On Wednesday evening I wandered around the corner from my apartment in the Latin Quarter to attend an event put on by The Abbey Bookshop on rue de la Parcheminerie. The event that evening was a talk given by Michael Katakis, the Manager of Ernest Hemingway’s Literary Estate. A talk in Paris by Hemingway’s estate manager? What could be better?
Katakis has just published the book “Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts From A Life” which he spent two and a half years researching, and two more writing. The research for the book included sifting through every single piece of paper in the Hemingway archives at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, something no individual has ever done before. The book includes over 400 photographs and letters to and from Hemingway that explore who he really was, and help to debunk all the many myths that surround this storied persona.
Katakis is a fantastic public speaker and brings an exciting passion to the subject of Hemingway. He seems to have an endless working knowledge of the writer, his family, his writing process and legacy. He led the talk by reading portions of the book, opening it up to questions, and then reading more. Afterwards, he signed books at the store and spent actual time speaking with each person and taking a genuine interest in the audience.
But one central question lay at the heart of Katakis’ research: who was Ernest Hemingway, really? A major piece of the myth that surrounds Hemingway was that he did, in fact, create a public persona for himself. He wanted to be viewed in a particular way, often as a fearless, masculine icon, and presented himself accordingly. In Paris, you can find traces of the writer everywhere. The cafes he frequented, especially Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore are now gimmicky institutions where tourists stand in line to have a cup of coffee where Hemingway once sat. Plaques denote apartments he once lived in and walking tours can take you through each site mentioned in “A Moveable Feast.” But, still, the real experience of the artist during those years remains elusive. The tourists and fans won’t understand much more through these visits.
But the personal artifacts at the John F. Kennedy Library helped Katakis get to the heart of this enigmatic figure. And further, as Katakis says so eloquently in the book’s introduction: “I traveled to Spain and ran with the bulls and then on to Paris to visit some of Hemingway’s haunts, but he was nowhere to be found in those commercialized temples that had a ‘George Washington slept here’ quality to them. He was where he had always been, in his books.” Writing for Hemingway was more than putting ideas on a page. It was a way to explore human nature, settle scores, and rewrite his own history. And so perhaps we look at all this not only to understand his body of work, but to understand his life and, ultimately, his early death. We look to see the beginnings of the end.
Katakis doesn’t have an answer to everything, but he has theories for almost all. This book sheds light on the true life of an American icon and the nature of this celebrated artist. It is certainly worth a read.
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