for the warning to happen for the awful, or dangerous, or risky thing to happen. When it does happen, it’s a relief, because now we can get on with it, and not sit there imagining ‘he’s going to kill them’, or ‘they’re going to be washed overboard’, and so on.

Hem 3Tension is a peculiar thing in a novel. If you think about it rationally, the reader can put a book down at any time during a tense-making episode, and it will wait for you. Nothing will change the outcome on the page. You can change how you respond to the outcome by being in a different frame of mind, or wait to have the right kind of time to devote to reading it. You can go to sleep and read the resolution of the tension with a clear mind and full attention on a different day. So what is it that makes us succumb to the tyranny of the plot and keep reading past midnight, or miss a bus stop, in thrall to the story? In Hemingway, I think it’s the hypnosis of the small plain words and the steady encroachment of story and character in tiny, incremental steps. He likes the character, and we like the character, so we don’t want anything bad to happen to that person. Emotional investment in a character binds us to their fate. The more an author encourages us to feel good about a person, the less we are likely to not be too bothered if that person does something horrible, or has something horrible happen to them. So it’s in an author’s interests to make the readers feel invested in some way – good or bad – in the characters so the book will be read. This will work for the situation too, if the situation is bigger or more interesting that the people.

Hem 4So, back to the novel. Only one of the characters in Islands in the Stream populates all three of its parts: Thomas Hudson, a famous artist, a former habitué of 1920s Paris, where he lived with his first wife and son Tom. Now he lives on Bimini, an island of the Bahamas, 50 miles off Florida. He paints, and he drinks. This is apparently not too much, but the amount he and some of the other men sink daily, often starting at breakfast, made me blench. I’m not a spirits drinker, but they certainly were. Hemingway wrote this novel in 1950-51, and it certainly has a feel of Ian Fleming about it, with the details of men’s lives, and how they saw women. Hemingway and Fleming wrote with detailed precision about what their characters ate and wore, and the drinks descriptions are basically recipes without quantities. Thomas Hudson – and here’s an interesting thing, which I’m sure Hemingway critics have explained to their own satisfaction, but it was new to me – Thomas Hudson, when referred to by the narrative voice, is always called ‘Thomas Hudson’. Not Thomas, not Hudson, always the two names together. When he’s referred to by characters, its Hudson or Tom or Tommy, but the narrative voice sets itself apart with the formality of the full name. There is another Tom, his son, called Young Tom or Tommy at different times, but often just Tom. But the painter is given his full name, as if he were a brand of rum.

Hem 5Thomas Hudson lives on Bimini in his house. He has a cook / major-domo / housekeeper and trusted friend and native Biminian called Eddy, and a houseboy called Joseph. The novel opens when Thomas Hudson has finished work for the day, and spends the evening drinking with friends on the quay, where things get a little out of hand, and there’s a fight. His friend Roger Davis, a novelist and screenwriter, comes back to Hudson’s house to gets his wounds doctored and to sleep, and to stay, since he needs to find quiet to start writing again. And, of course, the boys are coming: Hudson’s three sons, Tom, and David and Andrew, by his second wife. The five of them have a wonderful summer on the beach and in and out of the water. This novel is apparently praised for its nature descriptions: it certainly has tremendous descriptions of fishing, sharks, and eating. Some visitors to the island arrive, one of them being a girl who’s come to find Roger, which he is very glad about. That’s the last we see of him, because he takes her off to Hudson’s ranch in Idaho, to start writing again.

Hem 6This is set a few years later in wartime, in Cuba, which isn’t very far south of the Bahamas, in Hudson’s house in the countryside outside Havana. There he has a vast number of cats and dogs, and three or four staff to keep the place running in his absence. He is absent a fair bit, because he’s converted his boat into a survey vessel for the US Navy, and he’s scouring the Caribbean coastline looking for U-boats. When this episode opens he’s just come back from an exhausting trip, and his favourite cat, Boise, is ecstatic at Hudson being home again. Hudson spends most of this section of the novel drinking, or fretting about whether the cats are eating enough. Boise eats fried eggs, and accepts a little champagne. Hudson tells stories in a bar to Honest Lil, an old prostitute friend, and allows himself to recall some very exciting episodes from his past with a princess on a boat going through the Corinth Canal. This is Lil’s ploy to make him forget a recent sadness, and to get him warmed up by recalling the princess’s sexual appetites. But out of the blue, a woman no-one expected to see walks into the bar, and Hudson and she have an ecstatic reunion, which fills Hudson’s slightly fuzzy mind with unfettered joy. It probably isn’t joyful for Honest Lil, because we don’t see her again. The drinking in Havana is prodigious, I lost count of the frozen double daiquiris that Hudson consumed. But just as we’re thinking, at last, he can be happy again, just for a bit, Hudson gets an emergency summons from the Navy and he has to go back to sea.

Hem 7The third part of the novel is spent largely at sea, hunting for some German seamen who escaped their wrecked U-boat, and made the mistake of massacring some islanders when they stole their turtle boat. Hudson’s ship has a crew of irregular sailors, mainly smugglers and fishermen and a discharged Marine, as well as a Navy man who has been given to Hudson to make sure his ship stays in radio contact with naval authorities on Havana. This is one of the thin threads attaching the third part of the novel to the war: another thread concerns Tommy the younger, and other people in Hudson’s life who are also serving in the war. I did wonder when reading this section, why did Thomas Hudson not go straight into the army or navy? Why did he become an irregular pirate for hire? Could any of this stuff have really happened? It’s plausible enough as a novel for me to not want to bother checking out the history: the romance of the plot is quite satisfying enough.

I can’t see this free-living and hard-drinking artist and big-game fisherman submitting to uniform and military rules, and possibly he was too old as well. Instead, we get a truly exotic idea of Cuba and the Floridian islands, the Bahamas, all of the Caribbean, as a modern refuge for terrible pirates who prey on the locals and kill ruthlessly. Islands in the Stream is very Dr No, very sun-kissed and hard-drinking, and very, very hard-man American hero. It reminded me strongly of the Commando comic books I read as a child, where the war was simply a setting for personal heroics and dramatic tension involving guns and the occasional guttural swear word. As a story of eight men cooped up in a boat together in the heat, getting frustrated by not being able to catch their prey, and feeling just a little bit edgy about one or two of the others, this last part of the novel  should glue you to the very last page, no matter what else you should be attending to.

 

 

 

Borrowed fire at sea: Mark Twain and Arthur Ransome

Ransome 1Missee Lee (1941) is an adventure novel in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, one of the two novels in the series whose extraordinary places and events really could not have happened. I don’t know how the Arthur Ransome Society would feel about this theory, but I’ve always held that Missee Lee, like Peter Duck (1932), is a story told by the children to each other, off the page, whereas their many sailing adventures in the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads and off the mud near Harwich, are realistic events that could happen to anyone, which is half of their charm.

In Missee Lee these six children in their early teens, their parrot and Gibber the monkey sail around the world with Captain Flint, the uncle of the two of the children, in a two-mast schooner, the Wild Cat. The ship is burned at sea, and the two life-boats, the Swallow and the Amazon (this really proves that this is a fantasy: nobody would have transported two elderly Lake Coniston sailing dinghies to Portsmouth, or wherever, as lifeboats for a voyage around the world: come on) are separated during the night. The story of how the two parties land on the Chinese coast, get mixed up with pirates, mandarins, the slave trade and Latin lessons, in an interwar China wholly unlike the People’s Republic of China of the time, is one of the most magical and satisfying of all of Ransome’s novels.

Ransome 2The loss of the Wild Cat at sea by fire is a quickly described but searingly detailed episode, a rare moment where the children’s lives are threatened by spectacular events told in Arthur Ransome’s signature flat style. The most intense feelings, the most desperate moments, are given power by the quietness with which we are told the details. Something I don’t think anyone has noticed before (but Ransomeites can prove me wrong: I don’t have access to the Arthur Ransome Society’s publications) is that Ransome borrowed this episode from a newspaper account by Mark Twain of a real-life disaster at sea, nearly eighty years before.

In 1866, the clipper ship Hornet sailed from New York, around Cape Horn, and was heading for Australia across the south Pacific, when it was lost at sea by fire. The crew and passengers escaped in three boats but were separated at sea, and only one boat, containing thirteen men and two teenage boys, made landfall, drifting ashore at Hawaii after forty-three days at sea. [1] Mark Twain was at that time working as a journalist for the Sacramento Union, and had decided to spend some time in Hawaii, from where he had been filing reports in the form of letters to the Union since March. On hearing of the arrival of the shipwrecked sailors, Twain interviewed the Hornet’s third mate John S Thompson, and some of the men. His account of the loss of the Hornet was the first account to be printed, in June 1866 in the Sacramento Union, and shortly afterwards in other North American periodicals. [2] This disaster at sea and the survival of some of the shipwrecked sailors became a well-known story in nautical history.

Twain 1On reading Twain’s account and immediately recognising its similarities with the episode in Missee Lee, I did some literary detection. It seems clear to me that Ransome borrowed freely from the account as Twain gave it, and from which subsequent accounts of the disaster were drawn. Twain’s account may not have been reprinted in the twentieth century until 1939, in Letters from Honolulu, although this was in a limited edition of 1000 copies by an American publisher, unlikely to have come Ransome’s way. [3] It is most likely that Ransome first read about the Hornet’s end in a secondary publication from the nineteenth century, but the closeness of his account to Twain’s makes me think that whatever he read pretty much repeated Twain’s account in its details and structure. Both disasters happen on a day of no wind and tropical heat; both are caused by an ‘open light’ igniting flammable liquid in the hold. The last correlating point, of the emotion felt by the sailors on seeing their ships slip underwater, is particularly telling. Twain positioned this as a natural observation in his linear account, as did Ransome, and both conclude their dramatic, realistic accounts to remind us that to sailors, ships are people too.

The evidence is given below in two columns, in the order given in Twain’s account, and in the novel.

Mark Twain, ‘Honolulu, June 22 1866’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 137-60 Arthur Ransome, Missee Lee (1941) (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1976), 27-37.
  The crew are dozing on deck in the long tropical afternoon heat, on their way from Japan to the China coast.
Chief mate and two men go down to the hold to draw some ‘bright varnish’ from a cask. Captain tells them bring the cask on desk as it’s too dangerous in the hold. The mate disobeys this order and draws the varnish in the hold first Captain Flint ‘was passing full petrol tins up through the forehatch’. The crew help him pour the petrol from the cans into the engine tank on deck.
The liquid ignited from the ‘open light’ in his hand Gibber grabs Captain Flint’s lit cigar, and, chased by the crew, dives down into the hold through the forehatch opening. ‘A sheet of flame shot upward.’
The ship goes up in flames very quickly The ship goes up in flames very quickly
The crew and watch were idling in such shade as they could find, ‘and the listlessness and repose of morning in the tropics was upon the vessel and her belongings’  
Captain Mitchell ordered the three (life)boats to be launched instantly Captain Flint orders the boats to be launched immediately.
One boat’s bottom was stove in in the hurry, but was patched with a blanket *  
‘Not a thing was saved, except such food and other articles as lay about the cabin and could be quickly seized and thrown on deck’ ‘There was time to save very little’
‘Forty minutes after the fire alarm, the provisions and passengers were on board the three boats, and they rowed away from the ship’ ‘Get the boat clear,’ shouted Captain Flint […] ‘Pull clear,’ shouted Captain Flint angrily.
‘Twenty minutes afterward the two masts I have mentioned, with their rigging and their broad sheets of canvas wreathed in flames, crashed ito the sea’ ‘Deckhouse and galley were gone. The mainmast rose out of a mass of flames, its shrouds hanging loose, their lanyards burned through. There was a loud crack and then another. The mast swayed …’
‘The sea was illuminated for miles around and the clouds above were tinged with a ruddy hue’ ‘The sun was dipping now below the sea in the west and the sudden dark of the tropics was sweeping out of the east. The Wild Cat flamed against the dusk like a row of torches.

‘Two sunsets at once’, said Titty.

‘the ship went down, and the crew of the Hornet were alone […] “We felt as if somebody or something had gone away – as if we hadn’t any home any more”’ ‘There was a long drawn hiss as the sea swept through her and the last flame went out as the little schooner disappeared for ever.

John, Susan and Roger heard Titty’s gasping sob and hoped it had not been noticed by the others.’

* Notice the shared event with Swallowdale (1931).

Christina Hardyment gives an account of two notes written by Ransome during his planning of Missee Lee as he was writing it from 1939 onwards. The first rough outline includes a shipwreck and Gibber with an oil can. The second, dated February 1941, notes ‘the dreadful burning of the Wild Cat’, which differs from the ‘shipwreck’ in the earlier, undated note. [4] By then Ransome had clearly firmed up his outline, and perhaps had come across Twain’s account, and used it to create the defining moment in Missee Lee that generates the plot.

If anyone has written further on this point, I’d be glad to hear about it.

[1] Mark Twain, ‘Honolulu, June 22 1866’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 137-60, 137, 139.

[2] A Grove Day, ‘Introduction’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), v-xvii, x.

[3] Day 1966, xvii.

[4] Christina Hardyment, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 170, 174.