Ernest Hemingway: To Have and Have Not

Readers who have seen the great 1944 Humphrey Bogart film of To Have and Have Not will be a little surprised by the book:  the only thing the movie draws from the novel is the name of the main character, fishing boat captain Harry Morgan. This is just as well, since a good novel does not make a good movie.

This is a good novel.  It is Hemingway mid-journey, solid as a great big mediaeval oak round table.  His youthful grit and zing have translated into the less gregarious and more quietly assured confidence of a man who knows himself.

James Lord wrote, in the introduction to his great biography of Giacometti, that Giacometti didn’t think he deserved a biography—he thought that the life of any random passerby would be as interesting as his own.  Of course he was wrong, but the underlying point was this:  If great art tries to capture what is essentially human, the success of the effort is more important than the subject.  If a painted portrait can give me even an inkling of the impression that I am standing in front of a real person—a person who thinks and with whom I might speak—it is a great painting no matter who the person is.

In the same way, a great writer makes his story worthwhile by the the truth of the telling.  The art only becomes more impressive when the subject has nothing unusual to recommend it.  A book about a CIA agent or a contract-killer has plenty of intrigue to begin with and that partly lets the author off the hook.  But a book about a poor boat captain who never gets anywhere had better be damned brilliant.

I was impressed with this novel until Chapter 24, at which point I went from impressed to staggered.  Up through Chapter 23 (and to a certain extent from Chapter 25 to the end) we have uniformly solid Hemingway.  But Chapter 24 is an anomaly.  The eleven pages have no direct relation to the story and could be excised without the reader’s losing a granule of plot, but they are by far the best pages in the book.  For a moment, Hemingway stops reasoning things out and instead just follows his art at breakneck speed (transcribing rather than contriving).  In Chapter 24, he describes a marina where Morgan’s boat is shortly to dock.  And Hemingway has no other purpose in this chapter except to show us that he knows exactly what is happening in every single boat tied up at the pier.  He sees not just the world of his characters but the world that surrounds them.  He sees the whole thing at tremendous resolution and that is what makes his stories so good and his characters so convincing and so human.

But you can’t read the chapter by itself and be suitably impressed.  The book exists to support and launch those eleven pages and they make all 174 pages worth reading.  In its proper place, this particular chapter in this particular book reads like an explanation of what writers are for.

Prose: 9/10

Solidity: 9/10

Punch: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway.  1st ed. Scribners, 1937, from a 1934 serial by Hearst Magazines, Inc. 174 pages.

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