Ernest Hemingway and cycling is an ongoing theme on this blog. Hemingway’s legacy is a mixed one, particularly in literary circles. In reviewing the publication of the first volume of his collected letters (in itself an interesting story, given that all the new letters come from archives in the basement of his former house in Cuba), Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books repeats the typical charge that Hemingway inflated his own experiences into his fiction then did little to deny the myths he had created. “The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it,” O’Hagan writes.
Perhaps Hemingway was complicit in this process, or perhaps it is just easy to see it that way. His writing, so much of it based on experience, skates uneasily between truth and fiction. His early works drew on personal events, although clearly fictionalized. Later, in Islands in the Stream, for example, the main character of Thomas Hudson appears to substitute almost entirely for Hemingway and his life in the Caribbean. In The Green Hills of Africa he sets out to write real events as if they were fiction; his posthumous follow-up, Under Kilimanjaro (first published as True At First Light) is a ‘fictional memoir’ – and much of it must indeed be fiction, although just how much is for scholars to unravel. Indeed, in the book Hemingway acknowledges that truth can be slippery: “…but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon…” But does this matter? Surely it is unimportant that Hemingway may have enlarged himself through the process of his writing. Going wider, do we really care if the author himself was a lying, alcoholic, misogynistic egotist? Do we not read Hemingway’s books for what they are, not what they pretend the author to be?
But personality matters. All the more so, one might argue, in professional sports where much of our fascination is with the personalities taking part and not just the action on the pitch or on the road. Perhaps part of the fascination with Hemingway, and why the publication of his letters from 100 years ago matters, is because of his outsize personality. He was a literary figure but also a public figure and his life was anything but uninteresting.
What your author finds more interesting is that Hemingway, in his works, never seemed to be interested in the big picture, in the big issues of his time. In his fiction (and even his reportage) the focus was often very narrow – the individual swimming in the currents of history, rather than the history itself. One might contrast this with his contemporary John Dos Passos and his sweeping trilogy, U.S.A. Or, to take another tack, note that the Spanish Civil War saw Hemingway produce For Whom the Bell Tolls – a heroic tale of sacrifice for the republican cause – while George Orwell wrote a Homage to Catalonia – the tragic collapse of the revolution into cynical betrayals. Elsewhere, the fate of Hemingway’s beloved Velodrome d’Hiver as the round-up location for 13,152 Jews from Paris and its suburbs from 16-17 July (when the Tour de France would have been running had it not been suspended due to the war) to be shipped to German concentration camps (only 811 survived) never receives a mention in his wartime reporting, surely an interesting story with parallels worth drawing.
Perhaps the newly discovered letters will contain comment, although – as historian Tony Judt has pointed out – discussion of the Holocaust, in France and elsewhere, did not really start taking place until decades later. (A future post will look at the Vel d’Hiv events in some detail.) Hemingway might not have actually known what transpired. When he was circulating around old haunts in Paris following its liberation, there is no mention of whether he went past (frustratingly, in Carlos Baker’s nearly 1,000-page biography, there is no listing in the index for the Vel d’Hiv at all, although it is mentioned in parts of the text). Hemingway was involved in the thick of the action on the approach to Paris in 1944, working as a war correspondent but managing to become the liaison between a group of French irregulars and US troops. He was later mocked for being more interested in ‘liberating’ the Hotel Ritz and its bar, and he did apparently exaggerate his role in the liberation of the Travellers Club, but the most detailed accounts suggest that he did actually find himself in considerable physical danger as the Germans fought their rearguard action. Playing soldier and inflating his successes likely obscured the actual role – minor, but indeed dangerous – that he did play. As always, it was writing he did best and on the approach to Paris he wrote this memorable line: “…I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.”
One could argue that Hemingway never really claimed to be more than he was. He took his experiences and wrote them up as fact or fiction, as the experiences of the individual. He wrote what he wanted and should not be accused of sins of omission. His works should judged on their literary merits rather than for what they say about the author. But, for the sake of this discussion, let us take this focus on the individual versus history and run with it a little further and see where it takes us.
There are numerous books on cycling that are excellent and well worth reading (another future post will discuss some of these). As a rule, cycling autobiographies do not make for the most dramatic of reading. They are either self-serving to various degrees (like a Hemingway book, if the critics are to be believed) or just dull: an impossibly-talented youngster enters the rarefied and pedestrian professional cycling world and wins lots of races and suffers some notable, character-building setbacks that are then overcome. Unlike a biographer, the autobiographer finds it difficult to step back, to view themselves from the necessary distance.
The exception to this rule is The Game by Ken Dryden. This is not a cycling book but a book about hockey and the author’s experiences with the almost always victorious Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Regarded by some as the best sports autobiography available, part of its appeal is surely that the author can indeed detach himself from the various narratives and consider many of the wider questions of sport, although tensions remain: “Even now… I can’t forget enough to get outside my story and see it as others do.” There are echoes of Dryden in David Millar’s autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, where – despite the criticisms that he does not go far enough and still wants to control the narrative – Millar is able to detach himself and give an unconventional and brutally honest account of his experiences and to do so with candour and humility.
Millar’s comeback is a heroic one, but perhaps he is ultimately an anti-hero, in terms that Hemingway would recognize. His downfall was almost preordained by a system that cared little for individuals but saw them ultimately as pawns in a larger game of success, fame, money, glory and power. Such was the milieu in pro cycling in which he participated. His choices were always constrained by the system and it was run by those in power to be thus. Perhaps there is – contrary to the grandiose prose we are often subjected to – little actual heroism in sport, just a mistaken believe in the claims of those who would seek to inflate its essence to sell the sport to the public. On this point, Dryden is illustrative and worth quoting at length:
We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes enabling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else. Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not. Our cause, our commitment is no different from anyone else’s, the human qualities engendered are the same. Instead, we are no more than examples, metaphors, because we enter every home, models for the young because their world is small and we do what they do. But by creating celebrity and mistaking it for substance, too often we turn celebrity into hero, and lose again.
Yes, even if you know little about hockey (like your author, although better informed now), there are some very thought provoking insights in The Game.
The golden age (of cycling)
It was a dangerous summer of cycling for a number of reasons, but perhaps no more so than the ongoing sage of Lance Armstrong and the charges against him of doping. Thousands of keyboard strokes have already been expended on the subject, and many more will follow. The editorials have been engaging but have ultimately said more about where the author has positioned themselves in the debate over the last few years than their actual subject. Indeed, perhaps you, dear reader, took some satisfaction from the pithy statements made by long-time supporting journalists, or took some delight in those long vilified being able to at last been seen as capably doing their jobs.
With the USADA file threatening even more revelations the spotlight of media will again be on the less salubrious aspects of cycling. For some, these revelations will be neatly assigned to the ‘bad old days’ and we can put them behind us and move on. For others, they will represent just a few more cracks in cycling’s edifice, perhaps not to bring it down completely but at least to leave it well scarred. This we might lament, just as writer Jeremy Whittle notes in his book Bad Blood: “In a problematic world, sport should offer escape; it should offer sanctuary from the casual lies and banal cruelties that punctuate everyday life. Rather than embodying the ugliest elements in human nature, it should strive to encapsulate the best.”
Overall, these are noble sentiments, but too idealistic. This is what sports should represent to us, the fans. But to those taking part, it is not an ‘escape’, it is their everyday life, their job and their profession. If your own work does not encapsulate the best of human nature, why should their job be any different? Surely we are not naive enough to think that professional sports, or even Olympic sports, is a pure endeavour instead of one intimately bound up a multitude of forces. As one commentator said, somewhat cynically, of the Olympics: “The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multi-national capital.” Sport is not some separate arena from the rest of society, but a part of it; we don’t escape, we participate.
Money might be part of the problem, and every professional sport that has grown too fast has had to deal with this issue. As Ken Dryden laments, “money is a threat, not in the stresses it puts on sports’ structures (though that is significant), but what it can do to those who have it,” with over-paid participants increasingly cut off from the public and the fans that sustain them. Still, players (and riders) have to make a living, and determining appropriate remuneration is a fraught process. Are top cyclists really earning too much for their hard, hard sport?
In moving forward, Whittle puts the onus on us: “Ultimately, what happens next is our responsibility.” With respect, not entirely. Amid cries that we need to do more, or that riders need to speak out and change their sport, we have to remember that the power lies with the organizers, the administrators, the owners and the overlords. There is much we can do (witness the Paul Kimmage defence fund, for example), but we should recognize the limit of our power. As well, we should not expect the riders to join in. Their positions are always tenuous and they operate in a top-down management structure where they are employed by a team and that team is ultimately responsible to those further up the chain, particularly those who administer the rules of the sport and organize the races. It is from the top that change must come, and where public pressure should be applied – if it can be. It is the managers of cycling that have put us in this predicament and they should be the ones to get us out. If they will not do so, then the sport will not change. For riders such as David Millar, they were working under the conditions given to them. In this sense, perhaps the interesting debate is not over the details of Lance Armstrong’s (apparently now well proven) doping but whether he was a victim of the system or one of the architects that prolonged its existence. If societies set their own morals, rather than through reference to an external system, and pro cycling is a societal microcosm, then was Armstrong just following the ‘rules’ or was he also shaping them?
Which brings us to the golden age, a lament that ‘back in the day’ things were better and different. Cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, but at the professional level in Europe, when you strip away the self-serving myth making, it has been a curious, insular world for much of its existence. “There was never a golden age of fair play in cycling’s history,” Whittle writes. “Cheating has always been characteristic of the sport…” Which is perhaps no surprise. Riders have constantly been struggling, labouring under a structure that is ultimately exploitative and places on them intense physical demands for often limited returns (again the subject of a future post). A team sport, it still celebrates and rewards individual excellence and winning is paramount. Yet, despite its quirks, there is still something about its beauty, grandeur and captivating nature that draws in participants and observers – pros are still joining its ranks and we still want to watch them. A curious paradox, indeed.
“Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports’, the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood,” writes Ken Dryden. Indeed, it is when we are young – still with our enthusiasm intact and not yet cynical – that our indelible memories are formed. This is the time we want to return to, even though we cannot and the times were not as good as we remember them to be. On this, we will give the last word to Hemingway: “The old days were supposed to have been simpler but they were not; they were only rougher.” For pro cycling, maybe those rougher days are now indeed behind us, and it is the future that holds the golden age, a time for childhoods again.
First published October 2, 2012