Cheers To The Man Who Hated Happy Endings

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Cheers To The Man Who Hated Happy Endings

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

You might dismiss Ernest Hemingway as a perennial cockblocker if you got your literature from the movies.

In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat (Bradley Cooper) raises hell over a happy ending that never was. He is mad at Hemingway for the ending of Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s Henry fights for the love of his life and Bradley Cooper in his epic portrayal as a man committed to find silver linings, roots for him the whole time, only to be crushed by the bleakness of the ending. Henry loses not only his love Catherine but also his child. The enraged Pat echoes the sentiment of our generation when he yells, “Isn’t the world fucking hard enough as it is? Can’t somebody say, ‘Let’s be positive, let’s have happy ending?’”

It’s a sentence that not only anchors the movie, but also anchors much of our lives. When did we become a world so obsessed with happy endings? Never before in our collective history has the human race been in such an ardent, desperate search for happy endings. We chase happiness with the same fervour as a man on fire chases water. If you type “how to be”, Google will finish the sentence for you by adding happy because obviously that’s the big “how to” the world is searching for. And Google obligingly throws up 30, 60,00,000 results. I don’t even know what that number is.

I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea eons ago and like Bradley Cooper I rooted for Hemingway’s protagonist, Santiago. An ageing Cuban fisherman, Santiago struggles with a giant marlin far out in the sea. In an epic battle between man and nature, man wins. A happy ending… almost. But as he straps the marlin along the length of his skiff and heads home, he is attacked by sharks, which tear away a great hunk of the marlin’s flesh and thus mutilate the prize Santiago has struggled for hours and hours to catch. The Old Man and The Sea won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year and subsequently, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. A happy ending… almost. Hemingway shot himself nine years later.

“When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?”

Ernest Hemingway

Mr H lived an eventful life. A war hero, boxer, bullfighter, and quite unlike his prose, which was sparse and even austere, he lived a life that streamed of effusive joie de vivre. He was a great lover of women and is rumoured to have never been without a female companion since September 1921. He was 22 then. Four failed marriages and an endless gaggle of mistresses kept him busy for the next 40 years.

But surviving two world wars, fighting one, getting wounded, and flirting with death was always an undercurrent running menacingly beneath all this joie de vivre. And so was alcohol. A man, who set the record for downing 17 frozen Daiquiris in one sitting, is hailed as the man who taught the world to drink. As he famously said, “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?”

This duality between his life as a bon vivant and a writer of sparse prose and bleak endings met its end in the April of 1961. Hemingway was found dead in the basement alongside his favourite double-barrelled shotgun. Witnesses, who saw the body, remarked that he had chosen from his wardrobe a favourite dressing gown that he called the “emperor’s robe”.   To me, the favourite shotgun, and the favourite dressing gown don’t tell the story of a man driven to suicide by desperation. To me, they signify that this giant personality, this rumbustious man of action, this bullfighter, deep-sea fisherman, great white hunter, war hero, gunslinger, and four-times-married, all-round tough guy, had simply had enough. Hemingway wrote his ending and left us to decide.

The ending of Hemingway’s life remains as nuanced as the endings of his books. Henry, in Farewell to Arms, walks alone in the rain after losing his wife and child. Maybe he walks into another future, another life. Santiago returns to the shore with a giant carcass and then slumps onto his bed in exhaustion. The old man sleeps and dreams of his youth — of lions on an African beach. These are not unhappy endings. They are nuanced scenes that invite your interpretation. They remind us that we are impacted by the frailties of life. But, also, that the human condition is a matter of perspective.

Happy Birthday, Mr H! And thank you for telling us not to live for happy endings.