Oscar Wilde said he always travelled with his diary because he liked having something sensational to read on the train. My diary is, alas, neither exactly a diary (unless Ryman spiralbounds count these days) nor sensational, but it does go everywhere with me and here are a few scribbled thoughts from my Galway-to-London journey last weekend, dashed off after reading Paul Hendrickson’s latest non-fiction epic Hemingway’s Boat.
Reading about writing is a dangerous preoccupation, dipping into the fantasy of another’s creative life. Feeling the need of a sense of mission, wanting a clear picture. A clean, well-lighted dream to pursue. A puzzle box so [the] only thing left to do is put together the pieces. Risky.
Read [Hemingway’s Boat] in one great 28 hour gulp (less nine hours sleep and several hours quiet conversation). Jumbled feelings: awe, fascination, curiosity, envy (despite everything) of shining hours on the sea and drinking rum, eating avocados right out of the shell. Fantasy powerful as a Siren call – tie yourself to the mast, my friend – would it be worth it? The high times, the urge to tear up. I’d like to have known more about the bi-polarism, medical stuff. The actual, genetic, biological fact of it, woven into the DNA, making everything dark that little bit less resistible.
The writing is a sustained, beautiful sleight-of-hand peppered with parenthetical rabbits popping out of hats. The delicate, ruthless details (asking the fading old man to disinter his dead wife’s wedding dress), the moments of private meditation. Slipping off to cast for trout the author flexes his own masculinity, as if to say: “I’m not just a gatherer, a teller of tales, I make my own stories too. I’ve tied a few on.”
The constant, tantalising, steady-voiced mingling of verifiable fact (letters, dates, police reports) with compassionate speculation. The sudden veer and shift (“don’t look here, look here“). The intensity of detail: lists of fishing supplies, fish species, concurrent events. Over and over the evocation of water: blue, purple, turquoise, brown, something to do with seaweed, iron content, depth, the sand. Washes through and over the narrative till you can almost feel it, get the cast-off ripple light caught in your eyes.
A book not so much about about a boat as about creation – the things we make deliberately and unwillingly.