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The Slopes of Kilimanjaro
Into one famous short story Ernest Hemingway threw “the material of four novels.” Here his foremost biographer probes that story to reveal a great writer at work
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
A similar mixture of “true stuff” and invention appears in the stream-of-consciousness monologues which periodically interrupt the surface movement of the story. These represent Harry’s memories of his past life, and many of them, naturally enough, are Hemingway’s own. It is only by knowing the course of his life in some detail that one can sort out truth from fiction. As in any process of free association of ideas and scenes, the episodes Harry recalls ignore strict chronology. Yet if they are arranged in historical sequence, they provide a rough running account of scenes from the life of the author. The, earliest of Harry’s internal landscapes reveals “a log house, chinked white with mortar, on a hill above the lake.” The lake is Walloon, nine miles from Petoskey, Michigan, where Hemingway spent the seventeen summers of his boyhood, beginning in 1900. The house is that of Grandpa Bacon, an aged patriarch with a red beard who was still alive when the Hemingway children were growing up. References to the First World War arc brief. There is one to the fighting around Monte Corvo on the Italian-Austrian front, a passage at arms that Hemingway had heard of but not seen, and another about trench warfare, presumably in France, in which an officer named Williamson is disembowelled by a German stick-bomb in the tangled barbed wire of no man’s land.
Hemingway returns to his own experience with a graphic cityscape—the hilltop on the Left Bank in Paris where he lived with his first wife, Hadley, in a walk-up flat in the rue du Cardinal Lemoine from the spring of 1922 until they left for Toronto in the summer of 1923. It is a part of Paris that lias changed relatively little in forty-odd years, and although Hemingway undoubtedly invented touches here and there, the quartier is still recognizable from his description. The allusion to the femme de ménage and her views on the disadvantages of the eight-hour working day is a direct quotation from Madame Marie Rohrbach, who was in service to Ernest and Hadley during most of their time in Paris.
There is also a reminiscence of a fishing vacation in the Black Forest of Germany in August, 1922. Hemingway romanticizes and fictionizes his trip to Constantinople and Adrianople to cover the Greco-Turkish War as correspondent for the Toronto Star . He also goes out of his way to insult the Left Bank literati by retailing a trivial incident connected with Harry’s homecoming from the Middle East. On the way back to his apartment the day of his return, Harry passes a café and glances inside. There sits “Malcolm Cowley with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his face talking about the Dada movement with—Tristan Tzara.” Hemingway deleted Cowley’s name before the story appeared. Harry’s wife forgives him for going to Constantinople, just as Hadley forgave Ernest that October morning in 1922, though she had refused to speak to him for three days before his departure because she was afraid to be left alone in the rough neighborhood of the rue du Cardinal Lemoine and the Place Contrescarpe. Hemingway seems to have invented the episode in which Harry’s first wife discovers a love letter from another girl in the morning mail, though something not unlike this may have happened while Ernest was conducting a surreptitious liaison with Pauline Pfeiffer before she became his second wife.
The apartment in the rue Notre Dame des Champs, where Ernest, Hadley, and their infant son, John, lived after their return from Toronto, does not figure in this story because Hemingway had already used it in a flashback in Green Hills of Africa . But it was from this apartment, in the early winters of 1924–25 and 1925–26, that the Hemingways twice left for the village of Schruns in the Austrian Vorarlberg so that Ernest could write and ski in comparative peace. Harry is made to recall the village and to use the actual name of Walther Lent, who operated a ski school in Schruns and played poker with Ernest at the Madlenerhaus, an Alpine hut high in the Silvretta Range. Another of Hemingway’s favorite locales which comes into Harry’s mind is the valley of the Clarks Fork branch of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming. Harry is made to remember “the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa.” The violent anecdote of the halfwit chore boy who murdered his cantankerous employer is largely though not entirely an invention of Hemingway’s, based on a real-life story dating from 1912 that he had overheard during one of his visits to Wyoming. This brings to an end the pastiche of truth and fiction which courses through Harry’s memory as he lies dying, full of vain regret that he has not used enough of what he knows in what he has written.