This book will sell lots – many people, in fact, will probably get it for Christmas. They’ll gleefully flick through it before Christmas dinner, read a few pages out loud while they unbutton their trousers for that lie-down after the trifle, and then toss it onto the coffee table as they nod off. And that’s where it will stay. Until the Christmas tree comes down and all the useless presents are packed into the cupboard with the glass baubles. Because, although it has nice glossy pages, is written by everyone’s favourite traveller, and is the ideal gift for anybody who swears Hemingway is the best novelist of this century, it’s hardly gripping stuff. Even for a coffee table book.
A loosely strung together selection of anecdotes, diary entries and extracts from Hemingway’s novels follow Palin and his BBC budget around the globe in pursuit of the legend. From Michigan to the American West via Paris, Cuba, Spain, Africa and all the other well-trodden Hemingway paths, Palin takes us on a journey which left me thinking one thing: why was Palin thrown onto the same stage as Hemingway in the first place? What is the godfather of Monty Python doing hanging out with the Machiavelli of machismo? It’s hardly as if they share a similar sense of humour or even a comparable way of interpreting the world.
The journey is unoriginal, taking you past legends you’ve heard before, and to places and events you’ve already seen. It’s Hemingway’s world, the world he so brilliantly described in his own novels and, quite honestly, nobody does that better than the man himself. If you want to experience Hemingway, you should read Hemingway. Palin’s attempts to describe what the literary legend saw are pleasant, but don’t hold that same breathtaking ability to reconstruct a picture through words.
And on the subject of pics one of the book’s most irksome features, aside from the shameless soliciting of anything to do with Hemingway: (a piece of scrap metal from one of his plane crashes in Africa, an old boxing buddy, a few moments on his favourite bar stool), is the infinite supply of “me in front of” pictures, as in “me in front of Hemingway’s house”, “me in front of the Eiffel Tower”. If it wasn’t for his contrived musing stare into the distance, while a copy of A Farewell To Arms hangs casually from his hands, the snaps would fit well into a Japanese tourist’s Nikon scrapbook of “me on a world tour”.
On a thumbs-up note, at least it’s better than the TV programme. And the writing is lucid and easy to read. But it won’t teach you anything you didn’t know, unless you didn’t know anything about Hemingway to start with. It might leave you wondering what’s next on the cards though. The Road to Graceland?