Nov 27, 2014

“I can almost write like Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach” --- seven things we knew about Ernest Hemingway

The New Yorker sends a link to an article by Lillian Ross about Ernest Hemingway (H.), published in 1950.

We’re curious, we don’t know much about H., having read him when everybody else read him, The Old Man and the Sea in our case, in a German translation. We’ve been to Key West, FL, where everything is H., and got fed up with Sloppy Joe, his watering hole there, so decided to get drunk somewhere else (we’re possibly not the first to mention tourism and locust in the same sentence).

So, what we knew about him was

(0) writer of short sentences, user of simple language, herald of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain’s novel), in-quote: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
(1) macho,
(2) Nobel Prize,
(3) lookalike contests,
(4) big game hunting,
(5) drink,
(6) serial husband, perhaps something of a womanizer.

(Ad 0) We always thought that the last 30 pages of Huck Finn (Tom Sawyer makes a come-back and re-iterates his let’s-poke-fun-at-Alexandre-Dumas-routine) were somehow extraneous, and, yes, there’s this little controversy on GoodReads about these 30 pages and an extension of the H. quote we remember as follows “… except for the last 30 pages.” Great, a meeting of minds (at least in the sense that we like Twain more than any other American author). So we interrupt our broadcast and read the “Snow on the Kilimanjaro,” H.’s eponymous short story. Yes, right, short simple sentences, simple vocabulary, the way to go (“eponymous,” clearly, would not make H.’s cut; neither would “extraneous”). Good story. First line we really love:
“He looked over to where the huge, filthy birds sat, their naked heads sunk in the hunched feathers. A fourth [bird] planed down, to run quick-legged and then waddle slowly toward the others.”
These birds are scavengers, of course, because Harry, the main character, is dying of gangrene, a smelly infection of which the birds must have heard before. Harry is a writer, of course, with a writer’s block, of course (did H. ever have one?), and a serial husband of richer women, in ascending financial order (the women) (the last subjunctive clause surely wouldn’t make H.’s cut) (the last parenthesis wouldn’t make the H.’s cut) (hopeless).

H. has quite a lot to say about writing in the New Yorker piece, but first this: “hyperbole” may not be in H.’s vocabulary, but there’s some hyperbole in the man or at least in his quotes. Just take the Huck-quote: “…there was nothing before...” Really? Edgar Allen Poe? Somebody? Herman Melville?

Okay, now, writing. You’ve possibly heard of H.’s iceberg theory of good writing: you reveal only 10 percent of the story. It certainly had an effect on postwar writing, although H. hasn't been the only one to write between the lines. There’s something pushy to his way of not saying things, especially among his write-alikes. (On a slightly different note: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German writer, observed that the German literature of the 50's had a lot of Hemingway heroes who, unlike their originals, would talk a lot and then like existentialist philosophers (the other fad of the time)). Raymond Chandler does it better, I think---not saying things.

What we can take away from this, if I can say something principled here: jokes work in a more principled way than punch lines suggest: they provoke the joys of inference. Inferencing provides a lustful experience for the human brain, it makes for pleasurable reading; the writing rule “show, don’t tell,” captures just one aspect of this.

Anything else ad zero? He learned a lot from painters, he says during a visit to the Metropolitan museum, especially from Cézanne, the way Cézanne puts a background in. And he learned from J.S. Bach:
“In the first paragraphs of ’Farewell,’ I used the word ’and’ consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint. I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes—or, anyway, so he would like it. All such people are easy to deal with, because we all know you have to learn.”
And he learned from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Flaubert, Guide de Maupassant, Dumas, Daudet (you mean it?), Stendhal, but not from André Gide. E.A. Poe and Melville are not mentioned. And he likes old words. Cool, folks we like them too, we’re actually building a dictionary of old words (bethink “bethink,” which is perhaps not the best example):
“I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the tendollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange them in the proper combination you make it stick. Remember, anybody who pulls his erudition or education on you hasn’t any. Also, daughter, remember that I never carried Teddy bears to bed with me since I was four.”
The teddy bears should get us to the lookalike contests (ad 3), but the quote evokes an aspect of the Hemingway of this portrait that dominates everything else. Let's call it resentment. The guy is unable to make a point without pulling some rabbit out of his hat and then beat it to death (the people that don’t have erudition for example). It’s perhaps a bias in Ross’s reporting, or, conversely, a modern bias of self-presentation (we all avoid criticizing like the pest now, it reflects badly on our self-marketing), but to the extent it isn’t a bias: the guy appears unable to take a position except as a negation. And this applies in particular to

Macho drips from the page like cum drips from a Masturbation Magazine.

(Ad 1) his macho identity. It drips from the page like cum drips from a Masturbation Magazine. The metaphors, the similes, hunting, of course, although he gracefully spares us dead elephants; baseball; the Wars-that-he-fought-but-others-didn’t. And boxing. Even Marlene Dietrich, ("Kraut") who makes a guest appearance is couched in boxing terms: “The Kraut’s the best that ever came into the ring.” It’s as if he feels some existential obligation to act like a boxer at all times. During the interview, he assumes a boxing poise thirteen times or so. And this terrible nickname, Papa.

(Ad 2) Well, he didn't get the Nobel price until four years later, in 1954, but his ego is solidly overdeveloped. Here:
“It is sort of fun to be fifty and feel you are going to defend the title again,” he said. “I won it in the twenties and defended it in the thirties and the forties, and I don’t mind at all defending it in the fifties.”
He was born in 1900, he’s only fifty, but he sounds incredibly old throughout the interview.

(Ad 3) A case in point. The beard, in particular. And the bearishness. He actually lived with a bear, he tells us, and they got drunk together.

Paul Cézanne, "Rock Forest of Fontainebleau" (cited by H. in the interview)
(Ad 4) No dead elephants in the interview. Otherwise, see (ad 1).

(Ad 5). His drinking is fun to behold. He steps out of the plane and need to alight on a stool of the Idlewild bar (that was the name of JFK in those days): “Order of the day is to have a drink first.” He orders double burbons, awaits the drinks with impatience. (“New York is a rough town, a phony town.”) A second round is ordered and a third one and “we dally at the bar a bit longer.” We arrive at the hotel and order a few bottles of Perrier-Jouët, the champagne in the flowery bottles (plus caviar, since we’re expecting the Kraut). The next morning Ross is back, we’re about to finish the first champagne bottle and open the second one (he works during early morning hours, after sunrise, revising his latest novel). We have lunch by room service (oysters) and need a bottle of Tavel (you sure, Tavel with oysters?). Then there’s a half-finished Perrier bottle left (“The half bottle of champagne is the enemy of man,”---we all sat down again). And so on and so forth, and when we visit the museum we bring a flask and take long sips between paintings. Drink, in the end, is what killed him; it induced the depression that led to his suicide (there are competing theories about his decline).

(Ad 6) Well, he’s with his fourth wife, Mary, a former correspondent of the (London) Times. Mary appears unimpressed by Lillian Ross, the interviewer, even though Lillian is only 22 years old and the only journalist H. is willing to see in New York. But she gets upset about a certain Adeline, who had sent flowers to the hotel suite, until she concludes that Adeline must be some elderly in-law.

Real-quick: H. wants to make love to women like Clemenceau, up to the age of 85. He dies at the age of 61.

This is it, folks. Stay tuned. Sorry about the abrupt ending.

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