Monday, April 10, 2017

Something New

NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“WRITER, SAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY – Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures 1935-1961” by Nicholas Reynolds (Harper-Collins, $NZ 36:99)

            There is now quite an extensive literature on moderate and non-communist left-wingers in the 1930s who were persuaded that Stalin’s Soviet Union was the best hope for the world if the alternative was fascism. Although there were available – even in the 1930s – numerous accurate exposes to clarify what life in Stalin’s state was really like, the fellow travellers at least had the excuse that Hitler seemed the more immediate danger. Besides, news sources in the 1930s were not the 24-hour news services that we now take for granted, and it was easier for Soviet propaganda to sell a rosy view of the USSR.

            Many fellow travellers saw the light in later years and turned against “the god that failed”. Others, however, were too stubborn to give up on their youthful dreams, even if those dreams were no longer tenable. According to Nicholas Reynolds, one such was Ernest Hemingway.

            Nicholas Reynolds (PhD. in history from Oxford and former CIA operative) has one key piece of new information about Hemingway in his book Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy. With a formidable bibliography to back him, and with declassified CIA, FBI and Soviet KGB files to quote from, he shows that in 1941, Hemingway was approached by Jacob Golos of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB), and asked if he would be willing to spy for the Soviet Union. Hemingway said he would, and he continued to have NKVD connections for a number of years.

How did this happen?

As Reynolds tells it, Hemingway was essentially an apolitical man and was certainly no communist. In the 1920s, his reputation was made with two post-First World War novels that appealed to the “lost generation”, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. But by the mid-thirties he was thrashing around trying to find a subject, and the only novel he was able to produce was To Have and Have Not, which even he knew was not his best work. Then, in 1935, along came a dreadful hurricane, which swept the Florida Keys where Hemingway hung out to indulge in deep sea fishing. Scanning the coast after the great storm, Hemingway was appalled to find the floating corpses of veterans who had been settled in shanties in one of the make-work programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal. He wrote an angry article denouncing Roosevelt for putting veterans in such danger. The article was picked up and given prominence by the left-wing (in fact communist-controlled) publication New Masses. For the first time, this brought Hemingway to the attention of the NKVD, who thought Hemingway might be an asset in propaganda work. Says Reynolds:

Their [the NKVD’s] attitude was not unlike that of New Masses: whether or not they were under Soviet control, public figures like Hemingway were worth courting. They had many potentially useful contacts, and they themselves might one day become conduits for the Soviet point of view.” (p.14)

Came the Spanish Civil War. Together with the (then) left-wing writer John Dos Passos who (as Reynolds correctly notes) was then better known, Hemingway agreed to go to Spain and make a propaganda film on behalf of the embattled Spanish Republic. The film was to be scripted by Dos Passos and Hemingway, and was to be directed by the Dutch communist Joris Ivens. As Reynolds notes:

Stalin decided to side with the Republic in order to improve his standing with the European left and divert attention from the murderous purges that he had ordered at home.” (p.17)

In Spain, Dos Passos was appalled to discover how much the communists were weakening the republic (and – in the end – helping Franco’s victory) by waging the notorious “civil war within the civil war”, accusing all their supposed allies (socialists, anarchists, independent Marxists like the POUM) of really being fascist spies and running a secret police to have such enemies shot. Dos Passos was particularly concerned about his friend, the socialist Jose Robles, who had disappeared and presumably been shot by the NKVD. In Reynolds account, Dos Passos asked Hemingway:

 “What was the point of fighting a war for civil liberties if you destroyed such rights along the way? Hemingway retorted: ‘Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or are you against us?’ Dos Passos shrugged like a professor making a point in class: he would write what he had to write. Lifting a clenched fist to Dos Passos’s face, Hemingway said, ‘You do that and you will be finished, destroyed. The reviewers in New York will absolutely crucify you.’ ” (p.29)

This encounter was, of course, the end of Hemingway’s friendship with Dos Passos, whose name was taken off the propaganda film, Spanish Earth, when it was released.

Hemingway’s tough-guy line – one very common among those who do not themselves face any danger – was that hard communist discipline was necessary to defeat fascism, and if some innocent people got killed in the process, so be it. It fuelled his foolish agitprop play The Fifth Column, which was essentially a justification of the communist terror in what remained of the Spanish Republic.

Hemingway went back to Spain later in the civil war, and the NKVD agents allowed him to witness the (communist) guerrilla raid – blowing up railway lines behind Franco’s lines – that he later fictionalised in his novel about the war For Whom the Bell Tolls. Written after the civil war was over, Hemingway’s novel gave a view of the war that was in part aligned to the communist view and that justified such actions as the murder of the POUM head Andres Nin. In fairness it must be noted, however, that the novel included some things that annoyed the Left, such as the description of an atrocity carried out by the Left, and an awareness that some of the communist commanders of the International Brigades were incompetent. Says Reynolds:

“[Hemingway] was not like the ‘true believers’ in communism. He did not believe in Marxism or Leninism; he was ‘just’ joining the antifascist team that got results. Or at least that is the way he thought of the NKVD. He knew how it had trained guerrillas, destroyed railways behind fascist lines, and tried to bring discipline to the Spanish Republic.” (p.87)

Then, in 1939, Stalin and Hitler made their notorious “non-aggression pact” (i.e. alliance). Some communists, such as the German Gustav Reigler who had buddied with Hemingway in Spain, now left the Party, and it was harder for the NKVD to recruit “useful idiots”. Communism lost some of its éclat among members of the Western intelligentsia. But Hemingway, having never been a party man, continued to defend the USSR to anyone who would listen because he was still besotted with the view of communists as the backbone of resistance to Franco in Spain. In was in these circumstances that the NKVD man Jacob Golos approached Hemingway and made the offer that Hemingway accepted.

Hemingway was always cagey on the matter of his relationship with Soviet Russians. Says Reynolds:

Ten years later in letters to his best friend he would write that he had done ‘odd jobs’ for the Soviets in Spain and, after the Civil War, stayed in touch with ‘Russkis’ who had shared secrets with him – though he would not elaborate. Otherwise there is no evidence that he ever spoke to a third party about Golos and the NKVD, not even to [his third wife Martha] Gellhorn, who shared many of his political views… His relationship with the Soviet spy service was a serious undertaking, not something to discuss with friends over drinks or to write about, as he had done during the Spanish Civil War and would do again after some of his other, less secret World War II adventures. He understood the need for secrecy, one of the foundations of good spycraft. Hemingway thought that spying was one of his many life skills, and he was not wrong.” (p.86)

If you have read this notice so far, you are by this stage itching to know what dastardly deeds of spying Hemingway undertook on behalf of Stalin.

The answer is – none.

The fact is that, once Hemingway expressed his willingness to help the NKVD, he did nothing more than put a pro-Soviet spin on a few articles. And of course many did this after June 1941 when the USSR was at last forced into war with Hitler and became the West’s ally. Having built up Hemingway’s questionable deal, Reynolds goes on simply to show how Hemingway overestimated his own influence on events and deluded himself that he was a key fighter against fascism. What Reynolds could have added (but doesn’t) is that Hemingway, being by now such a well-known public figure, would have been perfectly useless as a real spy anyway. How could you go about your secret spying business if everybody knew your face from the magazines?

But (to summarise briefly) the story that follows is biographically interesting. Here is Hemingway visiting China with Martha Gellhorn, despising Chiang Kai-Shek but deciding that the communist Chou En-Lai whom he interviewed (probably with the Communist Party setting up the interview) was the bee’s knees and writing about him thus.

Here is Hemingway getting permission from US intelligence to use his fishing launch Pilar to hunt for Nazi U-boats in the Caribbean. This “Operation Friendless” achieved nothing, Hemingway was soon bored with it, and other people made scathing judgments on it:

Martha Gellhorn had mixed feelings about Operation Friendless. At one point she praised Hemingway for his discipline and patience, for doing his duty in his ‘floating sardine box’. But at other times she said that the operation was just a way for Pilar’s skipper to get scarce wartime fuel for his boat so that he could fish and drink with his friends. More than once he gave that impression – for example, when he brought his underage sons along on a ‘war’ cruise…” (p.143)

Here is Hemingway, now relocated from Florida to Cuba, presiding over “the Crook Factory”, a group of locals designed as a counter-espionage group to weed out Nazi or fascist sympathisers in Havana. Again, it achieved nothing and merely pissed off the FBI who considered (correctly) that they were better at doing that sort of thing.

Here is Hemingway (and you have to give him points for this one) actually showing much physical courage in France in 1944 when he hooked up with a bunch of franc-tireurs (the largely communist part of the French Resistance) and helped them find the best route – undefended by German forces – for the US Army to get to Paris.

I would never suggest that Hemingway was a coward. There were many occasions in which he showed great physical courage (even in wars in which he was not officially a combatant). But his big ego did mean that he often exaggerated his role in events, boasted (especially when tanked up), and claimed even greater victories than he had really won. Much of this braggadocio was what drove Martha Gellhorn away, but by the time of the Normandy campaign Hemingway already had as a mistress another woman, Mary Welsh, who was to become his fourth, and last, wife. Like Gellhorn she was a journalist and war correspondent.

Hemingway’s big ego meant that he also exaggerated his role as a subversive in the United States. In Reynold’s account, when the Cold War came along, when US intelligence and the HUAC uncovered big Soviet spy rings in Canada and the USA (yes, they really did exist, even if Joe McCarthy made wild accusations about some people), then Hemingway began to fear that his secret deal with the NKVD might be the ruin of him. In short, he became paranoid. According to Reynolds:

The [FBI] never particularly liked or trusted Hemingway, but he was simply wrong when he claimed, as early as 1942, that the U.S. government was keeping an eye on him because it had questions about his trustworthiness. Like everyone else, his mail and calls were subject to wartime censorship, but no one had singled him out for special attention, and no one was following him around New York or Havana to see what he was up to.” (p.220)

Reynolds notes that in the 1950s, Hemingway’s writing became much more apolitical than it had been before. In that decade, the only novels he produced were Across the River and Into the Trees, widely regarded as his very worst book, and the non-political novella The Old Man and the Sea. The latter won him the Pulitzer Prize, which he had long coveted, and was specifically cited when he won the Nobel Prize, which he has also long coveted. He was now very respectable. But – now as a Cuban resident – he did also hail Fidel Castro’s revolution, seeing in it the same sort of guerrilla idealism that he believed he had seen in Spain. Despite this, he was not a special subject for US surveillance. Reynolds notes:

Hemingway said the government was watching him because it viewed him as untrustworthy because he had been a ‘premature anti-fascist’. He never mentioned the best reason that government might have to watch him: this premature antifascist had signed up with the NKVD. That he had never actually spied for the Soviets was immaterial; good people were hauled up in front of committees for far less during the McCarthy years. It was far from unreasonable for him to worry that his secret could derail his career.” (p.265)

In Reynolds’ view, Hemingway’s depression over these matters was one of the many causes of his eventual suicide in 1961. As well as his persistent health and psychological problems ( he had actually undergone electro-convulsive therapy), Hemingway had the nagging sense that he would one day be found out and shamed.

Reynolds writes his ultimate judgment on the man in the last words of the book:

The ultimate professional when it came to writing, in politics and intrigue he was a gifted but overconfident amateur. Until it was too late, he did not pause to consider the costs he would one day have to pay for his secret adventures.” (p.267)

I admit that my view of Hemingway as man and writer is not as respectful as Reynolds’ view. You might have seen on this blog my take on Hemingway’s vindictive and often dishonest memoir A Moveable Feast. I also believe there is a far more persuasive – and damning – book about Hemingway’s break with Dos Passos in Spain, and his endorsement of Red Terror, in Stephen Koch’s The Breaking Point, which is well worth reading. You may have seen on this blog my review of Stephen Koch’s excellent Double Lives, which reviews the whole attraction of the liberal left to communism in the 1930s. But having said this, I salute Reynolds for writing a very interesting biography which illuminates one area of Hemingway’s life that has scarcely been examined before.

Two snarky footnotes

* On p.64, Reynolds attributes the phrase “for whom the bell tolls”, which Hemingway used as a title for his novel, to a “poem” by John Donne. Wrong. It comes from a sermon by John Donne.

* The author notes briefly (pp.244-245) that Hemingway celebrated his 60th birthday in Spain. Hmmm, I thought, imagine if somebody who had criticised Stalin travelled to Stalin’s Russia to celebrate his birthday. Would he survive? The Spain in which Hemingway celebrated his birthday was still Franco’s Spain, and neither he nor any of his pals were in any way molested. It probably means Franco and his government didn’t give a damn what Hemingway thought of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment