Malaysia’s national shipping line: The Robert Kuok Memoirs


November 27, 2017

How I launched Malaysia’s national shipping line (and what Genghis Khan had to do with it): the Robert Kuok memoirs

In the fifth extract from Robert Kuok’s memoir, the Malaysian-born tycoon reveals how patriotism drove him to launch the country’s national shipping line and how he drew inspiration from the Mongol warrior.

By Robert Kuok

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2121108/how-i-launched-malaysias-national-shipping-line-and-what-genghis

CUT THE APRON STRINGS AND CAST OFF

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Shipping Magnate Frank  WK Tsao

In 1967, word reached my ears that the Blue Funnel Group was coming to set up the national shipping line of Malaysia. Blue Funnel was probably the largest shipping conglomerate in Britain at that time. It owned Blue Funnel, Glen Line, Straits Steamship Co in Singapore, and many other lines. The Executive Chairman, a man whom I recall walked with a bad limp, was making frequent lobbying trips from London to Kuala Lumpur. I was interested in applying for the licence, so I chatted with a few of my Malay civil-servant friends. They agreed that I should put in a similar application to be considered for the right to establish the national shipping line.

My interest was partly patriotism … to help Malaysia not be tied to the apron string of the ex-colonial government

My interest was partly patriotism – a desire to help Malaysia to launch its own independent shipping line and not be tied to the apron strings of the ex-colonial government of Britain through Blue Funnel. I had become interested in shipping from about 1964, due to our large-scale buying of sugar for our refinery, wheat for our flourmill and our international commodities-trading activities. For example, we bought free-on-board sugar from India and delivered it to the Government of Indonesia on a cost-and-freight basis (sellers only wanted to sell on the basis of delivery at their own ports; buyers wanted the sugar delivered to their ports. Thus, covering the span of the ocean was my risk).

Robert Kuok

In those days, shipping was quite volatile and freight rates could sometimes shoot up 25-30 per cent. Since margins on sugar trading were small, you could easily make money on your trade, but lose on the freight. There was one problem: I knew nothing about shipping. I did know that in any business, unless you know the tricks of the trade, you can be badly burnt. I couldn’t even submit a decent memo for the application. So I looked for a partner.

A FRANK ADMISSION

On one trip to Hong Kong, I had been introduced by a Malay civil-servant friend to a man called Frank WK Tsao. I remembered that Tsao was a shipping man, Chairman of International Maritime Carriers, so I telephoned him. I said I would like to come and see him to discuss a business proposal. He gave me an appointment and I flew to Hong Kong. When I went to his office, Tsao was only mildly friendly. I was quite humble in my approach. I told him that we had met. He said, “Oh yes, we have met, we have met.” In business life, you learn early on that you must swallow your pride. I told him that some Malay civil servants, who wanted to stir up competition, were encouraging me to submit an application to set up a national shipping line.

There was one problem: I knew nothing about shipping. I did know that in any business, unless you know the tricks of the trade, you can be badly burnt.

I said, “I can’t differentiate between the front and rear ends of a ship,” which was a bit of an exaggeration, “so why don’t you come and help me to set up the Malaysian national shipping line? You’re well known in the shipping business. Are you willing to become my partner?” Without thinking for a second, he retorted, “Do you know, so and so and so and so have also approached me. They are Tan Sris, and I turned them all down.”

He was virtually saying “And who are you? I’ve turned down people way ahead of you in the pecking order in Malaysia.” When I heard these remarks and saw his body language, I said, “I’m sorry then. I thought I would give you first crack. I am going to go at it.” I didn’t tell him what a determined man I am in life.

I concluded, “Never mind, nothing has been lost by this little chat we’ve had. Thank you for receiving me.” I got up and was walking out when he shouted, “Oh, no, no. Please, Mr Kuok. Don’t go! Don’t go! Sit down, sit down.”

To this day I don’t know what made Frank change his mind. I had one shipping expert on staff, Tony Goh, a Singaporean- Chinese who was running my plywood factory. Tony had been a manager at Ben Line, a Scottish liner, before he joined me in 1964. So I sent Tony Goh to draft the memo with Frank Tsao.

I rewrote certain parts to suit the reading style of the Malaysian civil servants, and we submitted the memo in the joint names of Kuok Brothers and Frank’s International Maritime Carriers. A little later, I heard that we were one of the leading contenders. I asked Frank to meet me in Kuala Lumpur. I had made up my mind that we should pick one day to call on as many important ministers as possible. From eight in the morning we whipped around Kuala Lumpur at a furious pace, such as you can’t do today due to the traffic, and saw seven ministers by lunchtime. Some of them gave us good time and good hearings, and we told them the same story. In the afternoon, we visited one or two more.

I remember calling on the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Home Minister Tun Dr Ismail, Finance Minister Tan Siew Sin, Minister of Works Sambanthan and Minister of Transport Sardon Jubir.

Tun Dr Ismail, the former Malaysian interior minister.

OUR SHIP COMES IN

Within two or three weeks, we were picked at a cabinet meeting to start the national shipping line, Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC). We were like a dark horse coming from behind in the last furlong and pipping the favourite at the post!

I was Chairman of the Board and provided business management guidance. Frank Tsao’s side provided the shipping expertise. Just around the time of MISC’s formation in 1968, my dear friend Tun Dr Ismail resigned from government when he found that he had cancer. I immediately invited him to be the first Chairman of MISC.

I was inspired by the example of Genghis Khan, who, when he conquered cities, usually turned the spoils over to his generals and soldiers

Frank Tsao already knew Tun Dr Ismail through a textile-mill investment Frank had made in Johor (Dr Ismail resigned from MISC after the May 13, 1969, riots to return to the Cabinet. I then took over the chairmanship until the 1980s). Our first two ships came from the Japanese. Simultaneous with our moves to start the shipping line, there was an initiative by the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) to demand war reparations from Japan.

The Chinese community was angry about the Japanese massacre of innocent Chinese and was seeking compensation for this blood debt. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malaysian Prime Minister, supported the demand and raised the issue during official trips to Japan. The Japanese finally agreed to give two blood-debt ships to Malaysia, which the Japanese called “goodwill ships”. MISC started with these two cargo ships and paid for them on a monthly bare-boat, hire-charter basis. Frank’s ship architects and engineers in Hong Kong supervised the design and construction in Japan. Tunku Abdul Rahman made some very cogent suggestions about the design of the flag for this new national flag carrier.

Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, left, and finance minister Tan Siew Sin in 1969.

MISC had an initial paid-up capital of 10 million ringgit. Since Kuok Brothers led the show, we took 20 per cent; Frank Tsao took 15 per cent. As the ships were reparation from the Japanese to the Malayan Chinese Association, not to the Malaysian nation, the vessels were assessed a reasonable value and the MCA was given MISC shares in lieu of payment.

MCA and other Chinese associations, combined, took 20-30 per cent, so in the beginning the holding of Kuok Brothers, Frank and the MCA group together was easily over 50 per cent. We had a fairly united board in the beginning. MISC started business in the second half of 1969 and quickly flourished. Much of the credit must go to Frank, the deputy chairman, who recommended capable managers such as Eddie Shih. Shih, another Shanghainese who had settled in Hong Kong, ran the show with Tony Goh. Very early on,

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MISC Managing Director Leslie Eu Peng Meng

Tony recommended his one-time colleague in Ben Line, Leslie Eu, who at the time was manager of Ben Line Bangkok. Leslie, the son of Burmese Chinese who had settled in Malaysia, quit Ben Line and came in as Managing Director of MISC.

YES, PRIME MINISTER

Within a year of our launching MISC, Tun Razak, who by then was prime minister, sent for me. Razak said, “I want you to make a fresh issue of 20 per cent of new shares. I’m under pressure because there is not a high enough Malay percentage of shareholding.” I said, “Tun, are you quite serious about this request?” He answered, “Yes, Robert.” So I replied that I would do it. I went back and, with a little bit of arm-twisting, persuaded the board to pass a resolution waiving the rights of existing shareholders to a rights issue (MISC was not yet a public company). Razak allocated all the new shares to government agencies. So, I was diluted to 20 upon 120 – the enlarged base – and Frank became 15 upon 120.

Tun Razak.

One or two years later, Razak again sent for me. He said, “I’m under a lot of pressure at Cabinet meetings. You know, Robert, it’s just the price of your success. MISC is doing well, people are getting envious. But now, instead of giving in to those factions, what I’ve decided is this: Issue another twenty per cent, five per cent to each of four port cities in Malaysia.”

I have always believed in some degree of socialism when you have made money

This entailed enlarging the capital base to 140 from the original 100, making the Malaysian Government the largest single shareholder and relegating Kuok Brothers to second position. And he again wanted the shares issued at par – the original issue price.

I said, “Tun, I have always cooperated with you, but it’s getting very difficult. Three, four years have elapsed from formation, but I would be loath to ask you for a premium since we are a growing company. So I will go back and ask the board again to issue shares at par to you. But Tun, can you please promise me that this is the last time?” He smiled and very gently signified his agreement, without saying the words.

GIVING LIKE GENGHIS

Then Frank and I decided that we should go public. Before we listed in 1987, I made quite a radical move, adopting a practice that I had used within Kuok Brothers. I explained to my Kuok Brothers senior directors that the MISC shares were now worth a lot of money, but only because of the great effort put in by other members of the board and many of the very deserving staff. I wanted to take about 15 per cent of our shareholding and sell the shares at par to deserving directors, staff and ship captains. Quite a number of people benefited from this move. I have always believed in some degree of socialism when you have made money. You know very well that you alone didn’t make it; it was a joint effort.

I was inspired by the example of Genghis Khan, who, when he conquered cities, usually turned the spoils over to his generals and soldiers. He was not selfish, and that is why he became the greatest general the world has ever seen.

Robert Kuok, A Memoir will be available in Hong Kong exclusively at Bookazine and in Singapore at all major bookshops from November 25. It will be released in Malaysia on Dec 1 and in Indonesia on Jan 1, 2018

Dr. Lim Teck Ghee’s latest book will be launched on November 8, 2017


November 7, 2017

Congratulations to Dr Lim Teck Ghee with this quote from the late Steve Jobs to commemorate the launch of your book, Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. –Steve Jobs

Teck Ghee,

It has been indeed my pleasure to host your writings on Malaysian issues of public interest on my blog for the benefit of readers around the world.

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Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Your commentaries on various aspects of contemporary Malaysian political economy have been critical, fair and balanced, succinct  and very readable. I look forward to owning a copy of this book and reading your articles with a fine tooth comb. I share your concerns and like you, I am optimistic about the future of our country.

You and I and all our friends like Patricia Martinez, Azmi Sharom,  Ooi Kee Beng, Thayaparan, et.al have been identified with the political opposition for having the guts to speak the truth to power.  Nothing is further from the truth. We are loyal and citizens of Malaysia with certain inalienable rights under the Constitution. We seek to hold our leaders accountable for their decisions and actions. –Din Merican

Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo Book Launch

Strategic Information and Research Development Centre is pleased to invite you to the launch of our latest and highly-anticipated book, Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.

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We are proud to have as our guest of honour Tan Sri Datuk Yong Poh Kon to launch the book.  He, together with the book author, were members of a 5- man committee chaired by then Dato Seri Abdullah Badawi to draft the final report of the National Economic Consultative Council (NECC)  in 1990 as inputs for the successor policy to the NEP.

Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon was a President of the Federation of Manufacturers (FMM) and the Co-Chairman together with the Chief Secretary,  of PEMUDAH, the Task Force to Facilitate Business from 2007 to 2013.  He was also  a founding Commissioner of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and Board Member of Bank Negara Malaysia (Central Bank of Malaysia) and EPF. From  2009 to 2014, he served as a member of the Advisory Board of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and in 2013 he was appointed a member of the Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s office.

 

Present at the launch will also be Dr. Lim Teck Ghee and Dr. Azmi Sharom, Commander (retired) Thayaparan and Dr. Patricia Martinez who will make short remarks about the book and their take on the book’s subject matter.

Following the formal launching of the book there will be a question and answer session. Copies of the book will be available for sale after the event. Light refreshments will also be provided.

 

Endorsements:

No Malaysian concerned with the future of Malaysia or anyone with an academic interest in the country can afford not to read this superb collection of essays by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, one of Malaysia’s foremost public intellectuals. With his impressive critical eye, deep historical insights, and extensive experience in political and social activism spanning almost five decades, Dr. Lim offers his critical analysis and reflections on several political, economic and social issues in Malaysia with the vision of making change happen in a country on the brink of becoming a failed state. – Alberto Gomes, Professor LaTrobe University, Australia

 

Malaysia has been in a low-intensity crisis – punctuated by occasional moments of real confrontation – for so long that it is all too easy to normalise the status quo as the only imaginable world. The crisis encompasses every element of the social order. For nearly five decades Lim Teck Ghee has been one of Malaysia’s most principled and eloquent critics of this system, and of a ruling class that has entrenched itself, its ideas and its interests into the body politic. His writing and political engagement are the epitome of the public intellectual – thinking about and reflecting broadly upon the realities of society, and offering solutions. He straddles the worlds of rigorous scholarship, social activism and public discourse. He embraces every possible medium to circulate his message: acclaimed academic books, policy reports, position papers, online commentaries, op-eds and more besides. And his views remain steadfastly subversive. The publication of Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo brings together some of  Teck Ghee’s most penetrating analyses from the past decade. They offer a critique, a challenge and a chance to imagine that another world is possible for all Malaysians. – Gareth Richards, Gerakbudaya Bookshop, Penang

 

History professor, consumer advocate, policy analyst and public intellectual par excellence Dr. Lim Teck Ghee has put together this important collection of critical essays on the existential crisis of the Malaysian nation today. The essays are sharply critical of Malaysia’s current economic policies and social practices as its title suggests. Essays cover topics on the New Economic Policy (NEP)’s prolonged and untenable extension of ethnic privilege into the New Economic Model (NEM), on the role of GLCs which may have helped over-achieve the 30 per cent threshold of Bumiputera equity, on the ruling coalition’s egregious use of electoral manipulation, on the rising tide of religious intolerance condoned or unchecked by the government and many other issues that make for riveted reading.Through these essays, Dr. Lim systematically exposes the poor state of governance in the Malaysian state and the flaws of its past and current policies. Although a bleak picture is presented about an apparent lack of progress, Dr. Lim’s explicit use of Ockham’s razor to dissect governmental practices show us clearly how we could construct a more progressive Malaysia in the future. His pointed analyses of how and why we must render change to ineffectual and moribund policies is essential reading for academicians, politicians and activists. – Johan Saravanamuttu, Adjunct Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)

 

The life time spent by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee on studying and analyzing issues affecting the well-being of Malaysia and the world is exhibited in impressive fashion in this collection of articles. Often controversial, always informed, his incisive words confirm his standing as one of the country’s most intrepid and resolute public intellectuals. – Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Deputy Director, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

 

Malaysia: Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is a Statesman and a Patriot


July 11, 2017

COMMENT: As I see it, there are two sides of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. He is a technocrat-manager, and he is also a politician. It is easy to get your wires crossed when you judge him. I experienced this cognitive dissonance every time I commented on him, and painfully too. As a person, the Tun is gentle, kind and considerate. As a politico, he can be as tough and unbending as a nail of reinforced steel.

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Tun Dr. Mahathir –Technocrat-Manager and Politician and Prime Minister

I am familiar with the man as a technocrat-manager because I had the privilege of working for him directly in 1970s.  I also had worked for Tun Ghazalie Shafie (Wisma Putra), Tun Ismail Bin Mohamed Ali (Bank Negara Malaysia and later when he became successor to Tun Tan), and Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tunku Ahmad Yahaya (Sime Darby Group ) in 1960s-1990s.

What do these outstanding personalities have in common? To me, they were thoroughly professional, smart, decisive and demanding bosses who did not suffer fools easily. More importantly, they judged me for my work and fidelity to the institution, not for my loyalty to them, or capacity to flatter them. In fact, I was afraid to even compliment them for fear of being misconstrued. Of course, they all had their strengths and failings, but there was no doubt in my mind that they were patriots who served Malaysia with distinction. They led by example, and had a great impact on my professional career.

Then there is Tun Dr.Mahathir, the politician, the Senator, Member of Parliament (Kubang Pasu) and Prime Minister of Malaysia (for 22 odd years). I knew him when I was growing up in Alor Setar, Kedah too. But I have great difficulty in understanding his decisions and actions, although I understood and accepted his Vision 2020,  Look East Policy and other economic and social policies.

Up to a point, I was even willing to accept his rationale for wanting power. I remember him saying that he needed the power to get things done. Indeed, he got the power he wanted and he certainly got things done. Look around and you can see for yourself his many accomplishments. He has left an indelible mark on our national landscape.

I know that Prime Minister Najib Razak is trying to erase them.  I heard from my friends when my wife Dr. Kamsiah and I visited Langkawi recently that Najib’s cronies were trying to eliminate some landmarks of the Mahathir era in Kuah. How  low and immature one can get.

Unfortunately, the Tun had too much power. With unchecked powers, he systematically brought all institutions of governance under the control of a powerful Executive Branch, a legacy he left to the present Prime Minister Najib Razak to fully exploit.  Now, it is next to impossible to replace the incumbent Prime Minister for corruption and abuses of power. Even national elections can be rigged.

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 I can change my mind too. When Tun Dr. Mahathir put his Deputy Prime Minister Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim in jail on trumped up charges of sodomy in 1998, I had a change of heart and  became critical of his political leadership.  I even wrote what I thought of Tun Dr. Mahathir the Politician in Tom Plate’s book’s Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad. I have remained steadfast to my views on the Political Mahathir.

But I will never stoop so low as to condemn our Fourth Prime Minister and deny him his place in our national history. He is a truly outstanding statesmen and role model for Malaysians of my generation, especially those from Kedah.  He belongs with Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, a fellow Kedahan, in my pantheon of heroes. –Din Merican

Malaysia: Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is a Statesman and a Patriot

by Rais Hussin@www.malaysiakini.com

It was John Maynard Keynes who said: “When the facts change, I change my view”. The philosophy served him well.

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Keynes could see ahead of time. When France and its allies punished Germany with reparations after World War I, Keynes knew that Germany would rise again to seek its revenge. He even wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace [The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) is a book written and published by John Maynard Keynes.[1] Keynes attended the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 as a delegate of the British Treasury and argued for a much more generous peace. It was a best-seller throughout the world and was critical in establishing a general opinion that the Versailles Treaty was a “Carthaginian peace“. It helped to consolidate American public opinion against the treaty and involvement in the League of Nations. The perception by much of the British public that Germany had been treated unfairly in turn was a crucial factor in public support for appeasement. The success of the book established Keynes’ reputation as a leading economist especially on the left. When Keynes was a key player in establishing the Bretton Woods system in 1944, he remembered the lessons from Versailles as well as the Great Depression. The Marshall Plan, after the Second World War, was a similar system to that proposed by Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.–wikipedia]

True enough, within a short generation of 20 years after the conclusion of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, Nazi was led by Hitler, wrecking damage on the whole of Europe. Did Keynes insist on more revenge against Germany? No. True to form when the facts change, he changed his opinion.

After Second World War, Keynes was among the few to insist that Germany has to be integrated into Europe to keep the whole region safe.

Statesmanship is about peering into the future. Under Dr Mahathir Mohamad, well before Malaysia knew what was Vision 2020, he had spoken at the Malaysian Business Council in 1990 on the importance of creating a country that was morally and economically strong.

In contrast, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has run the ship aground with allegedly the brazen RM44 billion mismanagement, of which the likes of Khairul Azwan, the Umno Youth vice-chief, is still in denial. It is as if 1MDB is “Pi Mai Pi Mai Tang Tu” (Come and go, come and go, and it’s OK too).

Well, too bad for Najib. Mahathir did not earn his “Tunship” by sheer ingratiation. If he did, the award would have been withdrawn given the government’s accusations that he has sold the country down the river with a wave and a bye.

Between 1981 and 2002, a full 22 years, Malaysia was the only one to have grown by leaps and bounds. Even at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1999, Malaysia never so much as ask for a single dollar from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet, had IMF come into the picture, the bumiputera economic program, right down to how the government payroll would be spent, would come under the scrutiny of IMF.

Almost overnight, the sovereignty and independence of Malaysia were saved, which is more than any Malaysians can ask for from their leader.

In contrast, at the height of the Global Economic Recession in 2009, what Najib did was well-nigh irresponsible. Instead of building our country’s human capital, allegedly some RM44 billion or more, were borrowed and squandered, saddling Malaysia with even more debt.

Khairul Azwan–The Super Ampu Najib character

Khairul Azwan (photo), being a junior politician, some believe juvenile too, can only claim that Mahathir is not worthy of the title of being called a statesman. If not Mahathir, then who?

‘Upset Mahathir can support Anwar again’

Khairul Azwan is upset that Mahathir can support Anwar Ibrahim again. Well, when the facts change, Mahathir’s opinion too. And the facts that have changed are these: Najib has allegedly mismanaged the funds that were leveraged on the name of 1MDB, and avoided coming head to head with Mahathir for a public debate. If there is nothing to hide, Najib must debate with Mahathir.

In avoiding the need to face Mahathir head on, the likes of Khairul Azwan have had to step to the fore to defend the Prime Minister. But how can Khairul Azwan even suit the role granted that most Malaysian had never heard of his name until today?

Is he crying out to attract attention? Like he did when he lodged a police report against three impeccable “Tan Sris” that include Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Abdul Gani Patail and Abu Kassim Mohamed for attention. And attention he got when he was instantaneously rewarded with a senatorship by Najib.

Is he now crying for attention so that he will be given a parliamentary or state seats to contest? Is he eyeing a ministerial position or who knows, the coveted Menteri Besar post of Perak? Khairul Azwan knows loyalty to Najib has instant rewards or remuneration.

He had experienced it first-hand. Time to accentuate his loyalty to Najib for instant rewards while negating the interest of the people or the nation?


RAIS HUSSIN is a supreme council member of Parti Peribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). He also heads the Policy and Strategy Bureau of Bersatu.

Ernest Hemingway, the Sensualist


June 27, 2017

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From Langkawi Island–Home of the Malaysian Eagle

Ernest Hemingway, the Sensualist

The macho icon has been recast as a gender-bending progressive. But what really made his pulse race?

It’s difficult for people who weren’t around at the time to grasp the scale of the Hemingway cult in twentieth-century America. As late as 1965, the editor of could write reverently of scenes from a kind of Ernest Hemingway Advent calendar: “Wine-stained moods in the sidewalk cafés and roistering nights in Left Bank”. Walking home alone in the rain. Talk of death, and scenes of it, in the Spanish sun. Treks and trophies in Tanganyika’s green hills. Duck-shooting in the Venetian marshes. . . . Loving and drinking and fishing out of Key West and Havana.” It was real fame, too, not the thirty-minutes-with-Terry Gross kind that writers have to content themselves with now.

To get close to the tone of it today, you would have to imagine the literary reputation of Raymond Carver joined with the popularity and political piety of Bruce Springsteen. “Papa” Hemingway was not just a much admired artist; he was seen as a representative American public man. He represented the authority of writing even for people who didn’t read.

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The debunking, when it came, came hard. As the bitter memoirs poured out, we got alcoholism, male chauvinism, fabulation, malice toward those who had made the mistake of being kind to him—all that. Eventually there came, from his avid estate, the lucrative but not reputation-enhancing publication of posthumous novels. The brand continues: his estate licenses the “Ernest Hemingway Collection,” which includes an artisanal rum, Papa’s preferred eyewear, and heavy Cuban-style furniture featuring “leather-like vinyl with a warm patina.” (What would Papa have said of that!) But few would now give the old man the heavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not least because thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style. We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add a patch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters. In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only for people who never read.

Suddenly, though, there has been an academic revival in Hemingway studies in which, with an irony no satirist could have imagined, Hemingway, who in his day exemplified American macho, has, through our taste for “queering the text,” become Hemingway the gender bender. The Hemingway Review can now contain admiring articles with subtitles like “Sodomy and Transvestic Hallucination in Hemingway.” It is newly possible to deduce that Papa was far weirder, in a positive sense, than he liked to pretend, and that his texts contain, just below their rigidly tumescent surface, deep glimmering pools of sexual ambiguity and gender liquidity.

Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography, “Hemingway” (Knopf), is hardly full of revelations. With the witnesses almost all dead, and the archives combed through as if by addicts looking for remnants of crack, how could it be? But it is up to date in attitude. The queer-theory patches are all in place, as are the feminist ones. Dearborn has an oddly puritanical attitude toward the storytelling of a storyteller, becoming quite prim as she points out that Hemingway exaggerated here, confabulated there, made less of this than was quite truthful, and more of that. Hemingway, she writes, told “enormous whoppers” about, for instance, trapping pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens for dinner in his early years in Paris. In fact, he and his first wife, Hadley, had plenty of money. But he was writing fables about the aspirations of expatriates, not textbooks on accounting. Hungry people—and no one is hungrier than a young writer trying to make a reputation—feel hungry even when they’re not actually starving.

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In general, Dearborn seems not to have met many writers along her scholarly path, and appears astounded that the good ones tell tall tales about their own formation, which is like being astounded that fishermen exaggerate the size of their catch. (Of course, Hemingway did that, too.) Most of Hemingway’s fabulations are transparent in style and purpose: he told an interviewer once that, when he walked with Joyce in Paris in the nineteen-twenties, Joyce would “fall into an argument or a fight. He couldn’t even see the man so he’d say, ‘Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!’ ” This surely never happened, but you can see why he wished it had, and can’t hate him for wishing it. He wanted to be Joyce’s Luca Brasi.

In Dearborn’s better moments, she shows how intelligently Hemingway managed to apportion the amount of empirical accuracy for each occasion. Although he inflated his heroism in the Great War—at one point giving credence to the report that he had carried a wounded Italian soldier over a distance twice the length of a football field—he was direct and understated in his published stories. Dearborn thinks that Hemingway was asking whether “there was any more authenticity, or truth.” No, he wasn’t. He was allocating authenticity and truth according to the needs of his art. The original of Catherine in “A Farewell to Arms” was an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky, whom he loved passionately, only to have her reject him with a chilly Dear John letter, in which she told him that she was “still very fond” of him but “more as a mother than a sweetheart.” He fixed the facts in the novel by having her die for love bearing his child. Revenge on reality like that is what literature is.

But Dearborn is an encyclopedic collector of facts and, on the whole, a decent and fair-minded judge of them. One rarely objects to her verdicts about what exactly happened and why. The story here gets retold more or less on the terms we know, with judicious guesses made as to the truth of much-argued-over episodes: yes, his mother dressed him as a girl until he was old enough to notice; no, Scott Fitzgerald probably never asked him to check the size of Fitzgerald’s member in a Paris men’s room; yes, those famous wilderness outings in Michigan took place in the context of a big middle-class house and middle-class vacations, and were not nearly as primitive as the stories make them sound; and no, his first wife did not lose all of his early work on a train for good—a lot was soon recovered. Recent “discoveries” in the field are put more or less into place: the revelation from the author Nicholas Reynolds, in “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy,” that Hemingway had been recruited as a spy by Stalin’s N.K.V.D. in the nineteen-thirties is noted, although it’s also noted that Hemingway seems never to have done anything for it. The truth that he was not entirely paranoid at the end of his life to think that the F.B.I. had been keeping an eye on him is noted, too, and so is the fact that the Bureau seemed to have little malice toward him. Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover himself—another tough guy with a hidden side—was an admirer. And Dearborn sees clearly what was clouded then: that a large part of Hemingway’s decline in his last years was due to an inherited bipolar disorder coupled with a penchant for self-medication through alcohol.

We pass through the usual progress of Hemingway’s life, already well charted in all those other books. Early fraught years in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, with a distant, manic-depressive father, who eventually committed suicide, and a cold mother, who once ordered the young Ernest out of the house and, years later, when his first novel was a hit, found a wholly negative local review to send him. Relief in the form of summers spent fishing at the family’s lake cottage. No college years—he missed that part, and paid for it by overcompensating intellectually—but war experiences. Hemingway went to the Italian front in 1918, at eighteen, as an ambulance driver, in the company of the once famous, now largely forgotten novelist John Dos Passos. As James McGrath Morris points out in his new book “The Ambulance Drivers,” Dos Passos had a keen sense of the real waste and horror of war, whereas Hemingway still saw it as an occasion for a heroic show of stoical endurance. The courage of his going at all is undeniable; after a few weeks, he got blown up by a mortar and recovered in the hospital, falling in love with that beautiful nurse. He then went to work as a journalist for the Toronto Star; there’s a nice line in “The Sun Also Rises” about the easy social graces of Canadians. But, as much as generations of newspapermen have claimed him as a student of newspaper style, nothing memorable emerges from the collected journalism.

It was only after his marriage to Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis heiress, that he set off for Paris, arriving in late 1921 with a determination to become a great and modern writer that was touching in one who had received so little encouragement. Encouragement as a writer, that is; Hemingway’s charisma and good looks had made life easy for him, as they would go on doing for a long time after. (Of all the gifts that can grace a literary career, good looks are the most easily overlooked and not the least important: though we may read blind, we don’t befriend blind.)

Dearborn is faintly disapproving of his literary careerism in Paris, registering the fact that he used his attractiveness to attract, while rather missing the point that the people he was courting, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein and the rest, were avant-gardists with no influence in the realms of commercial publishing where he had to make a living. He was certainly ambitious and appealing, but the ambition for which he used his appeal was to write well in a new way.

His natural sound, the tone that rises when he is writing unself-consciously to friends, is nothing like the voice of his good fiction. He was naturally garrulous and jocose—indeed, by the time he was a celebrity he was so garrulous and jocose that it shocked people, though he was just being himself. (This explains the response to the notorious Profile of him by Lillian Ross that ran in this magazine in 1950: he read the galleys, thought he sounded hilarious and charming, and had no idea that he would come off as a self-absorbed blowhard.) Writing to a friend about bullfights in 1925, when his literary style was already fully formed, he said, “It ain’t a moral spectacle and if a male looks at it for a moral standpoint there isn’t any excuses. But if a male takes it as it comes. Gawk what a hell of a wonderful show.” His letters are stuffed with similar kinds of heavy-handed kidding.

The real American masculine style, as Sinclair Lewis shrewdly saw, is not tight-lipped-stoical but wheezy-genial. Hemingway was no exception to the rule that every American man needs to see himself as funny. (Clint Eastwood’s famous turn at the 2012 Republican National Convention is further evidence of this: America’s tough guy took it for granted that he was so naturally amusing that all he had to do was drag an empty chair onstage and start joking.) Hemingway actually had zero gift for comedy—he liked making fun of other people, but could never implicate himself in the jokes, which shuts off the humor spigot quickly. Still, the tight-lipped grimace was always threatening to turn into a regular-guy grin, since the regular-guy grin was what the tight-lipped grimace started off concealing.

But—what a fantastic writer he became! Scribner has now produced a new volume of Hemingway’s short stories, most from the nineteen-twenties, his best decade, complete with many of the drafts he made along the way. What is amazing is how pitch-perfect he was. Reading passages from the Nick Adams stories published originally in relatively obscure literary reviews, one is overwhelmed by how so little produces so much—how the brevity, far from being taciturn or severe, is matchlessly eloquent in its evocation of the pleasures of the senses and of the feeling of place, as in the famous description of a trout stream in Michigan from the 1925 story “Big Two-Hearted River”:

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.

The beauty of the description is reinforced by its emotional subject: we sense and then briefly deduce that Nick is a veteran of the war, trying to relocate his mind through familiar pleasures. How did Hemingway do it? Simplicity, monosyllables, elimination of adverbs and adjectives . . . that’s supposed to be the formula. For mordant mischief, one can now download the Hemingway Editor app, which contains an algorithm meant to reproduce his style, and see how well this works. (The app picks out, adversely, the single adverb “swiftly” in the opening paragraph of “A Farewell to Arms.”) But all the algorithm can do is simplify, and produce the kind of baby-talk prose that Hemingway himself wrote only when he was losing it. The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.

Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.

That’s typical of his practice. The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions. There are influences at work, obviously, from Stephen Crane to Sherwood Anderson, not to mention Gertrude Stein’s faux-naïf smarts. Yet Hemingway himself gave most of the credit to Cézanne. In that cancelled passage from “Big Two-Hearted River,” we read, “He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. Cezanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built clearly and slowly the real thing. It was hell to do. He was the greatest. It wasn’t a cult.” (The crossing-out is in the original.) This is the kind of classy thing that writers are bound to say and biographers are bound to doubt—Dearborn calls Hemingway’s constant reference to Cézanne “mystifying”—but it makes all the sense in the world. The whole aim of Cézanne’s painting from the eighteen-seventies on is to build up landscape and still-life from the pictorial equivalent of monosyllables—from small, square constructive marks, like the cross-shadings of a pencil, which make space by being overlaid. Outline and firm shape are subordinated, as in Hemingway, to the passage of one shape into the next. Both men are masters of “and” more than “this.”

Cézanne also showed that a few strong hints of specificity—this one pine tree in the right front plane, this plastic foregrounded orange—are all that is needed for the evocation of shapes and spaces. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there are moments that are not just constructed like a Cézanne painting; they look like a Cézanne painting:

There was no underbrush in the island of pine trees. The trunks of the trees went straight up or slanted toward each other. The trunks were straight and brown without branches. The branches were high above. Some interlocked to make a solid shadow on the brown forest floor. Around the grove of trees was a bare space. It was brown and soft underfoot as Nick walked on it.

It is exactly the feeling of Cézanne’s “Pines and Rocks,” at MoMA. Hemingway’s prose combines the brightly colored sensuality of modern French painting with a clench-jawed American repression. The stoical stance and the sensual touch: that was Hemingway’s keynote emotion, and his claim to have learned it from Cézanne looks just.

The stoical stance has been much celebrated—“grace under pressure” and the rest—but the sensual touch is the more frequent material of the prose. Whether at Michigan trout streams or Pamplona fiestas or those Paris boîtes, there is a strong element of “travel writing.” He wrote pleasure far better than violence. Fitzgerald’s evocation of the fashionable world is quite abstract and mostly unspecific. Hemingway is full of advice about what to eat and drink. “Death in the Afternoon” even includes a brief but decisive “Lonely Planet”-style discourse on European beer—the best is Czech, German, and Spanish—as “The Sun Also Rises” does on Spanish wine. There’s a reason that the bar at the Paris Ritz was the first place he “liberated” in Paris, and that El Floridita restaurant, in Havana, still claims him as the father of its grapefruit-enhanced Daiquiri. No good writer ever had such clear views on hotels and cafés and restaurants.

Hemingway’s people are damaged but not shell-shocked. “A Farewell to Arms” is a romance—a Hollywood-movie romance, featuring a couple with glamorous names. The romance of honor and glory may have died on the Western Front, but the romance of romance, and of sex and the material life in particular, was relighted; in the face of annihilation, postponing pleasure just looked silly. For all his reputation for “masculine” values, an instinctive Hemingway theme is far more culturally “feminine,” a graceful bending under pressure. “I’m not brave any more, darling,” Catherine tells Frederic in “A Farewell to Arms.” “I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.” The self-recognition of breakage is the form of bravery available to real people. The edict of Hemingway’s art is to take what life throws at you without complaint, but it is also to never postpone pleasure if you can help it. The travel-literature, brand-name side of Hemingway—the side that made Pamplona a tourist trap and Venice’s Gritti Palace an “icon,” the side kept alive in degraded form by all that artisanal rum and patio furniture—is essential to his effects. Hemingway was a master not of a realized stoicism but of a wounded epicureanism. Have fun while you can, and then endure the bad stuff when it comes. It doesn’t sound high-minded when you say it, but it was saner than almost anything else on offer.

Hemingway’s early style is also a poetic style; it’s significant that, like the Romantic poets, he bloomed as a writer in his mid-twenties. The novel was invented by the middle-aged, and George Eliot and Anthony Trollope were in their fifties when they wrote their masterpieces. But lyric poetry is for the young, and the trouble with a poetic style is that, with age, it can become a pose. Hemingway’s became a style so mannered that it could be parodied endlessly, to the point that Hemingway parodies are nearly as rich a literary form as Hemingway stories. The two best—Wolcott Gibbs’s “Death in the Rumble Seat” and E. B. White’s “Across the Street and Into the Grill”—both appeared in this magazine, and it’s significant that the two parodists shared Hemingway’s project of simplifying the hell out of American prose; it attuned them to the distortions and tics in the Master’s way of doing so.

Dearborn brings home another truth: for all his time with the Paris modernists, Hemingway’s reputation was made on the best-seller lists in America. “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) had a first print run of more than thirty thousand copies, huge in its day. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), helped by its timely fighting-the-Fascists subject, stayed on the best-seller lists for two years. He had written much of it while renting Finca Vigía, a beautiful house in Cuba, and, with the money from his books, he bought the place. It became his castle and retreat almost for the rest of his life, until the Cuban Revolution forced him out. It was here that he became Papa Hemingway, the great bear of literature, receiving journalists and raising children and inventing the grapefruit Daiquiri and fighting marlin and taking quick and often dangerous trips to lesser provinces of his empire, to Africa (where, on a single trip, he twice crashed in a plane) and Spain (where he continued to return, Franco notwithstanding, to watch the bullfights).

The weird sexual stuff began, or began to be recorded, in the nineteen-forties. The actual sequence is a little hard to follow, since the literary evidence appears in “The Garden of Eden,” an unfinished, posthumously published novel that he worked on in the forties and fifties but that takes place in the mid-twenties, which is when he started seeing the American journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, who eventually became his second wife. Basically, Hemingway began to insist that the women in his life get their hair cut short, like his, while he dyed his to match theirs, with many complicated twists in both color and styling. The ins and outs of this “sex play,” as Dearborn calls it, read like a mix of D. H. Lawrence and a Clairol ad. She recounts:

First, Ernest bleached or dyed his. Josephine Merck, a friend from Montana, visited Ernest and Pauline in 1933 and remembered Ernest’s hair “bleached by the sun”; it was highly unlikely that the sun “bleached” his dark hair. She also saw it just after, when his hair was red, and when she asked him about it, he got annoyed. A letter from Pauline to her husband cleared up what color his hair was that spring: “About your hair,” she wrote him, “don’t know how to turn red to gold. What about straight peroxide—or better what’s the matter with red hair. Red hair lovely on you.” Evidently Ernest felt some regret, if not for dyeing his hair in the first place, then for choosing the wrong color.

We know this because Pauline wrote to a friend that Hemingway was “a little subdued, though not much, by his haircut,” and explained, “His hair turned bright gold on the boat to Havana . . . and he cut it to the roots in a frenzy.” Later, Hemingway dyed his hair red and went around insisting that it had happened “accidentally.”

Realized as fiction, all the cutting and dyeing becomes even odder, not because of its daring gender fluidity but because of the sticky prose that was necessary to dramatize it. “The Garden of Eden” has sequences with the cooing, self-caressing sound of someone whispering his sexual fantasies in your ear, and, like all sex fantasies, they have a standardized, stereotyped setting—in this case, French hair salons. Dearborn tells us that Hemingway loved to write down the shades of blondness: pale gold, deep gold, ash blond. (The power of words for a writer’s fetishes is absolute; Auden says that he was more stimulated by the words for his sexual obsessions than by their objects.) “Over time, just writing about the shades of hair color would become almost unbearably exciting to him; he would catalogue them with obvious erotic pleasure,” Dearborn recounts. Simply thinking about hair color “made Mr. Scrooby stand at attention.”

Where Mr. Scrooby really got turned around, though, was in bed. In “The Garden of Eden,” the Hemingway stand-in, David Bourne, is anally penetrated night after night by a dildo, with the now short-haired Hadley character on top—a practice that, in real life, seems to date to Hemingway’s fourth marriage, to the journalist Mary Welsh, in 1946. When “The Garden of Eden” appeared, in 1986, reviewers made much of the hair-cutting androgyny while leaving the anality more or less alone, but it’s clear in the text that the “devil things,” as Catherine calls them, center on the penetration, for which all the hair treatment is merely a preparation.

It’s this kind of thing that makes Hemingway’s “libidinal politics” look progressive today, revealing gender roles as the culturally manufactured toys they are. Yet the sex, one soon sees, is actually imagined on much the same macho terms as before, just with the signifiers shaken up. “The Garden of Eden” evokes not cheerful pluralism in transgressing gender boundaries but the old Hemingway themes of the bonding of hunter and hunted, prey and predator. Sex roles are switched, not broadened. The twists and turns are, in this view, entirely sinful—what drives us from paradise, not what reminds us of it.

Like every sexual fetish, his got its tang from transgression. Sex must be experienced as sin to be satisfying. For Hemingway, there was no greater sin than acting in a “womanish” way, and it was therefore the subject that Mr. Scrooby awoke to. The prospect of being unmanned was as thrillingly illicit for his self-stimulation as the enactment of manly ritual was essential to his self-image. We need not believe that the public face is fake to understand that the private desire can be its opposite. The result, as evidenced in “The Garden of Eden,” was certainly more daring and original and honest than the “Old Man and the Sea” stuff he published in the fifties instead. But it was not postmodern gender pluralism, either. It was more binary than that, and more brutal.

What gives Hemingway’s flirtation with gender reversal a special pathos is his relationship with his much loved son Gregory, an intermittent cross-dresser who had a sex-change operation at the age of sixty-three and died using the name Gloria. At one point, Hemingway came upon the boy, whom he called Giggy, trying on his mother’s stockings and dress in a family bedroom in Cuba, and later said to him, “We come from a strange tribe, you and I.” He doubtless saw in this boy, his favorite, ambiguities that he could never confess, and it made him by turns both enraged and, oddly, touchingly, empathetic. Their letters, reprinted in a memoir by Greg’s son John called, appropriately, “Strange Tribe,” are deeply moving, in their moments of cruelty and, on Greg’s part, at least, their flashes of insight. (Greg was the only person ready to tell Hemingway how bad “The Old Man and the Sea” really was: “As sickly a bucket of sentimental slop as was ever scrubbed off a barroom floor.”) As always happens with famous fathers and strangled sons, the letters turn toward money, with Hemingway gracelessly laying out his budget for the boy. (Let it be said, though, that Hemingway’s money troubles must have been exhausting to live through: he was never nearly as rich as his reputation would make you think.)

“He has the biggest dark side in the family except me and you,” Hemingway wrote to Pauline, “and I’m not in the family.” Hemingway’s own suicide, by shotgun, in 1961, at his hunting retreat in Ketchum, Idaho, brought a palette of tragedy to the story, even though the much discussed curse of the Hemingways seems no more than a gene for bipolarity that bounced around fiendishly from generation to generation. The trail of suicide is heartbreaking to consider—the father, Clarence; Ernest, his brother Leicester, and his sister Ursula; his helpless, beautiful granddaughter Margaux.

The new attempts to make Papa matter by making him a lot less Papa and a little more Mama are, finally, not all that persuasive. Hemingway remains Hemingway—the macho attitudes continue to penetrate the prose even when the gender roles get switched around. And those macho attitudes include many admirable things: a genuine love of courage, a surprising readiness to celebrate failure if it is bought with bravery, an unsparing sense of the fatality of human existence, a love of the small pleasures that ennoble it.

At Hemingway’s best, the affectations are undone by an affection for the sensuous surface of life, which is of necessity erotically multivalent, neither neatly masculine nor neatly feminine. Although we may “gender” it, our descriptions, if they have density at all, escape the brutal binaries, the narrow categories, of appetite. To read the opening lines about the lovers’ breakfast in “The Garden of Eden” is to be in touch with an impulse far more moving and pansexual than all the sexual reversals that revisionist critics have to offer:

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. . . . He remembered that easily and he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

The flow of the butter and the bite of the pepper—there is more effective gender-blending in his breakfasts than in his bedrooms. The pleasure he takes in the world’s surface is more plural than the poses he chooses on the world’s stage.

Always an epicurean before he was a stoic, Hemingway is at his worst when he is boasting and bluffing and ruling the roost, at his best when he is bending and breaking and writing down breakfast. Macho and minimalist alike, the sentences are thrilling still in their exactitude and audacity. Coming away even from the sad last pages of his biography, the reader feels that Hemingway earned the epitaph he would most have wanted. He was a brave man, and he did know how to write. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the July 3, 2017, issue, with the headline “A New Man.”

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. He is the author of “The Table Comes First.”

NY Times Book Review: Tricky Dick is back in new Biography


March 31, 2017

Tricky Dick is back in a new Biography

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Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

These similarities in character lead to eerily similar behavioral consequences. In 1968, Nixon opened up a back channel to the president of South Vietnam, assuring him he’d get further support if he could just hold out for a Nixon presidency and resist Lyndon B. Johnson’s offers to broker peace. Nearly 50 years later, Michael Flynn had private discussions with the Russians that seemed to promise them a friendlier American policy — if they could just sit tight until Trump was inaugurated.

Both men went on to claim that their predecessors had wiretapped these discussions. Nixon said he’d been tipped off by J. Edgar Hoover.

Confirmation of Nixon’s meddling in Johnson’s peace efforts is the only real news that “Richard Nixon” breaks. But startling revelations are hardly the only criterion for a good Nixon biography. He’s an electrifying subject, a muttering Lear, of perennial interest to anyone with even an average curiosity about politics or psychology. The real test of a good Nixon biography, given how many there are, is far simpler: Is it elegantly written? And, even more important, can it tolerate paradoxes and complexity, the spikier stuff that distinguishes real-life sinners from comic-book villains?

The answer, in the case of “Richard Nixon,” is yes, on both counts. Farrell has a liquid style that slips easily down the gullet, and he understands all too well that Nixon was a vat of contradictions. Some readers may find Farrell’s portrait too sympathetic — he’s as apt to describe Nixon as a tortured depressive as he is to call him a malevolent sneak — but more readers, I think, will find this book complicating and well-rounded.

It’s also hard to read a one-volume history of a president’s life without feeling like you’re crawling over the dense folds of an accordion. But most chapters in “Richard Nixon” have room to breathe.

The development of Nixon’s character in this book is subtle. He doesn’t start out as a rampaging narcissist and megalomaniac. Over time, it was power combined with profound insecurity that misshaped him. He had no ability to tolerate the slings and arrows of outrageous public humiliations, of which he probably suffered a disproportionate many, and he responded with the venom of a toadfish. The press trolled him. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower trolled him. Once, Ike was asked to name an important decision Nixon had helped him make as his vice president. “If you give me a week, I might think of one,” he replied.

Farrell follows a mostly chronological structure. We go to Whittier, Calif., where Nixon was raised by an ogre of a father, a fellow so bad at farming he couldn’t grow lemons. As a young man, Nixon was awkward, square, hopeless at making small talk. I could read a whole book of his love letters to Pat, his future wife. They’re endearing and pathetic, the desperate pleas of the runt of the litter.

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John A. Farrell Credit Kathy Kupka

“Yes, I know I’m crazy!” he wrote in a note he shoved under her door. “And that … I don’t take hints, but you see, Miss Pat, I like you!”

In some ways, the Watergate years, because they’re so familiar, are the least interesting stretch of this book. (Though here’s a detail I’d forgotten: Nixon had a mole in almost every opponent’s campaign, a thumb in every pie.) It’s Farrell’s chapters about race that prove the most textured and dizzying: It was over this issue that the president’s Quaker upbringing and Machiavellian impulses seemed most overtly at war. When Nixon first ran for Congress, he was made an honorary member of the local N.A.A.C.P., so progressive was he on matters of race. Yet while running for president, he made it clear he’d “lay off pro-Negro crap,” and once in office he mastered the rhetorical art of exploiting racial grievances. Thus began the South’s transformation from a block of Democratic-voting states to a G.O.P. sea.

You can also draw a through line from Nixon’s contempt for the liberal elite to Trump’s boastful claims of political incorrectness. That vaudevillian public disdain for East Coast intellectuals, Ivy League blue bloods, cosmopolites — all of it started with Nixon. It was he who first used the phrase “the silent majority.”

He came by that populism honestly. He started from nothing, and he found the culture of Washington, which went gaga over pretty, privileged boys like John F. Kennedy, infuriating. What his populism didn’t mean, however, was stripping the welfare state to the studs. The public still had a taste for big government back then. During Nixon’s presidency, he signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency.

The most charitable biographies paint Nixon as a tragic figure, and that’s precisely what the president is here. Farrell’s Nixon is smart and ambitious, a visionary in some ways (China), but also skinless, both driven and utterly undone by self-doubt.

It may be the way he differs most, at least psychologically, from our current president. Trump has shown almost no evidence of self-doubt, ever, about anything. He appears to sail through life unencumbered by introspection. He’d yield no more depth if you used an oil rig.

But grandiosity and profound insecurity often find the same form of public expression: recklessness. “I sometimes had the impression that he invited crisis and that he couldn’t stand normalcy,” Henry Kissinger once said. I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine which president he’s best describing.