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The Man Who Wasn't There: A Life of Ernest Hemingway

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A ground-breaking and intensely revealing examination of the life of the 20th century's most iconic writer.

Ernest Hemingway was an involuntary chameleon, who would shift seamlessly from a self-cultivated image of hero, aesthetic radical, and existential non-conformist to a figure made up at various points of selfishness, hypocrisy, self-delusion, narcissism and arbitrary vindictiveness.

Richard Bradford shows that Hemingway's work is by parts erratic and unique because it was tied into these unpredictable, bizarre features of his personality. Impressionism and subjectivity always play some part in the making of literary works. Some authors try to subdue them while others treat them as the essentials of creativity but they endure as a ubiquitous element of all literature.

They are the writer's private signature, their authorial fingerprint. In this ground-breaking and intensely revealing biography, which includes a complete reassessment of Hemingway's oeuvre Hemingway's unfixed personality is shown to be the index to why and how he wrote as he did.

352 pages, Paperback

Published November 3, 2020

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Richard Bradford

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Displaying 1 - 10 of 10 reviews
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,392 reviews2,387 followers
July 25, 2020
I found this a curiously one-note biography of Hemingway. Bradford's thesis seems to be that Hem was a pathological liar who couldn't tell the difference between real life and his fiction, that he 'perverted the truth so frequently and habitually that he all but erased his own existence' (loc.72). The language used is all around fantasies, self-delusion, escapist alternatives to reality, make-believe, illusions - most of which (with the exception of self-delusion) are also terms generally associated with fiction. The book tries to get around the issue like this:
An author's success in reframing and disguising reality as fiction presupposes an ability to consciously differentiate between the two. For Hemingway the boundaries between life and writing were sometimes poorly defined.(loc.90)
Hem, the book implies, is borderline psychotic and of questionable sanity. I'd have liked far more sourced evidence and close analysis than is provided here to accept this.

There are, undoubtedly, disturbing aspects to Hem: his machismo, the valorising of killing animals, the anti-Semitism, his treatment of women - but this book seeks to erase any difference between books and author, seeing the former as an essential extension of the latter - if the man is a troubling personality then the books must have been misunderstood by generations of readers, critics and the Nobel panel is the implied argument here. They are manifestations of a diseased psyche which projects its own wannabe fantasies onto and into them.

Now, I'm all for iconoclasm and breaking with the valuations of the past, but this book didn't do a good job of convincing me of its thesis. There is little close analysis, there are no footnotes/endnotes so that this isn't in scholarly dialogue with previous assessments of Hem. Where there is a reference to past work (and they are minimal), it's not given in a standard academic format or with internal consistency: so we have 'so, implies Lynn (p.23)', and, later, 'Kenneth Lynn (1987) refers to him as...' with no page reference. These are not anomalies: this would be sloppy in an undergraduate; from a literature professor, it's astonishing. The second half of the book where many of the references are to letters to, from, or about Hem, are better sourced.

More interesting are the claims that Hem knew nothing about Modernism and had no idea what the 1920s Paris circle of Pound, Fitzgerald, Stein, Eliot, Picasso et al. was about - that he simply fell in with them... until he fell out with them all again. The book is very strong on making Hem a malicious and cruel friend who never forgave a slight, especially a criticism of his writing, and who stored his resentment for up to ten years before unleashing it malevolently in his books. I simply don't know enough about Hem to know whether this is true; or whether it was the case, as is claimed here, that he regarded Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife, as 'his long-term financial safety net' (loc.1464).

This doesn't claim to be an analysis of the books (though the argument does depend on them) but it's disturbing to see such a wild misunderstanding of The Sun Also Rises as to be able to state 'Jake is the only character who is not sexually attracted to Brett Ashley' - um, really? Really?

Was Hem 'slightly deranged' (loc.1625)? Was he a 'fraud' (loc.2043) because he wrote stories about things that never happened to him or which he never did in real life? Did he want Martha Gellhorn in part because she was 'a courtier with impressive credentials' and contacts with the Roosevelts (loc.2530)? Did he terrify Scott Fitzgerald to such an extent that Dashiell Hammett was influenced in his crime noir (loc.2764)? Is For Whom the Bell Tolls 'a literary failure... an abysmal experiment with no discernible objective' (loc.2978)? You'll find all these claims in this book.

Thanks to Bloomsbury/Tauris Parke for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,030 reviews32 followers
August 6, 2020
Some writers are lazy, arrogant, or, in Richard Bradford’s case, both.

The book’s central premise is Hemingway was a self-deluding fantasist, unable to tell reality and the yarns he spun about himself apart. Hemingway, we are told, was ‘vindictive’, ‘self-aggrandising’, a ‘lout’, ‘ill-tempered’; an ‘adolescent in the body of a man’, ‘deranged’, ‘a contemptible worm’, ‘a deluded ingenue’, a ‘selfish opportunistic individual’ and a ‘perpetual fraud.’ The book feels less written so much as spat onto the page.

Few of Bradford’s points withstand much scrutiny. Even when he is right, he does not enlighten. When he tried to sound profound, he sounds pompous. ‘It goes without saying’ he says, ‘that fiction belongs to a class of fakery that is uniquely its own.’ Why he bothers to say something that goes without saying is not stated. And there are no ‘classes’ of fakery. There is only fact and fiction and prose has no monopoly on the latter whatsoever. ‘Who knows? Certainly not Hemingway.’ Certainly not Bradford either, unless he actually has unlocked the secret of telepathy.

Bradford collects howlers the way a kid collects stickers. He prizes The Old Man and The Sea as ‘the least autobiographical’ of Hemingway’s fiction. A moment’s thought tells you otherwise. Santiago, like Hemingway, is a deep-sea fisherman emerging from a spell of salao - ‘the worst form of unlucky’ - just as Hemingway emerged from the homicidal reviews of Across the River and into the Trees. As Hemingway did, Santiago catches a marlin after a lengthy struggle and brings the carcass to shore. Hemingway did this so often he sometimes used the marlin carcass for bait. This was one fact I didn’t know, and it was Bradford who told me - earlier on in this book.

Bradford also thinks Santiago, alone among Hemingway’s characters, is wholly made up. That’s right. Santiago, the ageing, blue-eyed, thin, gaunt fisherman from the Canary Islands bears not even the faintest resemblance to Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s elderly fisherman friend, who was blue-eyed, thin, gaunt, and from the Canary Islands. This is not even the worst blunder.

This is an idle, fatuous book, long on secondary sources, short on insight, finesse, originality, or interest.
Profile Image for Patrick Powell.
44 reviews3 followers
February 13, 2021
I’m engaged in a project on Hemingway, though not one intended, as are so many others, to carry his sanctification as ‘a great American writer’, sometimes even ‘the greatest American writer’. I think that, like many journalists, he could turn a good phrase but that his rise to prominence and eventually global fame was, to put it baldly for the sake of brevity, something of a fluke.

I have been reading any number of biographies, memoirs and related works and came across Bradford’s book recently. I was attracted by the title which encouraged me to expect that it was not yet another quasi hagiography (although to be fair most recent biographies, unlike Carlos Baker’s and Fenton’s have taken a more balanced and less hagiographic view of Hemingway and his work). Bradford has a lot to say and would seem to have done a great deal of research, much of it based on close readings of Hemingway’s correspondence. He is, though, notably hostile to Hemingway.

His central theme is that Hemingway was a self-delusional fantasist (and I don’t disagree) but I can’t deny that the case Bradford makes us badly undermined by some real howlers and inexplicably bad editing.

Just a few examples: he refers to Sylvia Beach as both ‘Beach’ and ‘Beech’. The writing is often so confusing - sometimes it is very unclear who a ‘he’ is referring to so bad is the writing - that you start to wonder just how much you should trust the author’s research and his judgment. And 'publicly' is thus spelled, not 'publically', and for an English professor (and his publisher) to get that consistently wrong is not encouraging as to the quality of the rest of the book.

In fact, for an author who is, according to the dust cover, a ‘research professor of English at Ulster University’ and ‘visiting professor at the University of Avignon’, he does not write at all well. Worse, the publisher is not some fly-by-night outfit but an apparently respected house, so how it can allow this work to reach the presses in its current condition is very odd.

Another curious aspect of the book and one which also give this reader cause for concern is Bradford’s quite obvious dislike of Hemingway. At times, especially early on in the book, he even seems to hate him.

These and related points should be borne in mind because he does make some strong claims about Hemingway and the writer’s relationship with the truth. According to Bradford Hemingway was a fantasist from a young age and it got worse as he grew older. It would seem that once he was over 50, he had pretty much, to use a popular phrase, lost his marbles.

Some of the made-up stories he told are quite fantastical and one wonders why previous biographers apparently glossed over them. Hemingway claims to have worked as a prizefighter, a bullfighter, commanded as a lieutenant a battalion of crack Italian troops in World War I, flown a Hurricane for the RAF, personally helped in the mass execution of more than 100 Falangists in the Spanish Civil War, personally gunned down 110 German soldiers in the battle of Hürtigenwald in World War II, landed on the Normandy beach on D Day, and much more. None of this was true. It is all complete bullshit.

But to confuse the issue terribly, he did do some extraordinary things in World War II which have been verified.

Bradford’s book is worth reading, but please bear in mind my strictures above. I am giving the book just two stars because however interesting it and its claims are, it should and could have been so much better.
Profile Image for Emily.
147 reviews
January 1, 2020
Bradford seems to have nothing but disdain for Hemingway. He seems to criticize the man and the author for being untruthful. Hemingway is a fictional writer who often took real life experiences and fictionalized them. Bradford seems to be greatly annoyed by this and thinks it lessons the truth and realism in the fiction, but he seems to have lost sight of the fact that fictional writers write fiction!! He just spends page after page complaining that a 20 year old man changed his story about being wounded in the war over and over again. He was 20. He was wounded. Of course this would happen. So he lied about girls being attracted to him. Normal human reactions and life events get embellished by many people, but Bradford seems to struggle with that concept. This isn’t worth reading. Yes, some of the criticism is deserved but it’s not balanced or well written.
Profile Image for Robin Price.
645 reviews9 followers
November 3, 2020
Richard Bradford's new book about Ernest Hemingway has many predecessors but none equal it.
I like the fact that Bradford appears to have a love/hate relationship with Hemingway. So many biographers do little more than idolize, rather than analyse their chosen subject. Bradford shows Hemingway with warts and all, ready to reassess his moments of literary genius, whilst still able to call some of his later work literary masturbation.
Hemingway was, and still is, a legend, but Bradford strips him naked as an inveterate liar who invented as much in his own back story as in the fiction he published. Lucky Hemingway isn't still around to put his boxing gloves on and knock Bradford out but perhaps he would relent and agree that this book is unmissable for his legion of fans.
Profile Image for John.
10 reviews4 followers
January 17, 2019
Probably the most critical biography about Hemingway I've read. Bradford does not have a lot of good things to say about old Papa. Did he tell tall tales or was he delusional? Apparently the latter. Bradford criticizes previous biographers for speculations not based on facts, but then does plenty of it himself. And as usual, the last fourth of any Hem bio is pretty depressing.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
249 reviews22 followers
December 27, 2020
I hate leaving negative reviews and I feel like I'm being generous giving 2 stars. Honestly, this book is so dull. He supposedly lived this interesting life but I had to force myself to keep reading it in the hope that it improved... Does the author hate Hemmingway and that's why it is so boring? Who knows...
Profile Image for Michael Walsh.
3 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2021
A good wake up call for the also delusional Cult of Hemingway.
Profile Image for Terry.
147 reviews4 followers
September 16, 2021
Bradford's basic argument is that Hemingway could not differentiate reality and fiction, even from a very young age, and blended reality with lies without understanding there was any difference between the two. "His temperament [i.e. personality] was a fabric of masks and evasions" Bradford writes.

It is a fascinating argument, and Bradford partially pulls it off, but is ultimately unconvincing, especially given the pot-boiler gossipy nature of the book.

Bradford makes fatal leaps of conjecture. He begins with an interesting point or idea then over reaches, making ‘statement[s] based on generous guesswork’ as Bradford himself says of a previous Hemingway biographer. For example he attempts to conclude that Hemingway's attempt to write a factual account of his safari (Green Hills of Africa) using fiction techniques (something routinely done in this modern age) "is irrational", and that Hemingway cheating a bit to fictionalize some sections making himself appear a better hunter, and leaving out his bowel infection, "[expose] Hemingway as delusional." Bradford again leaps in logic and asserts that Hemingway wrote "Green Hills of Africa" to portray himself as a courageous hunter, who by some unstated analogy was facing down the literary establishment as he did the lions.

Amongst some of better moments in "The Man Who Wasn't There", Bradford presents an interesting theory that EH’s problem with Ford Madox was that EH wanted control of the magazine (Transatlatic Review), arguing Hemingway wanted to use it to build a reputation in literary and publishing circles.

But Bradford goes too far into the dangerous and treacherous territory of reading biography from fiction. His argument comes close to stating, essentially, 'the fiction Hemingway wrote in this book he believed as true because he wrote it in a book of fiction.'

This book is worth reading for some of the observations and insights regarding a close reading of letters to and from EH alongside fiction he produced at about the same time, including an interesting theory that EH reinvented his personality with each location he lived in or visited, searching for a persona to fill an emptiness within. And for highlighting a few key points of EH’s life and work, (for example, proposing that Hemingway loved deep sea fishing as analogous to bullfighting, allowing EH to participate directly in deep sea fishing and so live out bullfighter fantasies indirectly) that are perhaps passed over too quickly in longer, more expansive biographies.
Profile Image for Sambasivan.
941 reviews27 followers
April 27, 2021
Average narrative. Dry style. But still kind of ok. As it gave some new insights
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