As part of WFYI’s premiere of “Hemingway,” a documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I was invited to write about the author and his work. My first-person essay was a mediation on Hemingway, my father’s battle with dementia, and the stories that haunt us the most.
In Another Country
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.
If you ask me, Hemingway is supposed to be funny. That’s why his stories are structured like jokes. “An old man walks into the sea.” Fisherman goes out, comes back with some bones—come on, that’s comedy!
Or what about “In Another Country”? Do you remember that one? Here’s how it goes:
There’s this soldier who’s laid up in a hospital. He’s been injured during the war. The injury has taken his calf, but this soldier used to play football. “Don’t worry,” say the doctors, “our machines will make you better. You’ll be playing again in no time!”
In the hospital there’s also a major. This guy’s got a withered hand, but before the war he was the greatest fencer in Italy. So the doctors put him on machines too, and show the major pictures of all the hands the machines have already healed. “You’ll be fencing again in no time!”
Then, some while later and still far away from the war, the major receives some terrible news: His wife has died of pneumonia. “Ah,” say the doctors. “How about some more pictures of hands?”
In Hemingway’s story, the war takes from his characters what they hold the most dear. And in that, he points out, war is no different from life.
When I was sent home from work in March of 2020, I ripped two big sheets off my monthly desk calendar to last me through April. At the time this felt pessimistic. At the time, I thought, “Better safe than sorry!” It was the start of my retreat from the world, a withdrawal for my own protection as much as for others.
Not every retreat was so safe. My father, just a few years out from his diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia, began to suffer paranoid delusions while the country locked down. As he slipped further and further into himself, fearful of things we could not see or understand, he finally found a solution. While the rest of the world was staying inside, my dad left the indoors and began running away.
Okay, maybe Hemingway isn’t funny funny. I should probably have called him “ironic.” That fits the bill a bit better.
Critic E. M. Halliday agrees. Here’s what Halliday says about irony in “A Farewell to Arms”:
“It is as if the author had said, ‘Do not imagine that the kinds of cruelty and disruption I have shown you are confined to war: they are the conditions of life itself.’ It is thus only at the end that the full ironic ambiguity of the title springs into view.”
So, like I said: Not really funny ha ha.
Here’s something: My father’s initials, MEM, are also the latin root for “mind” and for “memory.” What would Hemingway say about that?
Too on-the-nose even for Ernest, I think. He would have gone with something more subtle. But he would understand the nature of a disease that strips you of the things you hold dear as your self. My father, the metallurgist, suddenly unable to make mashed potatoes. My father, who loved to talk and to read, afflicted by an aphasia that left him unable to process language at all.
The world will steal you away from yourself, Hemingway warns, and it will do so a piece at a time.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Toward the end of his life, Hemingway became increasingly paranoid. He’d been too chummy with Cuba, too friendly with Castro, and was convinced that these activities had attracted J. Edgar Hoover’s attention. He believed the FBI was opening his mail, monitoring his bank account, and keeping him under constant surveillance. Coupled with his history of depression and alcoholism this paranoia may have been a contributing factor in Hemingway’s suicide.
But here’s the thing: He was also correct. Hemingway’s friend A.E. Hotchner would later write that he’d “regretfully misjudged” the situation after the FBI released files in 1980 that proved Hemingway indeed been surveilled. Just because he was paranoid didn’t mean they weren’t after him.
I think there’s a word for that.
My sister and her husband went to live with my parents after Dad ran away. They installed child-proof locks on the doors to keep him home and keep him safe. You can imagine how this went over with his paranoia. Here it was, at last — confirmation that forces were conspiring against him. But the locks held. They kept Dad safe as long as they could, while his brain continued rapidly to deteriorate.
Eventually that summer he stopped trying to run. He stopped eating and drinking as well. His doctors put him on hospice at the end of July, and in the first week of August, for the first time since the pandemic began, my family gathered to say our goodbyes. We’d each been quarantined, yes, but it still all felt so fraught. What if one of us was sick? What if we all got sick? Now we were the paranoids, and even if it was for a good reason I still think Dad got the last laugh.
“Now see how you like it!”
Toward the end of “In Another Country,” the major berates the soldier. We do not yet know that the major’s wife has died; we only know that he’s furious when the young soldier says he’s hoping to marry:
“He cannot marry. He cannot marry,” he said angrily. “If he is to lose everything, he should not place himself in a position to lose that. He should not place himself in a position to lose. He should find things he cannot lose.”
Of course, the major is wrong. There is nothing in life that cannot be lost. What the war does not take something else will, and is there a point to pretending it’s otherwise?
Here Hemingway leaves us uncertain. The major gives up on the healing machines, yes, he gives up on all hope of recovery. Instead, he stares silent out the hospital window. But the story does not belong to the major. It is narrated by the soldier, from set up to punchline, and the soldier does not tell us what we should think. He is waiting to see if we’ll laugh.