- - Thursday, July 11, 2019


By Andrea di Robilant

Vintage/Knopf, $16.95, 368 pages (paperback)

Lovers of Ernest Hemingway’s work will thrill to the paperback release of “Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and his Last Muse.” (Its first printing was last year.)

So will lovers of gossip.

Author Andrea di Robilant is brilliant at gossip. His book records Hemingway’s first visit to Venice in 1948. The ship and his wife, Mary, their big blue Buick convertible and their 30 pieces of luggage were en route to France. But when they docked at Genoa for repairs, he decided to revisit the region where he was deployed and seriously wounded as an ambulance driver in World War I.

He met old friends, reconnected with his Italian publishers, and soon he and Mary settled in Venice, though taking time out to stay on the island of Torcello and ski at Cortina. Soon he was keeping court at Harry’s Bar and the Gritti, drinking the afternoons away in the company of “eclectic and worldly” buddies, including Princess Aspasia of Greece and Carlo di Robilant, a World War II pilot, the author’s great uncle, and, like Hemingway, a formidable drinker.

Andrea di Robilant records these convivial meetings and the Hemingways’ life in and around Venice in great detail, artfully moving back to the past to clarify Hemingway’s connection to Italy, and describing who he was with and when, what they talked about, and even what they ate.

For example, after returning from a hunting trip to the home of the wealthy Kechler family, we learn that they drank “several rounds of Negronis,” had “good Friulian wine” at dinner, and left next day “after a breakfast of fresh bread and honey.” The book is packed with such notes on the quotidian.

This commitment to gossipy detail proves its worth in the author’s descriptions of the relationship of Hemingway and 18-year-old Adriana Ivancich, whom he met at a duck shoot. “She had jet-black hair, beautiful dark eyes, slender legs, and a svelte, youthful silhouette.”

As soon as they got back to Venice, Hemingway — who said he felt “like lightning had struck” — invited her to a lunch deux. Not done for a married man of 50. “Any person of good sense would have realized that, in a town that thrived on gossip, people were bound to take notice,” writes Mr. di Robilant, noting that “from the start … Hemingway acted as if … rules did not apply to him.”

This lunch was the beginning of a long relationship with Adriana, which saw Hemingway hosting her in his home in Cuba, helping her brother, promoting her work as an artist and poet, getting her drawings used on book jackets — all while her mother was freaking out at his impact on her marriage prospects and his wife, Mary, was suffering a myriad of annoyances because of his behavior.

These did not necessarily include a physical relationship as lovers. She certainly was an erotic stimulus and he certainly pined for her, and even suggested marriage. But while noting the sexual tension evident in their letters, Mr. di Robilant believes that “As Adriana always claimed … the relationship remained essentially platonic. Hemingway himself saw it as an idyllic union that was separate and removed from earthly life.”

That she was a muse, or at least, that she fostered his writing, is incontestable. During this time, he wrote “Across the River and into the Trees” based on their friendship. It was a critical failure, but then he wrote the classic “The Old Man and the Sea” while Adriana was with him in Cuba, and completed parts of “A Moveable Feast” and “Islands in the Stream.”

Though Adriana is certainly the center of “Autumn in Venice,” it is by no means all about her. She doesn’t even appear until page 63. Her relationship with Hemingway is set in the context of his life and travels, so though the book moves briskly and is immensely readable it is a serious contribution to Hemingway biography based on close reading of letters and diaries.

It is also a contribution to literary history in the post-World War II years. It reminds us how much popular and prestigious writers such as Hemingway earned: Enough in his case to buy cars, boats, guns, houses; enough so he could finance an entourage to travel with him, chauffeurs to drive him around, and servants to tend to his whims.

It also reminds us what a celebrity he was. Journalists followed him everywhere. His arrival in a town was an event. His drinking, his four serial marriages and numerous lapses from them, his murderous attitude to the wildlife of the Venice lagoon, America’s West, and the plains of Africa all got a pass under the rubric “larger than life.”

No wonder there has been a reaction against him. But he’s still fascinating to read about.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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