Vulpes Libris

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The drinking in Hemingway’s fiction

rum named after Ernest Hemingway

rum named after Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was and still is a famously alcohol-inclined novelist, evidently a heavy drinker for most of his life. For folks who want to live out their fan-fantasies of drinking like Papa, there is an ‘artisan-crafted’ brand of blended rum available for sale on the Ernest Hemingway Collection site called Papa Pilar. It’s marketed tastefully with shots of the sea (no pun intended, but I had to leave that in once it hit the screen), but if blended rum has the same kind of status that blended whisky has, then perhaps it’s better to admire the marketing and not drink it. What touched my accessorising soft spot were the chunky little bottle-shaped travel cases for Papa Pilar, with pencils and notebook attached.

the pale version, in its sweet little jacket, notebook and pencil

the pale version

Tearing myself away from the wonders of product photography (the notebook looks really nice, actually, and the pencils are marbled, they’re so SWEET), I want to pursue the idea that as an author drinks in life, he pours the stuff down the necks of his characters in fiction. Dipping at random into my Hemingway collection, I offer you these simple, perfect descriptions of the beauty of how drink looks, and what it does.

From The Sun Also Rises (aka Fiesta) (1927), Jake and Robert Cohn go out to eat. ‘In the restaurant we ordered hors d’oeuvres and beer. The sommelier brought the beer, beaded on the outside of the steins, and cold. There were a dozen different dishes of hors d’oeuvres.’  The beer is jewelled by its own temperature, it has a trained alcohol specialist to bring it, and we are told that it arrives in those particular German glasses to indicate the quantity, in contrast to the undefined, merely numbered, dishes of hors d’oeuvres.

Hemingway 5Some chapters later, Jake and Bill are riding a bus in the Basque country, and their fellow travellers insist that they learn to drink wine from a leather bottle the Basque way. ‘He was a young fellow, and he held the wine bottle at full arms’ length and raised it high up, squeezing the leather bag with his hand so the stream of wine hissed into his mouth. He held the bag out there, the wine making a flat, hard trajectory into his mouth; and he kept on swallowing smoothly and regularly.’ This is reportage from the life, recording each stage in the process carefully to be sure that its essence is all there, and connects truly to the next motion, of bag or hand. The wine is somehow irrelevant, since it’s only a stream of liquid, yet if one considers that the man ‘kept on swallowing smoothly and regularly’, that’s a heck of a lot of wine going down without a cough or a splutter. That’s professional drinking as a daytime occupation.

In The Garden of Eden (1987), a bitter, alcoholic novel about gender exploration and the ending of a marriage, in which the characters have a drink on every other page, David is waiting for his wife Catherine to come back downstairs in their hotel in the south of France: ‘he drank another glass of the champagne and read the Paris edition of The New York Herald she had left on the bar. Drinking the wine by himself it did not taste the same and he found a cork in the kitchen to stop up the bottle before he put it back into the ice chest. But the bottle did not feel heavy enough and lifting it against the light that came in the west window he saw how little wine was left and he poured it out and drank it off and put the bottle down on the tiled floor. Even when he drank it off quickly it did nothing for him’. That moment signifies the end of a sad party, and was preceded by a horrible argument. The unhappiness is represented by the inability of the otherwise lovely fizz to lift David’s mood. Catherine has had half of its pleasure already, and there is nothing left for him.

Hemingway in Hudson persona

Hemingway as Hudson

In Islands in the Stream (1970), the first part of the book contains a celebrated evening drinking session on the beach in Bimini in the Bahamas, that ends in the most horrible goading fight on the docks at midnight. The second part, set on Cuba during the Second World War, seems to be almost completely about drinking daiquiris. The middle-aged Thomas Hudson is in a Havana bar swopping stories about brothels with Lil, the ageing harlot in residence, when in walks a woman he hasn’t seen in years.

How long are you here for?’

‘Just today.’

‘Let me kiss you.’

‘You said we’d be arrested.’

‘We can wait. What do you want to drink?’

‘Do they have good champagne?’

‘Yes. But there’s an awfully good local drink.’

‘There must be. About how many of them have you had?’

I don’t know. About a dozen.’

‘You only look tight around the eyes.

One of the reasons that Thomas Hudson is drinking is that his son Tom was shot down in action a few months ago. The woman who’s just turned up in Havana out of nowhere, also in military service like he is, is Tom’s mother. So it’s a good thing Thomas Hudson is already drunk so he can tell her what she needs to know while feeling numb. She already knows her son is dead. It’s the details that need the numbness.

Paris-era Hemingway

Paris-era Hemingway, the moustache came later

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s very unreliable memoir of his youth in 1920s Paris, his stories of drinking with F Scott Fitzgerald are some of the saddest and strangest episodes.  Binge after binge after binge drains away Fitzgerald’s ability to write, and he is a lousy drunk, selfish and irrational and miserable.  In contrast, the stories of Hemingway’s life in Paris with his first wife Hadley are light and charming with cheerful young married love. They have to count their money to see if they can afford a drink, and then have the fun of deciding at which of their favourite bars they should buy it.

Hemingway’s favourite waiter Jean, at the Lilas, routinely overfills their whisky glasses, and takes even more pleasure in doing this when the bar is under new management and he has to shave his moustache off to suit his cheap white mess waiter’s jacket. At Gertrude Stein’s house the maid always offers a glass of eau de vie to every visitor, whether the ladies are at home or not. James Joyce orders ‘dry sherry although you will always read that he drank only Swiss white wine.

Hadley and Hemingway are choosy about how they spend their money on drink. ‘At the Nègre de Toulouse we drank the good Cahors wine from the quarter, the half or the full carafe, usually diluting it about one-third with water. At home, over the sawmill, we had a Corsican wine that had great authority and a low price. It was a very Corsican wine and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message.’

I love the idea of a wine with authority.

Kate writes about wine, women and song, and many other things found in books, at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

3 comments on “The drinking in Hemingway’s fiction

  1. Matthew Wright
    June 10, 2015

    There’s also “Farewell to Arms”, the not-exactly autobiographical novel drawn from Hemingway’s experiences in Italy in 1918, in which it is fairly clear that Frederic Henry is an alcoholic. I suppose the principle of drawing from life experience counts. What struck me about that book, incidentally – reading it just a few years ago – was the effective modernity of the style, 80-odd years after it was published. Hemingway really seemed to forecast the ‘stripped down’ direction writing has taken.

  2. Kate
    June 10, 2015

    Yes, FtA is a book i need to read but haven’t yet got hold of a copy. Hemingway invented ‘stripped down’ style, I think, partly through the influence of modernism, but mostly through his own aesthetic drive.

  3. Shelley
    June 14, 2015

    It would be a sad fantasy of drinking that ended in the reality he faced at the end.

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