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Hemingway Adventure

Paris, France (fifth day)

Paris, France 
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Michael Palin - Hemingway AdventureEight-thirty in the morning and I’m in an operating theatre at the American Hospital of Paris lying on a hospital trolley, my head bandaged with toilet paper. This is not the result of yesterday’s sporting feats, it’s an attempted recreation of one of the most bizarre accidents of Hemingway’s accident-prone life.

It happened in March 1928. In the previous nine months Hemingway had sustained an anthrax infection in a cut foot, grippe, toothache, haemor-rhoids, several ski falls as well as having the pupil of his right eye cut open by the playful finger of his son. On the night of 4 March he had gone to the bathroom at his flat in the rue Férou and pulled what he thought was the lavatory chain only to find it was the cord attached to the skylight above him. The skylight came crashing down, slicing into his head. Two weeks later he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: ‘We stopped the hemmorage [Hemingway’s spelling] with thirty thicknesses of toilet paper (a magnificent absorbent which I’ve now used twice for that purpose).’

Which is why I’m lying here in the American Hospital at Neuilly, where he lay seventy-one years ago before being given nine stitches in the forehead. To Professor Michael Reynolds, one of Hemingway’s biographers, this was more than just another injury. Reynolds suggests that when the skylight split Hemingway’s head open, the pain and the spilling of blood caused him to relive memories of his wounding in Italy which he had desperately sought to suppress: ‘When the pain dulled ... he knew exactly what he should be writing ... the story was the war, the wound, the woman.’

Or, as it became, A Farewell to Arms. Which, let’s face it, is a much better title.

Reynolds’ thesis is borne out by a remark Hemingway made years later, to Lillian Ross: ‘I can remember feeling so awful about the first war that I couldn’t write about it for ten years. The wound combat makes in you, as a writer, is a slow-healing one.’

Within two weeks of the injury which left him with a lipoma, a lump of hardened skin, permanently disfiguring his forehead, Hemingway was writing to Perkins that the new novel ‘goes on and goes wonderfully’.

As I lie staring up at the doctors and the light and the needle and the anaesthetic mask coming towards me, I can’t help thinking that there must have been easier ways of dealing with writer’s block.
Paris, France 
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Hemingway, wounded by a falling skylight, left Paris in 1928 but returned to 'the city I love best in all the world' when it was liberated from the Germans in 1944.
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  • Series: Hemingway Adventure
  • Chapter: Paris, France (fifth day)
  • Country/sea: France
  • Place: Paris
  • Book page no: 86

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