An inch or two, in one direction or another, and the mortar shell that exploded in an Allied trench in Italy on July 8, 1918, would have killed a teenage Red Cross worker.
Instead, Ernest Hemingway survived with more than 200 shrapnel wounds — though he was hit in the leg and foot by machine-gun bullets as he was stretchered away.
That trauma shaped his life, we were told in the first episode of Hemingway (BBC4), a reverential six-part biography by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
In a reverential six-part documentary, the co-directors Lynn Novick and Ken Burns examine the life and works of writer Ernest Hemingway (pictured) – a giant of American literature
But the thing is — if young Ernest had died, most British readers might not have known the difference.
Be honest, have you read novels such as Death In The Afternoon or The Sun Also Rises? If you’re like me, you know Hemingway chiefly as the source for movies such as Humphrey Bogart’s To Have And Have Not, and Gregory Peck’s The Snows Of Kilimanjaro.
Pick up any of his books and the prose is flat, monotonous and self-important. U.S. critics generally regard him as the greatest writer of the 20th century, but Americans are funny about books — they think novelists who fill pages with words of just one syllable and no adjectives must be geniuses.
Hemingway, this documentary told us, honed his style writing for local newspapers in the States.
The rules were stark: keep the sentences short and the language simple. That makes sense — America, 100 years ago, was largely a nation of European immigrants who often didn’t speak English fluently, never mind reading it well.
Hemingway wrote for his audience, which is to say a 13-year-old of average intelligence can understand him easily.
Ernest Hemingway posing with a bear skin and deer antlers during a hunting trip in Wyoming
Pictured: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series take place over six episodes
But it’s ridiculous to pretend his work outranks the great authors of the last century.
Burns tries to discover unsuspected angles. Noting how the writer’s mother liked to dress him as a little girl, the director suggests Hemingway — who postured as the manliest fellow in literature — might have cross-gender leanings.
But the evidence is scant and this exhaustive life story will hold little interest for British audiences.
Even for U.S. viewers, it seems a strange choice, compared to the usual vast canvases that Burns prefers.
Previous subjects have included an 18-hour survey of the Vietnam War, retold by scores of participants on all sides, and an engrossing three-part history of how America was shaped in the 1920s by Prohibition.
His recent mini-series on Country music unpicked the numerous inspirations and traditions tangled up in the songs of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.
Burns is fascinated by the complex, the baroque and the multi-layered. Why he’s bothered with Hemingway is hard to understand.
A more compelling case for a six-parter could be made for the Bronte sisters, whose novels had been classics for 70 years when Hemingway was a cub reporter, and are still adored today.
Gyles Brandreth takes in the history of the Bronte sisters in Brontes’ Britain on Channel 5
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights make better movies, too. A windswept Gyles Brandreth crammed their history into an hour as he went striding across the moors in Brontes’ Britain (C5). ‘My wild, inner Heathcliff is stirring,’ he cried.
Ebullient Gyles bounded around Yorkshire, investigating the landscapes and houses that inspired scenes from the novels.
In a B&B called Ponden Hall, he saw the ‘box bed’ beside a window, where the narrator of Wuthering Heights first sees the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw.
And he chatted by laptop camera to his canal-boating chum, Sheila Hancock, and asked what she thought of the tales. ‘I can’t imagine them being set in Surrey,’ she retorted.
Unlike the Hemingway hagiography, it all made me actually want to reread the books.