Hemingway’s Luck

You are Ernest Hemingway and you aren’t young any more and you aren’t yet old but you feel old. Your back hurts and your knees hurt and your neck hurts and your head hurts. Your head hurts the worst. Who has been concussed more times than you?

You have been knocked out in the ring and the skylight of a Paris apartment has fallen on your head. In London you went through the windscreen of your jeep and your head took 57 stitches. In Normandy after D-Day the Germans fired at you and you came off a motorcycle and broke your fall with your head. In Cuba after the war you opened your head on the rear-view mirror of your car when it rolled while you were driving to meet your lover. Last year while fishing on the Pilar you slipped and cracked open your head and spent days trying to remember your name. You shot yourself in both legs trying to machine-gun a shark and when you fell your head caught the railing. In Uganda your small Cessna crashed and you were evacuated in another small Cessna and that one crashed too and caught fire and you were burnt but you saved yourself by beating your head against the window until both of them broke. A report in Time magazine says when you were rescued you carried a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin and you said, “My luck, she is running very good.”

But you were lying when you said that. You tried to write truly but you spoke many lies and that was a lie because you do not think your luck is holding. Everywhere you go you look for lucky charms: rabbit’s feet, pine cones, smooth river pebbles, cartridge shells, raven’s feathers, foreign coins, champagne corks, penknives, bottle caps. You have always collected items from lucky moments, but these days you pocket things and hope that declaring them lucky will make them so.

Luck has always mattered to you. Before you die you will find your old diaries in a trunk in the basement of the Ritz and write this in your memoir of when you were young and poor and in Paris and writing for the first time and well:

For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit’s foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by the wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.

You know that it is luck to be born and luck to survive. You know writing is luck, and writing well is better luck, the same luck as living. You know that we are owed nothing and it is only by luck and courage and hard work that we have anything, and of these by far the greatest is luck. 

They have given you the Nobel Prize for a book you wrote like a man swimming under water and holding his breath. It is about a fisherman who has run out of luck, who cannot catch a big fish even though he goes every day to the sea. It was difficult to write but you went every day to your desk until you landed it. That was a big fish but you do not care about the luck you had yesterday, only the luck you’ll have tomorrow. More and more the words swim before you and do not take your hook. Once you saw the edges of things clearly, you saw the brown bare mountains and the dry plain and the river bed with the white pebbles and the water clear and moving swiftly and blue in the channels, and you saw the white dusty road that led across the plain toward the mountains. Now there is haze.

You understand the luck of writing because you know that what we write when we write well is something we find. When you’re writing well it feels like receiving gifts from the gods. I have tried to write simply the best I can, you once said. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.

It is beautiful to be a favourite of the gods and to receive their gifts, but for a man like you it is also uncomfortable because you are not in control, and it’s difficult to hold your nerve when you are not in control. And so your nerve has failed and now you try create your own luck.

You have forgotten that luck is only a metaphor, that when you were a young man in Paris you weren’t lucky, you were open, that luck is just another way of saying you were available to receive. When you were young and not you yet, your heart was still open. You could be hurt and so you could receive. You became an artist because you wanted to be one, but now it comes at the expense of your art.

You have become Hemingway, and you are a man and you are brave and you shoot and you fish and you write and you talk about luck, but inside you are clenched as a fist. You look backwards, you are stuck, you are too self-consciously you and now you must write like you and you must be like you, the you that you were once so lucky to find. You have tried to remain strong but instead you should have stayed supple. The inner needle that flickered and felt every seismic thrum and pulse of radiation is now made of calcium and coral.

I’m sorry to say this but the acorns won’t work, the horse chestnuts won’t work, the rabbit’s feet won’t work. Already the words won’t come and soon you’ll stop chasing them and soon you will load your gun and put it to your head. You will not be the last person to take your own metaphor too seriously.


Prufrock 2 – January 2017