The dangerous summer (revisited, yet again)

1.

In Paul Morand’s story, the ‘Six-Day Night’, part of his ‘Open All Night’ collection published in 1922, the narrator of the story is pursuing a woman named Leah whose companion is taking part in the six-day race at the Vél d’Hiv – the Winter Velodrome – in Paris. Explains Leah: “He’s a stayer, a six-day man. He’s riding a six-day race. What! Never heard of Pattimatheu where you come from?” The narrator follows Leah to the velodrome to see the action. “Shrill whistles pierced the air. There were four thousand yells, Parisian yells, coming from well down in the throat. The sprints began… The sixteen racers repassed unfailingly every twenty seconds in a compact platoon.”Leah and Pettimatheu are a couple but in his pursuit the narrator finds himself more involved in the action, down amongst the riders in their ‘pit’ area. “Now drawn out into file, the sound of each lap was briefer than the preceding, and at the bell sixteen men passed, like roulette balls projected in straight lines from the twisted curve-banking.” It is nighttime, near the end of the event, and the constant racing has taken its toll on riders and their support crews. “Stained mechanics in khaki shirts, with five days’ beard, wound the handlebars with tarred thread, stacked up the wheels that needed going over, tightened a nut here and there… The men who had been replaced got off their machines for two hours’ sleep. Their managers stopped them, catching the saddles and handlebars, unwrapped their straps from the pedals, and conducted their colts with tender care to their couches.”

Leah appears to be coming around to the narrator’s intentions. It is the sixth night of racing, 158 hours of racing and nearly 4,000 kilometres covered. “It was very late. The night sprints were over. The racers went round with their hands reversed to rest their wrists.” Despite Leah’s apparent intentions to follow the narrator home and abandon Pettimatheu, the narrator wants to remain. “Nothing would have given me greater pleasure, even yesterday,” I replied, caressing her. “And possibly tomorrow. But today my whole heart is here… I want Pettimatheu to win… We have become part of the velodrome, an instant of the race, a waiting for the victory. A few hours more.” The story then ends with ambiguity, whether Pettimatheu will win and whether indeed our narrator will indeed be successful in winning the affections of Leah.

2.

This blog has already covered in some detail the interest of Ernest Hemingway in cycling as well as the linkages to six-day racing. Also, there have been three posts on ‘the dangerous summer’ (new readers can read them here, here, and here). With summer approaching for another season, what better chance than to revisit the subject yet again. Six-day racing at the Vél d’Hiv as well as outdoor track racing at the Stade Buffalo and Parc des Princes was a popular pastime for Hemingway while in Paris in the 1920s and during these years he also attended six-day racing in Berlin. Despite Hemingway’s interest, it has not been well documented in the mountain of material that has been written about his formative years in Paris; this is most likely because bike racing was a diversion, rather than a something formative like bullfighting (for example, in the latest book of his letters, the map showing ‘Hemingway’s Paris’ does not include any of the race tracks). Still, finding the few references is a fun literary exercise.

Hemingway writes in ‘A Moveable Feast’ that Mike Ward introduced him to the racing at the Vel d’Hiv in 1924. Ward was not part of Hemingway’s close circle of friends, apparently, despite their shared interest and he receives few mentions in most biographies. Biographer Michael Reynolds suggests that in the spring of 1925 Hemingway was avoiding writing and spending too much time at the six-day races. His royalties were going on “rent, groceries, and tickets for bike races”. In April 1925, Hemingway wrote to Jane Heap, editor of The Little Review, a publisher of Hemingway stories: “Have just come from and must go back to the six jours de Paris. Best in years. You ought to see Brocco and MacNamara never trying to win the sprints or get any glory or classification but every time a prime of anything above a thousand francs is offered Mac just detaches from the pack and nobody catches him till he’s empoched [from the French empocher, to pocket] the dough… God it’s a swell race this year. Hadley and I go with a quart of liquor and basket of food and stay till both are gone. I would rather see Brocco ride than damn near anything… Wish you were here to go to it.”

The letter captures Hemingway’s enthusiasm and shows that his interest in bike racing had not been dimmed by his discovery of bull fighting in 1923. As well, it shows his interest in representing himself as an aficionado of the sport – saying that the racing was the best in years when he likely only discovered it in 1924. But he has a familiarity with it. Maurice Brocco was a well-known French racer, nicknamed ‘Coco’ who won a stage at the 1911 Tour de France before making a name for himself on the track (he won with Alf Goullet in Madison Square Garden in 1921 and was erroneously called the “Italian demon of the wheel” by the NY Times despite having been born in Fismes, France). Some sources suggest he retired in 1924 but he was definitely racing in April 1925. He was partnered at the six day that year with Reggie McNamara, the Australian racer, fresh from second place at Madison Square Garden in March. Apparently tired after chasing all those primes, he dropped out and Brocco re-teamed with Emile Aerts to place 6th overall. The event that year was won by Piet Van Kempen and Alfred Beyl who covered 3,535.6 kilometres in the six days.

The letter also shows Hemingway trying to co-opt Heap into attending if in Paris. Hemingway loved to share his expertise and enthusiasm and also co-opted Sylvia Beach and her partner: “We attended with our professor the Six-Jours, that six-day merry go round at the Vél d’Hiv, easily the most popular event in the Paris season,” Beach wrote in her memoir of the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. But they were hardly enthusiasts. Even Hemingway’s wife Hadley was apparently a reluctant attendee, despite the quart of liquor and basket of food. “Hem used to make Hadley sit there all night long,” John Dos Passos wrote of attending the racing with the couple. Still, Hadley had worse indignities to suffer, well told – if fictionalized – by Paula McLain in ‘The Paris Wife’ where bike racing does not warrant a mention.

Later, in 1929, Hemingway was still enthusiastic about the sport and had returned to Paris with his new wife Pauline. Meeting writer and lawyer Alan Tate, Hemingway found a convert to bike racing. “I went with him almost every Sunday for three months,” Tate recalled. “I too became, or almost became, an expert.” A previous companion, Colonel Charlie Sweeny, had dropped out after learning that the racing was fixed, as recorded by Carlos Baker in his biography. Also, according to A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway found the atmosphere at the velodrome to be conducive to writing and edited ‘A Farewell to Arms’ there in April 1929 while the rest of his household was sick. Leaving behind Paris in 1930, bike racing slipped from Hemingway’s list of preoccupations. There are no mentions (at least that your author can find) of him attending the Madison Square Garden races, despite their popularity at that time. It would seem, then, that bike racing was strictly a Paris diversion.

Great composite cover for the revised version of A Moveable Feast with a Paris-era Hemingway outside the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Perhaps the dissatisfied Sylvia Beach in the background is just back from the six-day races?

Great composite cover for the restored version of A Moveable Feast with a Paris-era Hemingway outside the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Perhaps the dissatisfied looking Sylvia Beach in the background is just back from the six-day races?

3.

Part of Hemingway’s fixation with bike racing was his desire to master new subjects, handy if he wanted to write about them in detail later but also seemingly part of his personality. Until their falling out during the Spanish Civil War, fellow writer John Dos Passos was a regular member of Hemingway’s circle of friends. “He had an extraordinary dedication to whatever his interest was for the moment,” Dos wrote in ‘The Best Times’. “Whether it was six-day bicycle racing or the bullring or skiing or fishing a trout stream… he stuck like a leech until he had every phase of the business in his blood… I’ve never known anyone with that peculiar stickatitiveness.”

Dos also noted that Hemingway had an “evangelistic streak that made him work to convert his friends to whatever mania he was encouraging at the time.” He regularly attended the bike races with Hemingway for a time: “His enthusiasm was catching but he tended to make a business of it while I just liked to eat and drink and enjoy the show.” Hemingway apparently warned Dos off writing about the bike races, suggesting that he himself would do so, but Dos protested that sports writing was not his domain. Dos had read Morand and thought that he had “done the thing up brown” anyway. Both of them had likely met Morand, as he was in Paris literary circles at the time. While Dos had read Morand in the French (he had been schooled in French) it is not clear whether Hemingway had done so (his reading would unlikely to have been good enough for the original) but he may have read Ezra Pound’s translations as he knew Pound well. Despite Hemingway’s warnings, he did not write about bike racing at the time. Later, in ‘A Moveable Feast’ he protests that all the terms were in French, which “is what makes it so hard to write” but that never stopped him from writing about bullfighting with all the terms in Spanish.

It is unlikely that Hemingway would have made much of a bike rider. For starters he was large – 6 feet tall and usually around 180lbs+ (Carlos Baker puts him at 178lbs in the late 1920s, in his late 20s, after some ‘road training’ for boxing). Despite having, according to Dos Passos, “uncommonly” good eyesight, he was very accident prone and always seeming to get sick. Even Gertrude Stein noticed that he seemed to be often out of shape: “Although a sportsman [he] was easily tired. He used to get quite worn out walking from his house to ours.” Hemingway did struggle with the wound to his knee form the Italian front during WWI, when he was in the American volunteer ambulance service, but it seems to have been more than this. “Ernest is very fragile,” said Stein. “Whenever he does anything sporting something breaks, his arm, his leg, or his head.” Even with his boxing he was not the fastest; but perhaps with his hunting instincts, size, and commitment to the endeavour he might have been a good lead out rider in the sprints. If he could have stayed in shape, that is – he once returned home from Spain having indulged so much in food and drink that the tips of his fingers were bloated and swollen.

Hemingway probably should have written more on cycling and less on bullfighting. The latter became somewhat of an obsession. Hemingway was captivated after he saw his first series of fights in 1923. “You see it isn’t sport,” he wrote in a letter. “It’s a tragedy. A great tragedy. And God how it’s played.” In another letter he wrote: “It isn’t just brutal like they always told us. It’s a great tragedy – and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and it takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibly could. It’s just like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.” There certainly was plenty of guts. In the first of the three phases of the fight, the tercio de varas, the horse riders soften up the bull with their long lances. This phase often involved horses being gored by the bulls and literally having their guts spilled in the ring. This was not to everyone’s liking, but according to Hemingway, “the horses just don’t bother me.” Was it all bravado? Even Morand (more on his views later) may have found it distasteful, providing in the ‘Catalan Night’ a graphic description of the process and then asking rhetorically, ” Am I sick from this anise-perfumed afternoon, or from a sentimental strike, or from this hideous butchery.”

Every critic has a theory about Hemingway and bullfighting and the tragedy and the butchery. It was him asserting an unassailable machismo, it was a means of dealing with his PTSD from his wartime experience, or it was the foundation of his personal myth building in response to an overbearing mother. Take your pick. Writing about it seemed to fit his particular talent for reportage turned into fiction, but not all the critics were impressed. Writing about his full-length bullfighting book, ‘Death in the Afternoon’, critics said it was morbid in its “endless preoccupation with fatality” and that the “he-mannish posturing was becoming a bore.” His clarity of writing was praised, but the subject matter did not impress.

But death – in the bullring or in wars – gave Hemingway some of his best inspiration for writing, which was probably why he returned to the subject of bullfighting in 1959. By then, however, Hemingway was well out of step with the times, nostalgic for the good old days (even though they were rougher), and seemingly fresh out of good ideas. He may have claimed in ‘A Moveable Feast’ to have intended to write about bicycle racing but he had already had plenty of opportunity to do so. But it just did not hold the same fascination for him. Maybe he did think – as he alludes to in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ – that the races were fixed. In bullfighting, death was guaranteed, but how it played out was never entirely certain.

Hemingway the rider, likely to have been injury prone. (Matthew Bibby)

Hemingway the rider, likely to have been injury prone. (Matthew Bibby)

4.

This summer will see a number of new cycling books out, most notably the autobiographies from Michael Barry and George Hincapie, and an English translation of the Christophe Bassons book. The subject is of course doping and these will add to the already published insider accounts as well as the investigative books like ‘Wheelmen’, ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ and ‘Cycle of Lies’ on the Armstrong saga. The revelations will continue, no doubt, but what more is left say about doping in cycling? As well, Chris Froome has a book out, continuing the UK publishing tradition of every single rider who has been a pro in the last decade (most of which, interestingly, have not doped) putting out a book. As a format, the autobiography is an one as it gives the author an uncontested platform to tell their own story – and to present themselves to the reader as they would like to be seen. David Millar’s ‘Racing Through the Dark’ is a good example; it is a compelling read, but it is a one-sided narrative nonetheless and hard not to read as a carefully selected pose of sorts despite its generally revealing and honest nature.  The purpose of an autobiography can be benign, or it can be calculated, but it does only offer one perspective.

The autobiography can also be used to settle scores or put people in their place (we now have the 2012 Tour accounts from Wiggins and Froome to compare, and Cavendish is also prone to using his books in this way). From early in his career, Hemingway used his writing to do just that. As one reviewer wrote: “The source of his material and spring to his imagination was his own life. Issues of intellect – history, myth, society – were beside the point… He was forever making friendships and breaking them, imagining affronts, squaring off in his heavyweight crouch.” Former mentors were scorned or parodied, purported friends were used in his fiction as the basis for unflattering caricatures, and other writers were explicitly demeaned.

Hemingway was reluctant to publish ‘A Moveable Feast’, for example, fearing legal action (‘To Have and To Have Not’ had also delayed by legal concerns). Hemingway fell out with John Dos Passos over politics in the Spanish Civil War, but their friendship had been cooling off before then, perhaps because Dos had not bought into the myth that Hemingway was building around himself. In ‘A Moveable Feast’, in an essay that was left out of the first publication (possibly for legal reasons) Hemingway went on the attack, accusing Dos  of being a “pilot fish” who led the rich to Hemingway with disastrous consequences (leaving his first wife, Hadley). “He has the irreplaceable early training of the bastard and a latent and long denied love of money,” Hemingway wrote. “He ends up rich himself, having moved one dollar’s width to the right with every dollar that he made,” a reference to Dos’s post-WWII flirtations with conservatism. “It gives me the horrors now to remember it,” Hemingway adds. “In those days I trusted the pilot fish…” Some sympathy later creeps in (Dos lost his first wife, an old friend of Ernest’s and Hadley’s, in a car crash) but Hemingway is bitter, blaming Dos and his rich friends for corrupting him and supporting him in his bad choices: as if they were all somehow instrumental for youthful – Hemingway was still in his 20s in the Paris years of the 1920s – decisions that he later regretted.

John Dos Passos was much more circumscribed – although with an appropriate metaphor – when he described the falling out in ‘The Best Times’, even taking on some of the blame: “Men of letters [presumably including himself] suffer from conceit more than ordinary men. They are an egotistic lot. Friendships between them are precarious. They are a little like bulls that way. The bull that was friendly and playful as a calf will gore the guts out of you at the drop of a hat when he’s grown.” Anyway, Hemingway would have been better off attacking Paul Morand, who was an anti-Semitic fascist who worked for the Vichy regime during WWII (when the Vel d’Hiv was used as the muster station for the July 1942 roundup of 8,160 Jews, including more than 4,000 children, in Paris by French police who were then deported to Nazi death camps). He largely escaped serious consequences after the war and never expressed any regret for his political views. A talented writer, but a truly despicable villain.

Gertrude Stein had her own falling out with her pupil Hemingway, but she found him a fascinating character nonetheless. Of his success she suggested it was because he “looks like a modern and he smells of the museums.” Of his subject matter she was less impressed but yearned for the “confessions” of the real Hemingway: “But what a story of the real Hem, and one he should tell himself but alas he never will. After all, as he himself once murmured, there is the career, the career.” Perhaps, though, ‘A Moveable Feast’ was that book. The blurb of the revised edition says that it “brilliantly evokes the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the unbridled creativity and unquenchable enthusiasm that Hemingway himself epitomized.” Maybe. But it is also the mean-spirited memoirs of a bitter old booze-addled yet brilliant writer determined to have one last go at perpetuating the myths of those years that he had so ardently cultivated, to foist the blame for his own actions on others, and – perhaps nobly – absolve Hadley of all blame for what ultimately transpired (Hemingway’s philandering). First published just after his death, it is perhaps the closest of his works to what Stein was seeking.

Still, for Hemingway, the book was fictitious. “If the reader prefers,” he wrote in the original introduction, a passage he agonized over, “this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always a chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” Hemingway had played with the slippery nature of truth before. 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”. 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…” Was Hemingway suggesting in ‘A Moveable Feast’ that the truth was up for grabs, that it can be determined by whoever writes it better? Or perhaps he was acknowledging that memories fade, that old men feel swelled by both their own mythology but also become burdened by regret, and what they remember must necessarily be fiction. “All remembrance of things past is fiction,” he wrote as a side note. As we wade through the latest book releases this summer, especially the autobiographies of times past, we would do well to heed Hemingway’s example. In most ways, what is written tells us more about the author than the events that transpired.

Hemingway at work at home in Cuba, possibly contemplating an epic novel on cycling. (princeton.edu)

Hemingway at work at home in Cuba, possibly contemplating an epic novel on cycling. (princeton.edu)

5.

Hemingway had many qualities that were far from admirable, but he was a romantic at heart. He did not suffer fools and resented artifice and pretension, even as he projected his own aura of masculinity to protect his insecurities. His attraction to bullfighting, big game hunting and fishing was no doubt partly due to a certain fascination with death, but also because it presented a pure spectacle – one that could be observed, and later described and written about – in the clearest possible way, capturing its immediacy and action. One would like to think, therefore, that he would have appreciated this year’s Giro stage over the Stelvio. He would no doubt have lamented the obfuscation by the officials, but perhaps heaped scorn on the whining directors and riders who lost out. He would surely have applauded Nairo Quintana for seizing the decisive moment, for taking the race by the scruff of its neck and belting it with a big right hand, and enduring – even thriving – in conditions many others found impossible. The anti-hero with the bureaucratic and managerial forces arrayed against him could still rise above it all, using his true grit and irrepressible character. A true fighter who reeled in the marlin of the maglia rosa and held onto it even as the sharks circled to take it away from him.

One’s lament with Hemingway is that he never really saw cycling as a worthy subject to write about with his immense talent. But we have not suffered any resulting poverty and there have been and are numerous writers of impressive talent that have produced and continue to produce excellent tomes on our sport, including Geoffrey Nicholson, Graeme Fife, Jeremy Whittle, Bill Strickland, Richard Moore, William Fotheringham, and Daniel Friebe. Your author’s favourite is Samuel Abt (as regular readers of this blog will know), who started writing about cycling in the 80s when continental racing was still foreign, exotic and slightly mysterious. As Hemingway did with his own interests, Abt immersed himself in the local culture and language in France, living in Paris and making sure he knew which knife to use with which cheeses. In his cycling coverage he applied himself to learning the finer points of the racing, but always sought out the lesser-known racers to hear their stories. Perhaps also a romantic, he wrote with vigour and clarity, giving plenty of room for the personalities of the racers themselves to shine through. He was able to capture the sociology of cycling during the 80s and 90s without criticism or condemnation: it was what it was. And there remains the immense pleasure of the text, no matter what one might think of the period itself. His books are well worth revisiting, simply for the joy of reading. We can all appreciate the efforts of a masterful scribe at work.

Finally, then, the dangerous summer approaches, a time for grand designs and foolhardy ride plans. On the reading front, three more recommendations for your consideration, dear reader. Firstly, ‘Etape’ by Richard Moore, a series of tales from Tours past, primarily in the recent decades, where individual stage winners are sought out and their experts described in detail. Moore writes with an intensity for the finer details, but also with the confidence to look back on a dark period of the sport with little sentiment; again, it was what it was. Secondly, ‘Land of Second Chances’ by Tim Lewis, the story of Adrien Niyonshuti and cycling in Rwanda. Despite the agonizing moral failures documented in the dopers’ autobiographies also on offer, the stakes were in no sense comparable to what was endured in Rwanda, and this book is a corrective to the self-centred doping narrative; there is a wider world of pain and tragedy and injustice outside of the European peloton and we would do well to consider it.

Lastly, ‘To Have and Have Another’ by Philip Greene is the Hemingway cocktail companion. Drinking was perhaps Hemingway’s downfall but he did know how to mix a drink. We all have our vices and one might argue that when they are well cultivated in moderation they become more interesting in their presence than their absence – just like doping in cycling, where what is written about it tells us more interesting things about the writers themselves than the subject they are writing about. Enough. Let us bring this discussion to an end by giving the last word to Hemingway. Here he was writing about returning to Paris over the years, but indeed the sentiment could apply to any activity – even cycling: “It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.” Safe riding and thanks for reading.

All that remains in Paris of the Velodrome d'Hiver is a small park and the memorial to crimes against humanity during WWII. The memorial shows Jews huddled against the banked track. Jacques Goddet, later a Tour de France director, handed over the keys to the Germans. That the velodrome was not demolished until 1959 and the memorial not erected until 1993 speaks volumes. (Author picture)

All that remains in Paris of the Velodrome d’Hiver is a small park and the memorial to antisemitism and crimes against humanity during WWII. The memorial shows Jews huddled against the banked track. Jacques Goddet, later a Tour de France director, handed over the keys to the Germans. That the velodrome was not demolished until 1959 and the memorial not erected until 1993 speaks volumes. (Author picture)

* Please note that this post has been modified from the original. *

 

2 thoughts on “The dangerous summer (revisited, yet again)

  1. Stupendous! Thank you for a wonderful article. The literary tradition in cycling is what keeps me interested. In many ways the proliferation of online and TV has dulled way recent great races are remembered by fans, but when a stage like last Tuesday come along the pictures do it justice. I would recommend The cycling anthology collections by Bernie. Great long form pieces by great journalists that keep the tradition going.

  2. Wonderfully written and insightful comparison of Hemingway and the myth building surrounding the biographies of contemporary cyclists. One wonders if Hemingway was a man ahead of his time, or the influence of his style of writing has led to a prevalence of settling of old scores in modern biographies. Fignon on Lemond also comes to mind as well as the others you mentioned. Or perhaps these influences come from somewhere else down under and are designed to meet the titillating and sensationalist demands of tabloid journalism covering sports entertainment.

    I remember reading in ‘A Moveable Feast’ about Hemingway’s interest in bicycle racing. It is a pity he did not focus his exhaustive investigative skills in unpacking the six-day races and road racing in the 1920s as he did with bullfighting, warfare, big game hunting and perhaps to a lesser extent with boxing and fishing. I would imagine he would not readily dismiss the glory and sacrifice of the effort due to the exigencies required to win.

    Despite his shortcomings, and his ability to make a drink and general love of the bottle might be one of them, he was a formidable myth builder.

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