Everyone knows that the code-hero career of Ernest Hemingway ended with the great man putting a shotgun to his own forehead, after years of infidelity to a series of wives, disgraceful episodes of bullying, and embarrassing displays of drunkenness and vanity. By the time Hemingway pulled the trigger on his 12-gauge Boss, it was all gone for him: the powerful athletic physique and once superlative health, the unsurpassed ability to produce clear and elegant English prose, even the penetrating insight and cool lucidity underlying his impeccably stoical point of view.
He had essentially prophesied his own end in his great 1938 short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro:
He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. ...What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.
Paul Hendrickson takes Hemingway’s 38-foot Wheeler cabin cruiser, the Pilar, built for him in 1934, as the center and symbol of the final 27-year, 3-month trajectory of the author’s literary career and life, and chronicles Hemingway’s whole sad end game, the struggle of the human being to live up to his own masterfully-designed and brilliantly-marketed personal myth, his failure, crack-up, and decline. Yet, Hendrickson sympathizes and finds in Hemingway’s process of personal self-destruction still ever so much to pity and admire. As he puts it in the title of his prologue: “Amid So Much Ruin, Still the Beauty.”
Few great writers have ever received such an extraordinary tribute. Hemingway’s Boat represents the product of massive and intensely focused research. Hendrickson can lovingly describe the details of the room where Hemingway used to stay in the Ambus Mundos Hotel, as well as tell you exactly which models of Vom Hofe and Hardy salt water reels he fished. Hendrickson even throws in some rather significant and ground-breaking criticism, arguing quite persuasively that it was Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa (1935), who really invented the non-fiction novel, not Capote or Mailer thirty years later). Hemingway’s Boat is, in the final analysis, a passionate and deeply personal eulogy to a great man delivered in finely crafted prose that is worthy of its own subject.
It has been a very long time since anyone has produced a fishing memoir as good as Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots.
Jennings, who I found is, oddly enough, dance critic for the Observer, describes the (exotic to Americans) bildungsroman of an ordinary British angler, who starts off—like the rest of us—with cheap tackle and humble access to low quality, near-home angling opportunities before gradually progressing to more exciting waters and nobler quarry.
In Jennings’ case, we get some astonishingly exciting accounts of how much sporting excitement can be found in pike and carp, barbel, tench and rudd. Luke Jennings can make the encounter with a canal-bred pike lurking off a London tow-path read like Jim Corbett stalking a man-eater in the Himalayan foothills.
But Blood Knots is not only a fishing book. It is an account of the coming of age and moral education, in today’s modern world, of a surprisingly exotic survival: the recusant Catholic gentleman. Jennings’ family, as he puts it, was of “bookish gentry, each beggaring itself to pay for the education of the next… born of windy vicarages and dusty cantonments.”
His first powerful influence was his father, a Hussar officer awarded the Military Cross for pressing home an armored attack at Ijsselstein in September of 1944, despite two tanks being shot out from under him. The second, as the saying goes, “brewed up,” and Jennings’ father only lived because he was thrown out of the tank by the explosion. He was badly burned. The scars on his face remained highly visible, and Mrs. Jennings had to dress his burned fingers every day for the fifty years of their marriage.
Jennings attended the (Benedictine) Ampleforth College, and provides this testimony to its unmodern ethos.
Father Paul Neville, the former headmaster of Ampleforth, was once talking to a fellow principal who informed him expansively that his own establishment’s purpose was ‘to prepare boys for life.’ ‘Ah,’ said Father Paul quietly. ‘Ours is to prepare them for death.’”
At Ampleforth, Jennings met his second major influence, a recent Ampleforth graduate named Robert Nairac, then serving as junior master.
It was important to know whom you were dealing with and so, on the first night of the autumn term, three of us cooked up a excuse to knock on the new master’s door. We trooped in to be greeted by a tough-looking figure with unkempt black hair and a cheerful grin. He was lying on his bed in his shirtsleeves, smoking. Around him, on the sheets, lay the constituent parts of a twelve-bore shotgun and a pair of cleaning rods. On top of the chest of drawers was a falconer’s leather gauntlet, the fingers dark with dried blood, and a battered fishing-bag in which I could see a jumble of wire traces and pike lures. With the small sash-window closed, the air was heavy with gun oil and Balkan tobacco.
Nairac proved a superb sporting mentor immersing Jennings in “the rituals of the field sports” and “the near mystical sense of place and history that, on occasion, can accompany them.”
The same Robert Nairac, a few years later, became part of history. After Oxford, he joined the Grenadier Guards, and worked undercover against the Provisional IRA terrorists in Ireland. In May of 1977, while visiting a pub to gather intelligence, he was abducted, brutally tortured, and finally murdered by the IRA. His body was never found.
Blood Knots is the best kind of fishing memoir, the kind of book that demonstrates the necessary role of active participation in the processes of Nature in fulfilling essential needs in the cultivated human being’s spiritual life.