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`Under Kilimanjaro' illuminates Hemingway's creativity, methods

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In late 1953 and early 1954, novelist Ernest Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, spent several months on what would be his last safari in Africa. They probably would have stayed longer, but two freakish, near-fatal plane crashes left the couple with injuries serious enough to force them home to Cuba.

"Under Kilimanjaro" is a novel by Hemingway based largely on that safari and written soon after the couple's return to Cuba. It was never published in the author's lifetime. Completed in 1956, "Under Kilimanjaro" was left along with the manuscripts of "A Moveable Feast," "Islands in the Stream" and "The Garden of Eden" in a safe-deposit box, reportedly for his heirs to use as a life insurance policy.

After decades of legal wrangling over who had the right to the manuscript, Hemingway's son Patrick published a heavily abridged version of "Under Kilimanjaro" under the title "True at First Light" in 1999. 

"Under Kilimanjaro" is the unabridged manuscript, edited by Hemingway scholars Robert W. Lewis and Robert Fleming. Lewis and Fleming were not allowed to publish the work until five years after Patrick Hemingway's version came out, according to an agreement between the scholars and the Hemingway Society, keeper of the author's literary works.

Nothing starts a buzz in literary circles quite the way the publication of an as-yet unpublished manuscript by a mythic author does. So, it's not hard to imagine why Kent State University Press campaigned aggressively for the rights to publish "Under Kilimanjaro."

Kent State has published several books of literary criticism about Hemingway and manuscript editor Joanna Craig had done some previous work with Hemingway scholar Lewis.

"We knew we had to throw our hat in the ring for something this important," said Will Underwood, director of Kent State University Press.

A casual reader of Hemingway familiar with his best-known works, including "The Sun Also Rises" and "The Old Man and the Sea," will be surprised by the Hemingway whose voice narrates the novel. He is self-deprecating, light-hearted, impish, funny and compassionate. The famous Hemingway machismo is there, certainly, but it is toned down and softened dramatically.

The relationship between Hemingway and Mary as outlined in the novel is one of quick banter and a sweet, deep understanding. She appears to have accepted Hemingway's affair with a young African woman (Mary called her Hemingway's "fiancee"), although it's clear she wasn't thrilled by it.

The story focuses in large part on Mary's hunt for an extraordinary lion whom she loves with such a strange passion that she feels she must kill him.

Although this provides an anchor of sorts for the book, it is still a raw and rambling work. Those looking for a good story will be disappointed. Those who want to study a great writer at work will not be.

There are many surprising passages in which the prose is elevated above the hard-hitting, direct style for which Hemingway was known:

"There are always mystical countries that are a part of one's childhood. Those we remember and visit sometimes where we are asleep and dreaming. They are as lovely at night as they were when we were children. If you ever go back to see them they are not there. But they are as fine in the night as they ever were if you have the luck to dream of them."

"Under Kilimanjaro" is quite clearly an early manuscript. Hemingway uses several unusual images and similes more than once, as if he was testing just where they'd best fit.

For the curious reader, such occurrences offer a unique glimpse into Hemingway's creativity and work methods.

"It was almost spooky going into his creative mind. It was as if he were looking over our shoulders," said Bob Fleming, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico and a co-editor of the book.

Fleming and Lewis were determined to make the book as true to Hemingway's intentions as possible. But that posed an enormous challenge, Fleming said. Much of the manuscript was handwritten, and the typed portions contained cross-outs, inserts and even inserts within inserts.

Fleming said he and Lewis at one point argued about the phrase "Gin and It," which Hemingway used more than once in the manuscript. It was obviously short for something, said Fleming, but what? The men finally agreed on gin and bitters after consulting old works and people familiar with Hemingway's circle.

Although "Under Kilimanjaro" is unpolished and unwieldy at times, it is illuminating. It offers a glimpse of another side of the writer known best for his rough-edged intensity. For those who have been put off at times by Hemingway's manly bluster, it offers good reasons to reread and re-evaluate his better-known works with new perspective.


(c) 2005, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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