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True At First Light : A Fictional Memoir Paperback – July 6, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Ernest Hemingway's final posthumous work bears the rather awkward designation "a fictional memoir" and arrives under a cloud of controversial editing and patching--but all of that ends up being beside the point. Though this account of a 1953 safari in Kenya lacks the resolution and clarity of the best Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms) it is "real" Hemingway nonetheless. Let scholars work out where memoir leaves off and fiction begins: for the common reader, the prose alone casts an irresistible spell.

In True at First Light the glory days of the "great white hunters" are over and the Mau Mau rebellion is violently dislodging European farmers from Kenya's arable lands. But to the African gun bearers, drivers, and game scouts who run his safari in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Hemingway remains a lordly figure--almost a god. Two parallel quests propel the narrative: Mary, Hemingway's fourth and last wife, doggedly stalks an enormous black-maned lion that she is determined to kill by Christmas, while Hemingway becomes increasingly obsessed with Debba, a beautiful young African woman. What makes the novel especially strange and compelling is that Mary knows all about Debba and accepts her as a "supplementary wife," even as she loses no opportunity to rake her husband over the coals for his drinking, lack of discipline in camp, and condescending protectiveness.

As usual with Hemingway, atmosphere and attitude are far more important than plot. Mary at one point berates her husband as a "conscience-ridden murderer," but this is precisely the moral stance that gives the hunting scenes their tension and beauty. "I was happy that before he died he had lain on the high yellow rounded mound with his tail down," Hemingway writes of "Mary's lion," "and his great paws comfortable before him and looked off across his country to the blue forest and the high white snows of the big Mountain."

Passages like these--and there are many of them--redeem the book's rambling structure and occasional lapses into self-indulgent posturing. Joan Didion dismissed True at First Light in The New Yorker as "words set down but not yet written," but this fails to acknowledge the power of these words. The value of True at First Light lies in its candor, its nakedness: it provides a rare opportunity to watch a master working his way toward art. --David Laskin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Who wants to go on an 11-hour audio safari with an aging, ego-bloated Hemingway? That's the immediate drawback to listening to this posthumous memoir-turned-novel (edited into its current form by the legendary author's son Patrick). If anyone is capable of breathing life into Hemingway's late tale of big-game hunting with his wife in East Africa, however, it is Dennehy, one of the finest narrators in the spoken-audio field. Here he works to convey the essential nature of Hemingway's character; he contrasts the sparse elegance of Hemingway's descriptive prose style against the more swaggering posture of his ever-present pride. By the time Hemingway wrote this book, he was well aware of his celebrity, his aura, his powersAwas able to flatly say, "I love command." Dennehy plays up this self-conscious quality, offering it as a portrait of the author's psyche. It's that sense of performance that makes this audio adaptation spark to life. Based on the 1999 Scribner hardcover.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st Scribner Paperback Fiction Ed edition (July 6, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684865726
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684865720
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #234,958 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ernest Hemingway ranks as the most famous of twentieth-century American writers; like Mark Twain, Hemingway is one of those rare authors most people know about, whether they have read him or not. The difference is that Twain, with his white suit, ubiquitous cigar, and easy wit, survives in the public imagination as a basically, lovable figure, while the deeply imprinted image of Hemingway as rugged and macho has been much less universally admired, for all his fame. Hemingway has been regarded less as a writer dedicated to his craft than as a man of action who happened to be afflicted with genius. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Time magazine reported the news under Heroes rather than Books and went on to describe the author as "a globe-trotting expert on bullfights, booze, women, wars, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and courage." Hemingway did in fact address all those subjects in his books, and he acquired his expertise through well-reported acts of participation as well as of observation; by going to all the wars of his time, hunting and fishing for great beasts, marrying four times, occasionally getting into fistfights, drinking too much, and becoming, in the end, a worldwide celebrity recognizable for his signature beard and challenging physical pursuits.

Customer Reviews

It's different than other books I have read and I'm enjoying it.
This book was pared down from a large manuscript, so has suffered the same fate as other posthumously edited works: this is not Hemingway's work.
Eric Maroney
I'd like to believe that Papa would have edited this down to a long article or a very short story.
Congo Todd Marlatt

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As a longtime Hemingway fan, I approached this unfinished work with both hesitation and skepticism: like "The Garden of Eden," the whole idea of this book seems wrong -- it smacks of disturbing the dead. If Hemingway had wanted this published, he would have finished it, right? The poor guy was in deep artistic decline when he wrote it, right?
Well, after reading this "fictional memoir," I'm no longer quite sure.
Perhaps I read too much of the lukewarm, pre-publication hype -- my expectations were very low. But upon reading it, "True At First Light" struck me as astonishingly strong. I didn't find it very rambling, or half-baked as some have charged. Nor did it seem racist: It is certainly a book of it's time -- the mid-50's -- but its treatment of Africa and Africans seems eminently respectful and somewhat sad. He compares the faded glory of these post-Colonial peoples to that of the Native Americans in the wake of the settling of the U.S. -- a mortally wounded people, struggling to preserve a history and tradition mostly destroyed by European warriors, profiteers and missionaries.
The writing is clearly an early draft -- but what a fine early draft it is! There are flashes of brilliance that only the greatest living writers could hope to match in their most "finished" works. And I personally like the less-guarded qualities of late Hemingway. His early work is clearly more innovative, and carries more historical and cultural importance. But that's not really the point, I'd argue.
For too long, Hemingway has been either lionized or condemned as a larger-than-life celebrity icon -- and of course, in many ways that's what he was. But let's not forget that under all the dated, off-putting bombast, he was also a skilled and sensitive artist -- and this work is well worth the time and close attention of anyone who loves that oft-forgotten, oft-obscured soul: Hemingway, the writer.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
You should have seen how excited I was to hear that a new Ernest Hemingway book was being released posthumously. Many people before me have summarized the content of this book, so to make a long story short, True At First Life is a cut down version of the journal he kept while on safari in Africa in 1952-53. Although the book is worth reading for biographical content, it often is very disjointed at times. This is most pronounced in the first five chapters of the book. This book was edited by his son, Patrick Hemingway. I would like to believe that Papa himself would have provided us with a more cohesive tale had he been alive to edit the book himself. In any case, the book suffers from a lack of climax. For instance, there is threat of invasion from a warring tribe in the first five chapters that is never realized. Even the killing of Mary's (his 4th wife) lion lacks punch. The only thing that made me want to continue reading this book was the great Hemingway style that shines through despite choppy editing and anticlimactic sequences. As a big Hemingway fan, I felt that this book was worth reading just to hear him speak to us again in his simple, direct style of writing. As a novel, it suffers from a lack of substance, plot, and progression. This however, will never detract from the beauty of his earlier works such as The Sun Also Rises and Farewell to Arms.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By rebecca swanson on July 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
... and it's worth its weight in shillingi. Kudos to E. Hemingway and his son, Patrick, for being such a (semi-posthumously) talented pair. If you haven't read much (or any) Hemingway, this book makes for a beautiful foray into his works. True at First Light is a gorgeous, tantalizing description of his time as a game warden, with phrasing so rich and narrative so taut, one can barely refrain from booking a one-way flight to Kenya. Hemingway deftly transforms what one American reader may consider the somewhat mundane business of hunting, washing and drinking into an extraordinarily attractive life; the allure is in the escape from this complicated and hectic society. Perhaps his connection with the reader is best explained in Hemingway's own words: "Everything had been taken out of my control and I welcomed, as always, the lack of responsibility and the splendid inactivity with no obligation to kill, pursue, protect, intrigue, defend or participate and I welcomed the chance to read."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
One of Ernest Hemingway's contemporaries, Virginia Woolf, wrote that "every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works, yet we require critics to explain one and biographers to expound the other." Though Woolf was alluding to Pope, Addison and Swift, her observation could not have been more descriptive of Hemingway's empirical model of writing, a model that provided an enormous self-portrait that both scholars and admirers alike have come to question and interpret: if Hemingway's writing was an extension of his life of if his life was formed from his writing. "True at First Light" is no exception. Though the book is subtitled "a fictional memoir," it remains true to the Hemingway style, part fiction and part biography. For traditional Hemingway readers, those whose love of the writer is congruous to their love for his writing, the book is worth reading for its biographical content. Those not so familiar may want to pass over this one and go back to the earlier books, the first novels and the early stories, such as the awe inspiring African tales "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." No matter what Hemingway wrote or endeavored during his long twilight, the early works read as fresh and interesting as the day he wrote them. This book only serves to obscure those achievements that a thousand writers have imitated but never equalled. "In Africa," he writes in this book, "a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon." Unfortunately, in "True at First Light," most of the darkness is still visible.
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