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.




Coroner’s Pidgin

coronerBeginning my reposting of my scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, this is a lucky dip from the vaults: Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham. It was the last classic detective fiction novel of the Five Great Reads miniseries.

I’ve been reading some great detective novels from the 1930s and 1940s, because this is my favourite kind of comfort fiction. Novels from this period are called ‘classic’ because they established the form, they invented the modern idea of detection in fiction, and because they brought into being brilliant, all-knowing detectives who could solve all crimes, restore all wrongs and generally sort out the world. This Golden Age of detective fiction began in the interwar period in Britain, when we’d only just emerged from the First World War, and carried on through to the next one. Uneasy times need reassuring reading.

I wanted to talk about a detective novel, and about Margery Allingham, so the choice had to be carefully made. During the Second World War, Allingham’s detective novels turn into thrillers. They still have Albert Campion, mostly, as her detective leading the investigation, but they have a compelling urgency about them, that drives the reader on so that we are forced to go against the thrust of the narrative and slow down, trying not to miss anything important. There is a lot that’s important: she’s fiendishly clever at hiding clues and relevant facts. Or we are driven like a leaf over a waterfall, grabbing at facts and events as we whoosh through the story. Once we reach the end we have to read it all over again, just to get the shock ending straight in our heads. She’s an exceptionally persuasive writer too: we believe what she says simply because of how her characters react.

Coroner’s Pidgin is paced at normal walking speed, not sprinting to a finish. Its set during the war, but without any time pressure to force us to run when we would rather walk slowly. Instead, our progress is impeded. Campion is home on leave for the first time in three years, after doing something secret and unspecified for the war abroad, probably in a hot climate as his hair has been bleached white. So he’s having a bath in his flat in London, having just got off the train at Victoria, and he’s happily counting how many minutes he has to finish wallowing, to get dressed, to sort out his bag, and to catch his train. Catching the train is very important, because he wants to go home, he wants to see his wife, who he hasn’t seen for three years. And then he becomes aware that there are people in his flat, and they’re carrying something heavy. He assumes that one of them must be Lugg, his old servant, so he finishes the bath and slips into his bedroom to find a dressing-gown. There he meets a visitor whom he doesn’t expect, and who wasn’t there ten minutes earlier: a dead body lying on his bed. He goes to find Lugg and asks him politely whether the lady in his bedroom will be staying long, fully intending to get out quick and catch his train. But it’s too late, he’s been sucked into the plot, and he doesn’t get to catch his train until the coroner has finished pronouncing on the second death in the book, the one that ends the story and reveals the hideously complex plot.

Campion is like Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn: he’s from the upper classes, and can speak to any of them as a familiar, and frequently as an old acquaintance. His uncle is the Bishop of Devizes (an invented see, by which we are expected to appreciate Campion’s Establishment connections), and his parents are something very high up in the British nobility, possibly even semi-royal. But Campion is a younger son and doesn’t use a title, instead using his affable and harmless pseudonym of Albert, which is royal enough in the right context. The importance of Campion’s social class here is that this novel is about the British assumption that certain people don’t need to follow the rules, or obey the law, simply because of who they are. Lady Carados is an ageing beauty, formerly an actress, but has been spoiled by her late husband the Marquis of Carados, and is now an uncontrollable force of privilege and willpower. Her son, Johnny Carados, also cannot control her, but he can persuade her to follow some of the laws of the land that otherwise she so blithely ignores.

Lady Carados had found the first dead body in her son’s bed, just before he was due back on leave, and a few days before his marriage, and so she decides that clearly the woman must have committed suicide, and changes the incriminating bottle by the bed, that has Johnny’s name on it, for something more suitable, because clearly that’s what ought to have happened. Then she decides to move the body, and gets Lugg, whom she knows from his Air Raid Warden and Heavy Rescue work in Carados Square, to use his ambulance to get the body out of her son’s house, which is why Campion finds the body on his bed. When the police start questioning her, she complains how stodgy and stuffy they are, and how they simply can’t understand why she had to move the body. The police ask her not to leave her house until the morning, but she ignores this, because, as she laughingly tells her son, they can’t possibly expect her to take them literally, can they? She seems utterly oblivious to the fact that the lady in the bed has been murdered, and that her fingerprints are all over the evidence, and that murder means a hanging.

Similarly, the twists and turns of the plot show that many of Johnny Carados’ entourage are solely concerned with protecting his name, because he must be above reproach. He’s a good man, a war hero, a great philanthropist, and an imaginative patron of the arts, but somehow, very oddly, all the lines of enquiry in the murder, and in the art thefts, and in the attacks at night, lead back to him. Campion is astounded at the blinkered attitudes of the gay young people in his household, who are now not so young, and not so gay as they were in the 1930s, but quite complacent in their assumption that of course Johnny can do things because he is Johnny, and the law simply doesn’t apply to people like them. He nearly kills an old friend by giving him a stomach remedy, because someone unknown has switched the bottles. Instead of being appalled, his entourage are only concerned with keeping the victim quiet, and the doctor silenced, because Johnny’s name must be kept clean.

Allingham’s great skill in increasing the tension rests on her invented social landscape. The hidden treasures of the nation are at stake, and we believe in them all, especially those, like the Gyrth Chalice, that have appeared in the Allingham world already, because she simply persuades us so effortlessly in these invented works of art. We’ve never heard of the Carados title, because its an Allingham invention, but half a page after its first mention, we believe in the Marquis of Carados as we would believe in the Duke of Westminster. She also has a fondness for the theatre; there is usually a theatrical character in her novels. InCoroner’s Pidgin, Eve Snow the comedienne is Johnny’s mistress, and one of the few characters who don’t have any illusions about life as it must be lived in wartime, and can see things for what they really are. She and Johnny know perfectly well that society has changed, and are trying to persuade their friends to keep up with the new conditions of life, but these friends have other concerns. The gap between the two realities causes the tension.

The plot is twisted and mischievous, and unravels in unexpected ways. Campion drifts through the narrative, arriving at the right time in unexpected situations to collect information. He’s on hand to hear Lady Carados’ astounding remarks about privilege, and to be told by Ricky Silva that Dolly Chivers has a secret husband. The waiter at the Minoan Restaurant stirs up the plot now and again, just giving it a little prod to keep things interesting, by casually dropping information into Campion’s hands in an absent-minded way. A clear-as-day US army lieutenant, who is blindingly in love with Johnny’s fiancée (not Eve Snow, another one: do keep up), also has a lot of crucial information, but he doesn’t know it, and neither does Campion, until we are introduced to the subplot of the bottle of wine that should not exist.

Behind all this, we have the war. The Blitz doesn’t happen during the 48 hours of the story, but London is pretty much smashed to pieces, and after three years Campion has trouble getting about his formerly familiar routes, without streetlights or landmarks. Rationing is ignored, but food is scarce and fairly horrible, which makes the magnificence of the wine that should not exist so remarkable. The most charming character in the novel is Lugg’s pet pig, a monstrous sow that he keeps in a secluded dugout in a bombed-out London square. Like all Allingham’s novels, this one celebrates eccentricity, but also points out how dangerous eccentric little ways can be in a world that has no room for them.

first podcasted on 9 March 2012

14 December 2014