Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin

Clearly picked this one up because of who the author is. I’ve always been a big Python fan, and Palin is one of my favorites. So I thought, how bad could his novel be?


It wasn’t horrible. I’ve certainly read worst, but it also was not very good. The main character, Martin Sproale, is the assistant manager of a post office and a huge Ernest Hemingway fan. This is, perhaps, all we need to know about him, but it is, in fact, all that we really do know about him. We don’t spend enough time with him in the course of the story, bouncing from one character’s point of view to another in a way that is neither calculated nor effective.

There’s a plot about the post office being taken over and privatized by some interloper who steals Martin’s girlfriend, and there’s a new love interest for Martin who is an American Literature professor who is writing a new book on the women in Hemingway’s wife, but none of that really held my interest.

The best bit is the part about Hemingway’s chair—an old, padded thing taken from off a fishing charter Hemingway had once used that Ruth—the professor and love interest—helps Martin secure from collector. It becomes something of an obsession for Martin, and affects him in strange ways.

When she came out of the kitchen, Martin was no longer there. In his place was a hunched, wary figure wearing a white tennis cap, grey sweatshirt and a light brown cotton jacket with a pattern of tiny check. He wore plain white Bermuda-length cotton shorts. His calves were bare and he sat, leaning forward, as if waiting. Ruth approached cautiously. The figure in the chair was concentrating on something in the middle distance. His face wore an ironic, self-mocking smile. She held out a glass of whisky.

‘You want a drink?’

For a moment nothing moved, but when the figure slowly lifted his head, Ruth experienced once again the uncanny sensation of being with a stranger she knew well.

‘I guess I look ridiculous,’ came a voice that was slow and heavy and yet in which the smile remained. She said nothing.

‘I don’t look like a decent fellow should look, huh?’

He took the whisky from her and drank it back in one. Then he held the glass out again and watched her refill it.

He drank again, more slowly. This one was neat and he gasped at the after-taste. Then all of a sudden he looked up and breathed deep and beamed around him.

‘Well, I look like this because this is the way I like to look most of the time. I look like this because, come tomorrow, I shall be in Havana and I shall be drinking cold beers with Mrs Mason on the deck of the HMS Anita.’

Ruth caught all the allusions. In 1933 Ernest left Pauline behind in Key West and took a two-month fishing holiday in Havana. He met up with the beautiful, willful, twenty-three-year-old Jane Mason, whose husband was working and couldn’t go with her, and they fished together off a boat called Anita, which belonged to Joe Russell, one of Hemingway’s Key West cronies. It was an episode of his life she and most Hemingway scholars had always wanted to know more about. A rare extramarital affair, known to have taken place, but still steeped in mystery.

Ruth poured herself another drink and sat down opposite him, one side of her face caught by the lamplight. ‘Why are you going away so soon?’

‘Because I worked goddamn hard at that book and I need to get it out of my system.’

‘I worked hard to get this house ready for you,’ she said quietly. ‘You know how much money I spent?’

His face clouded. ‘That’s the only way you see these things. Through the end of a bank balance. So your father bought this house. Great. So you put in nice furniture, big curtains. Paint everything. Great. I do no more fucking writing because I have to sit around choosing curtains when I could be out on a boat chasing marlin with my real friends.’

‘You call those bums you hang out with your friends?’

‘They’re simple guys. They drink and they gamble and they live off the sea. But I love them. Okay?’

‘You love them more than me?’

‘Maybe I do. Maybe they don’t keep wanting to hang onto me and tidy me up and put me on display.’

‘I just want to have you here in the house with me. I don’t care if you wear nothing but a pair of sneakers and a leopard-skin loincloth, I’d rather I looked after you than Mrs Mason. I’m your wife, dammit. What happened? What did I do wrong?’

‘You did too much. You tried too hard.’

‘You loved me once. You loved me so much and I loved you and we went everywhere together and we made each other very happy.’

‘If you say so.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘I do know, for Chrissake, I do know.’

‘You knew for a day. You knew for a week. Then someone more interesting comes along and I have to go along with that. I have to wait while you make your plans and then I do what you want me to do. Isn’t that right?’

‘No…no… It’s not right.’

‘You do what you want to do and I’m just supposed to fit in, right?’

‘No, no!’

‘I’m the wife who has to stay home till the master returns.’


‘My writing is not worth shit.’


‘All you want is a body to be there when it suits you.’


Ruth saw the sweat break out on his brow, but she couldn’t stop now.

‘Well, I’ll tell you. You ain’t as hot as you think you are.’

‘Quit, will you?’ His head swung angrily.

‘Don’t want to hear the truth, huh?’

‘I said quit.’

‘I tell you I could walk out that door right now and find a dozen guys who’d give me a better time!’

‘I said quit!’

A cut glass ashtray flew towards Ruth’s head. She ducked and heard it smash against the wall and fall in pieces to the floor behind her.

She straightened up.

Martin stood staring helplessly. ‘Are you all right?’

This little role play, where Martin becomes Hemingway and Ruth adopts the role of his wife, Pauline, had real potential, but it comes too late in the novel to save it from all that has already happened, or to be anything more than an interesting scene. Something more magical, where Martin actually becomes Hemingway, possessed by the spirit still inhabiting the chair—that would have been a fun read. But Martin always remains Martin, and I’m not sure I ever feel like I should be pulling for him.

The ending is equally disappointing. Martin pulls off some colossal collapse of his nemesis’ plan, literally pulling down a communications tower meant to modernize the little town they all live in with a high-speed yacht adorned with Hemingway’s chair, and supposedly dies in some fiery crash with another boat. There’s that, and then a transition, and then we’re with Ruth a few days later, while she’s putting the finishing touches on her manuscript. She’s interrupted by the postman delivering a letter and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s Martin, writing to her under an assumed name from Cuba.

Prior to receiving this letter, though, Ruth is reflecting on how to sum up her paper.

She hated conclusions. They sat there like sirens, luring the scholar onto the rocks of pomposity and complacency. Now let’s have the solution, they seemed to say. Now tell us what it’s all about so we won’t have to read the whole book.

I can only assume that Palin feels the same way.


  1. Just finished reading g the book today. Pretty much agree with you. Especially disliked the ending. Seemed like book kind of muddled around for a great deal of time and I found myself waiting for a conclusion to tie up the outlines but it never arrived.

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