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Hemingway at war with himself

"hemingway goes to war" gives us Hemingway with all his flaws, at a point in his life when they may have been most glaringly obvious.

The great writer had signed on as a war correspondent with Colliers magazine to cover the D-Day invasion. War always drew him, and this was to be the greatest military operation in history.

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He left the easy life in Cuba - then a cushy place to while away hours in such macho pursuits as fishing - and headed for Europe.

But Hemingway was not really a journalist on the century's greatest story. He was a self-absorbed famous novelist, whose work in progress had become his own inner portrait of swagger, derring-do, and sexual prowess.

He lurched and rumbled through the closing stages of World War II making his own, highly tangential story, not covering the big one unfolding all around him.

The account woven together by Charles Whiting, a much published military historian, is sometimes engaging reading. Too often, however, it sinks in the tawdriness of its subject matter - Hemingway's endless alcoholic binges and efforts to prove he could still perform with women, notably his soon-to-be fourth wife, fellow correspondent Mary Welsh.

The story is sad: a man devoted to words but apparently devoid of the thoughtfulness to appreciate a vast human drama and convey it to readers. In Whiting's analysis, Hemingway was stimulated by the war, and by the manly comradeship it spawned, but only in a self-gratifying way. He had no more appreciation of what the average soldier was enduring than the far-off top brass who ordered them into hopeless battles.

Whiting's work is best when he's describing fights like the Huertgen Forest (called the "death factory" by GIs). But it's frequently choppy and tabloid in tone on the Hemingway exploits.

Moreover, the book has the earmarks of a rushed reissue to meet the current surge of interest in Hemingway. Typos are all too frequent, and there's the occasional unchecked (and clearly wrong) "fact."

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Still, Hemingway buffs may enjoy the ride as Papa brandishes pistols (against regulations), swills French wine, and chases Welsh across a shattered landscape where other men were doing the hard work of saving civilization.

*Keith Henderson is an editorial writer for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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