#35 Elie Wiesel and the Snows of Kilimanjaro
Originally published on JANUARY 28, 2005
ELIE WIESEL AND THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO
The other night I discovered that The Snows of Kilimanjaro with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner was going to show on the television. I had seen the movie when it first came out. I was pleased to the point of excitement at the prospect of seeing it again. I have read Hemmingway’s Kilimanjaro itself two or three times, or maybe half a dozen times, but not in the last twenty or thirty years. There was a time when that story was an important part of my life.
I could recall only one scene in the movie. Ava and Gregory are in a bar in Paris, a Black is playing the saxophone beautifully, and Ava makes a remark about his music that is erotic both in word and sentiment, and at the time a little risqué. Watching Kilimanjaro on the television I was surprised to find that Susan Hayward is in the pic too.
This time around the movie was a disappointment on every count. I didn’t like how Peck played the role of Harry, the dying writer. He was not admirable, but petulant, resentful, and overbearing. The text of the script did not contain the beauty of Hemmingway’s prose, as I recalled it. The tone was off. Everything about the film was off, and disappointing, to the point of boredom.
It was a bit surprising to me to find that the film was released in 1952. I was twenty-two years old. I had just gotten back from Korea, I was probably still in the hospital at Camp Cooke, and I may have seen the movie there. And it was that year, in that hospital ward, where I made the decision one morning to become a writer. It is almost certain that I saw Kilimanjaro as a movie before I read Hemmingway’s text.
Last night I downloaded Hemmingway’s Kilimanjaro from the Internet and read it again. It’s still a wonderful story, but I see now that Harry, the dying writer, is in fact petulant, resentful, and overbearing, and with his women, a liar as well. And what I had not really gotten from the movie and had rather forgotten, he was very disappointed to be dying before he got his work done. He had ruined his talent by exchanging it for women and women with money, and by saving stories for when the time was right to write them, a time that he now understands will not come.
Reading Kilimanjaro again I am beguiled by how seriously Hemmingway took the idea of being “professional.” Kilimanjaro addresses perhaps some of the ways where Hemmingway himself had failed at being professional, but it confirms even in Harry’s character how seriously he took his work. In spite of Hemmingway’s own feelings of having betrayed his talent by not being sufficiently professional, I do not think that there is anyone who is going to claim that Hemmingway was not professional.
With me, I have never acted professionally with regard to writing. I have always worked at the writing, never worked at being a professional. This has nothing to do with principle, or any kind of self-imposed direction. It has nothing to do with me not wanting to be professional or have a career. Being professional is how you make your living as a writer, as with any other profession or career. Not being professional is one way to end your life as a failed literary writer.
Elie Wiesel is an interesting case in point. Elie has been a professional from the get-go. He chose a subject to write about that was, and remains, close to his heart-the destruction of his family, and his community, and his culture by the Germans. Those of us who are writers and think in terms of being artists, all chose to write what is close to our hearts. But the Wiesel saga doesn’t end there. There have been countless books written from the heart about the big H. There is only one Elie Wiesel.
Elie has been a professional from the first time he put pen to paper, from the first time he decided that changing his story would be the professional thing do to. When Night was first published in French, Elie wrote about how after Buchenwald was liberated by the Americans, the freed Jews would go into town to “rape” a few German ladies.
When it was time to translate Night into English, Elie, very professionally, rewrote that part of his text. In the English text you will not find anything about Jewish guys going into town to rape German girls. Now you will read how the Jews of Buchenwald were perfect gentlemen with regard to the local German ladies.
Not being a professional, I would not have been able to cut the business about Jews raping German women without saying a little something about why I was cutting it. That’s the responsibility of the form, autobiography. Perhaps I could have confessed that I had had reported the raping from third-hand sources which later proved to be wrong.
Maybe I had invented the raping in a moment of anger at what Germans had done to my family, that that I was now repentant about such inventions. I was over it. I was glad to be over it because, even as limited a soul as I am, I understand that it is wrong to force yourself on ladies, even when they’re Germans, and if I did not actually do that, it was wrong for me to say I did. In real life, all of us have these hurdles to overcome. Autobiography is not the place to make an exception. It corrupts the form.
That’s what I would have done, because I am not a professional. Elie is undeniably a professional. He’s not a great novelist, and he’s not a great essayist, because you cannot be a great essayist if you are a liar. Novelists can be liars, they can be whatever they want to be, as Hemmingway was, but not those of us who express our artistic sensibilities where literal truth is part of the equation. As with autobiography. Here we have a form that is dependent on artistic sensibility and literal truth as well.
Elie was a featured speaker at the UN yesterday when it memorialized, yet again, the Jewish suffering at Auschwitz. There, in front of cameras exhibiting his face, his wonderful hair, and his words to all the world, he spoke movingly of when he arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau “where the gas chambers were located” and where he was to experience the cruelest event in his life as he marched with is father “toward gigantic flames from huge chimneys, [when] a man approached us and said that we were going to be burned.”
Elie Wiesel is a liar. Sue me. It is understood by everyone who has looked into the matter that there were no “gigantic flames from huge chimneys” to be seen anywhere at Auschwitz, Birkenau, or any other German camp. As a matter of fact there are no gigantic or even itsy-bitsy flames to be seen spouting from crematory chimneys anywhere else.
Not even the ethical simpletons at the Simon Wiesenthal Center are willing to display such corrupt and stupid “evidence.” And this is the “museum of tolerance” that opened its doors exhibiting a fake human-skin lampshade, and only three years ago displayed on its Website a doctored photo showing “smoke” allegedly spewing from a crematoria chimney at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When they were called on it, they reluctantly withdrew the image, muttering about technological glitches. Anything, anything at all, to forward the “unique monstrosity” of the Germans. Professionals, but liars.
We don’t have to go that far back in Elie’s professional career to discover that he is willing to lie about small things as well as large ones. This is the fellow who told a New York Times reporter recently that when he was struck by a taxi on a Manhattan street he was knocked an entire city block. That is, as the crow flies, or as far as this professional little liar can wing it, about 220 feet. The NYT reporter bought the story. He and Elie, both professionals.
I will never be a professional. This is a failing on my part. But something is lacking in my character. What this means is that the Elie Wiesels and the other professional writers who speak for the Holocaust lobby, will go straight ahead with their story, the story that has been so successful, that has put so much influence at their disposal, and so much money in their pockets.
Guys like me, who don’t have it in them to be professional, who maybe don’t really understand what being professional is, will continue to write the way we write, will continue to be without influence on the national scene, and continue to live on the edge of poverty. What’s new?
Hemmingway was professional, and he had many recognizable character flaws. He had a real talent, one that is of a much higher order than Wiesel or myself, and yet he ended his life with a shotgun pushed up inside his mouth. I feel that I understand something about the weaknesses in his character by the fact that he did the shotgun thing in the kitchen of the house where he was staying with his wife. When she heard the noise and went downstairs and found him there was only the jaw. He must have known that that was what she would see.
I believe Harry, in Kilimanjaro, might have considered doing something like that if he had been strong enough at the end. He had that kind of character. I didn’t care for the movie at all. I don’t care so much for Hemmingway’s prose any longer either. Some of it is still very beautiful. But there is stuff in there that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I have always been interested in the weaknesses of my own character. From a certain perspective, as a writer, there are no differences between the weaknesses and the strengths of your character. Particularly if your form is autobiography. They are both there and both are worthy of the attention of the artist who has chosen that form. Neither weaknesses nor strengths are guides for being right, or for winning great historical or moral debates. But being aware of both is something of a guide toward understanding what is just, and a reminder of the obvious, that we are all in this together. That includes Elie and me.