16 Jul 2018

“Autumn in Venice:” Hemingway’s Last Girl

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Adriana Ivancich, Hemingway, and friend in Finca Vigia, Cuba.

The life of Ernest Hemingway remains sufficiently fascinating that a new book has appeared, Andrea Di Robilant’s Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse, chronicling the great man’s not-necessarily-ever-consummated infatuation at age 49 with an 18-year-old Italian countess.

That inappropriate relationship, ironically enough, provided the gravamen of Ernest Hemingway’s worst, only genuinely bad, downright embarrassing novel, Across the River and into the Trees.

Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for Pakistan’s largest newspaper (!), reviews the story of Hemingway’s Last Girl with chilly feminist scorn for the dirty old man’s incestuous infatuation with a younger woman he called “daughter,” and wrathfully concludes with a stern determination to call literary geniuses to account for their “sins” and their “misogyny” on behalf of the “maligned women” in their lives. Take that, Papa, you beast!

It all began because of a comb. Sometime after four in a dark and cold Italian morning, a young woman accompanied a band of men to a duck shoot. After it was over and the frigid hunters sat by the fire, the eighteen-year old Adriana Ivancich, the only woman in the gathering, asked for a comb for her long black hair. Nearly all the men in the party ignored her and kept up their talking. Ernest Hemingway, however, was not ever one to let a lady go unattended. After rooting around in his pockets, he produced a comb, broke it in half and gave it to her. It was a very Hemingway gesture, chivalrous and theatric and meant very much to be memorable. (63)

It would be. The Hemingway that was at the duck shoot that frigid morning may have been a rotund and aging man who presided over slightly slacking but still eminent literary career, but he remained ever amenable to the charms of women. The duck shoot was not even the first time the two had met; that had happened the night before, when Hemingway, along with Adriana’s cousin Nanuk Franchetti, the host of the duck shoot, had picked her up by the side of road. …

Autumn in Venice… is a chronicle of sorts of this last affair. Hemingway, then very much married to Mary Welsh Hemingway, who had ostensibly “stolen” him away from Martha Gellhorn, romanced Adriana right under his wife’s nose. The story of Adriana and Hemingway was initially interposed between Mary Hemingway’s “major shopping sprees”, “hours of sightseeing” and yet more shopping trips. It ended with Adriana and almost her entire family installed in the Hemingway’s home, fixtures at the caviar laden, booze filled evenings that oiled Hemingway’s daily grind.

In subject and content, the affair with Adriana, and indeed with Venice itself, was rather predictable and even banal. Hemingway had always craved the euphoria of being in love and had chased it all his life without concern for the cost it imposed on existing relationships and, as it were, his wives.

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