IN AN EARLIER POST we made use of an electronic version of Casanova’s memoirs to tally the various kinds of wine consumed by the Great Seducer in the pursuit of his not-so-elusive quarry. While many of the wines he identified remain familiar to contemporary drinkers, others have long since fallen out of fashion or actually dropped off the map. Now, in his review of a new edition of the letters of Ernest Hemingway, Andrew O’Hagan has performed a similar service for the Nobel Prize winning author and all-around Macho Man.
The analysis focuses on A Farewell to Arms (1929), the novel Hemingway stitched together from his experiences at the Italian-Austrian front in WW I, where the fighting was bitter (18 year-old Hem was wounded in the leg by a mortar shell) but the café life was good. O’Hagan has bigger fish to fry in his review than references to elbow-bending, but in the process of making a point about Papa’s favorite part of speech (it’s the noun) he observes that “Hemingway will never say someone had a drink when he can say they had a vermouth.”
It’s the specificity with which EH recounts the drinking exploits of his characters, rather than the frequency or sheer volume of alcohol consumed, that appears to fascinate O’Hagan. Everything that follows, except what appears in brackets is excerpted from his review.
Hemingway will never say someone had a drink when he can say they had a vermouth . . .
“It begins in Gorizia, [writes O’Hagan] where our hero, Frederic Henry . . . sits watching the snow falling while he drinks a bottle of Asti with a friend. Later, over too much wine and Strega, he explains to a priest his regret at not having gone to Abruzzi. The first time he is at the villa housing the British Hospital he is upstairs drinking two glasses of grappa with Rinaldi. He later tells a group of people about a drinking competition – on this occasion, red wine – he got into with a salesman from Marseille. At the dressing station, he sits with one of the medical captains. ‘He offered me a glass of cognac.’ A page after that, stuck in the dugout with a basin of macaroni, he is drinking from a canteen of wine. He has a swallow just as the mortar that will injure him lands in the dugout. ‘Bring him a glass of brandy,’ says the doctor who first treats him. (Rinaldi brings him a bottle of cognac that afternoon.) And when the priest comes to visit him he brings not any old bottle. ‘This is a bottle of vermouth,’ he says. ‘You like vermouth?’
“When Frederic makes it to Milan, a little boy runs out and fetches him a bottle of grappa. ‘I sent for the porter and when he came I told him in Italian to get me a bottle of Cinzano at the wine shop, a fiasco of chianti and the evening papers.’ Once he’s up and ready to start courting Catherine Barkley in the style she deserves, they’re off to their favourite café, the Gran Italia, where they ‘drank dry white capri iced in a bucket’. Months pass, and many glasses, before they go to the races and have ‘a whiskey and soda apiece’. My love for the book [O’Hagan says] `only increases as it gets a little closer to Brief Encounter.
‘I guess we’re both conceited,’ I said. ‘But you are brave.’
‘No. But I hope to be.’
‘We’re both brave,’ I said. ‘And I’m very brave when I’ve had a drink.’
‘We’re splendid people,’ Catherine said. She went over to the armoire and brought me the cognac and a glass. ‘Have a drink, darling,’ she said. ‘You’ve been awfully good.’
‘I don’t really want one.’
‘All right.’ I poured the water glass a third full of cognac and drank it off.
‘That was very big,’ she said. ‘I know brandy is for heroes. But you shouldn’t exaggerate.’
“At this point [O’Hagan continues] we’re only on page 126. The book has named tipples galore, and when Frederic is back in bed with jaundice, another nurse, not the fanciable one, sees a lot of empty bottles. Again, not just bottles, but ‘marsala bottles, capri bottles, empty chianti flasks and a few cognac bottles’. But there’s work to be done, so, once he’s better, our Signor Tenente goes with others to clear the field hospitals in the mountains and take down the wounded. He visits Gorizia again, where, before long, he is holed up in a villa eating spaghetti and drinking ‘two bottles of wine that had been left in the cellar of the villa’. I wondered at the mention of ‘wine’ tout court, then the inevitable comes, after a mention of rain. ‘I like a retreat better than an advance,’ Bonello said. ‘On a retreat we drink barbera.’ There’s more grappa back in Milan and a martini at the Hotel des Iles Borromées (‘the martini felt cool and clean’), before going up to the lake with Catherine.”
” . . . Hemingway recounts how Frederick drinks vermouth with the barman, then there’s lunch with the Scottish nurse Ferguson and ‘a couple of bottles of [their favourite] white capri’, two bottles of champagne with Count Greffi while they play billiards, more brandy from the barman who supplies Frederic and Catherine with the boat in which they must escape to Switzerland; then there’s a ‘dark Munich beer’ in Montreux, some Glühwein – ‘hot red wine with spices and lemon in it’ – at an inn at Bains de l’Alliaz, more vermouth, a whiskey and soda in a hotel in Lausanne, more capri, more whiskey, more vermouth, two glasses of wine with a brioche (while Catherine is in labour), some beer with choucroute (it’s a long labour), and then several beers with ham and eggs when he finds the baby is dead.
I ordered another beer. I was not ready to leave yet. It was too soon to go back to the hospital. I tried not to think and to be perfectly calm. The men stood around but no one was leaving, so they went out. I drank another beer.
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