Passion, frustration, and anger erupted in Ernest Hemingway’s last years.
In 1948, visiting Venice with his wife, Mary, Hemingway (1899-1961) fell madly in love with 18-year-old Adriana Ivancich. Di Robilant (Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside, 2014, etc.) draws on memoirs (including Adriana’s), letters, and biographies to reconstruct the relationship—platonic, the author believes—and its impact on Hemingway’s marriage, writing, and career; and on Adriana, whose behavior was circumscribed by Venetian society’s “rigid rules of moral conduct.” Meeting her around town, Hemingway seemed oblivious to the malicious gossip he was generating for Adriana and her family. He made no effort to conceal his feelings: One friend was shocked to see him “drool unashamedly over Adriana.” Mary was willing to tolerate his infatuation as long as it remained platonic; it “was a price she was willing to pay if it made her husband happy and a nicer person to be around.” But his happiness often did not extend to his treatment of Mary; compared with Adriana, she seemed “drab” and “increasingly irritating.” The marriage was rocky, exploding into violent quarrels. The tension mounted after Adriana, at Hemingway’s insistence, joined the couple at their home in Cuba. There, Mary read the galleys for Across the River and into the Trees, about an older man remembering his adoration for a younger woman, obviously modeled on Adriana. Mary deeply disliked the novel, as did many reviewers when it appeared in 1950. His next novel, The Old Man and the Sea, a book encouraged by Adriana, was more warmly received. Like many other biographers, di Robilant portrays Hemingway as pathetic, petulantly envious of other writers’ successes, often enraged and cruel, and suffering from depression, illnesses, injuries, and the deleterious effects of a lifetime of hard drinking. By the time he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954, he was too ill to travel to Sweden. He killed himself in 1961, and Adriana, after suffering decades of depression, killed herself some two decades later.
A sensitive recounting of a writer’s doomed fantasy.