CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS has been advertising these two volumes of letters together, and, sure enough, Amazon reports that readers who bought one also tended to buy the other. There are a number of obvious reasons for linking the two writers, since they were both famous modernists, each one master of his own idiosyncratically spare prose style, his own particular way of not saying things. Hemingway and Beckett both received the Nobel Prize, fifteen years apart, and when Hemingway won in 1954, it was in the same general atmosphere of international existentialism that made Beckett famous that year, the year in which Waiting for Godot was published by Grove Press. The book that is generally considered to have put Hemingway over the top, The Old Man and the Sea, seemed to many international readers the same sort of bare existential drama that Beckett was just then putting on stage.
Still, readers who actually do buy these two volumes of letters together and read them more or less at the same time are likely to suffer from significant disorientation, for the two authors, although famously associated with the same literary circles in Paris, seem to have inhabited different planets. Some of this is due to the fact that publication of the first volume of Hemingway's letters has coincided with the second volume of Beckett's. Hemingway's are the letters of a boy, who remains just as juvenile at the end of the volume when he has unaccountably become pals with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Beckett's letters come from the period in which he completes his most accomplished works, Godot and the trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. At this time he perfects the somber, despairingly negative, attitude toward fame and accomplishment he was to maintain for the rest of his life. Reading the two sets of letters together is therefore a bit like stopping an Andy Hardy movie to read a few pages of Civilization and Its Discontents.
The mystery the Hemingway letters present is how this relentlessly upbeat adolescent could have produced, just a few years after the close of this volume, perhaps the most famous literary picture of disillusionment ever published, The Sun Also Rises. In fact, these letters do cover the period in which Hemingway had the crucial experiences he was to pour into Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry: being wounded at the Italian front; falling in love with one of his nurses; suffering her rejection once the war is over. But the writer of the letters shows none of the emotions, shares none of the reflections, that make these experiences significant when they reappear in the novels. The Hemingway who comes home from the Italian front is, apart from some stiffness in one leg, much the same shallow adolescent who left, with much the same myopic concentration on having a good time. "Won't us kids have fun," is the essential theme of the letters in this volume, just as much at the end, when Hemingway is married and has come to Europe, as at the beginning, when he first begins to hunt and fish in Michigan.
It is likewise difficult to find evidence in these letters of the literary understatement for which Hemingway was to become famous. His favored style as a very young man is in fact an elaborate facetiousness, the sort of thing that turns a simple concept like "the last two days" into "the last brace of diurnals." This is most particularly true of ...