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Shattered Reflections on Hemingway
By some surfing accident on YouTube, I stumbled on a short black-and-white video of a Cuban journalist conducting a Spanish-language interview with Ernest Hemingway shortly after the American author was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. I’d never heard Hemingway speak Spanish, and I was astonished not by how halting and awkward his Spanish was, but that I’d still held illusions about Hemingway that could be shattered. It stunned me. I thought I had busted all his myths, and had years ago totally extirpated his deep influence—not only on my writing but on my life. Nevertheless, he continues to haunt me. Why?
It’s safe to say that Hemingway set me on the course of the writer’s life. He certainly loomed large in my development as a writer and as a man. Through my 20s, I read most of his novels and stories, particularly In Our Time, The Green Hills of Africa, and The Sun Also Rises (of which I’d read the latter twenty times or more). He led me to Turgenev and Twain and Sherwood Anderson, and at least one book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes. With some sense of urgency, I traveled to France and Spain. I worked on a newspaper. I began to drink heavily. Although it’s been at least 25 years since I’d consciously let go of Hemingway as any kind of a model, here I am having another go at him.
I’ll start with the interview I recently viewed. If you’ve read what Hemingway has said about himself, or what others have written about him in biographies—or, Heaven knows, hagiographies—you are told that he could speak French fluently, read Flaubert’s Madam Bovary in the original, knew German, and also spoke Spanish. In The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, as well as several short stores, he peppered his prose with Spanish words and phrases.
I don’t mean to be nit-picky but for crying out loud, after listening to the interview, I have to ask: Was this the level of his Spanish when he was driving an ambulance during WWI in Spain, or when he fought with the Republican Communists during the Spanish Civil War, or when he was chumming around with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba? He must have missed a lot of the conversation or had an interpreter.
And note, Hemingway was being interviewed at the end of his career, not at the beginning. Was he just having an off day? Had his brain already become pickled from years of heavy drinking? I speak Spanish more fluently. Gwyneth Paltrow speaks better Spanish. All these many years I continued to hold this idea of Hemingway as a towering intellect, a man of letters and languages; but in the interview, he used soy instead of estoy. He virtually ignored a complex question asked by the interviewer on how Cuba had influenced him as a writer and, instead, launched into the probably rehearsed, linguistic theme of The Old Man and the Sea on the difference between la mar and el mar in very pedestrian Spanish. Oh well.
I began to break free from Hemingway’s magnetic personality after I quit drinking at the age of 29 and sobered up. Shortly thereafter one clear-headed day I asked myself: Why in the world cannot I write ‘can’t’? Why do not I write ‘don’t’? Why will not Hemingway let me write ‘won’t’? Good grief. Hemingway adamantly didn’t use contractions so I didn’t use contractions. Scales might have fallen from my eyes. I’m no polyglot but name me a language that doesn’t ellipse and elide, compress, blend in, or telescope in spoken and written forms. English does. Spanish does. That’s how people talk and write—and Hemingway’s writings are almost nothing but talking.
I’m inclined to think that his hard-headed dicta was a manifestation of his addictive personality, the obsessive-compulsive behavior of the alcoholic. I know all about it. Maybe if he’d loosened up a little bit, he would have grown as a writer; but instead he held to this narrow principle his entire life. Couldn’t he have taken a risk and tried something new? Couldn’t he slip the surly bonds of his own hidebound code? He could hunt kudu in Africa, elk in Idaho, game fish for marlin in Cuba and Mexico, sip brandy and chomp a cigar as he watched Che Guevara murder his political enemies in Cuba—but he couldn’t use a contraction?
And who really talks like Hemingway’s characters talk? After 60 years of B-grade TV and movie theater dreck, I’d say you only find that kind of dialogue spoken by a bit player with a bad accent pretending to be a foreigner.
Compare Hemingway’s dialogue to John Kennedy Toole’s, to Nathaniel West’s, to P.G. Wodehouse’s, to Evelyn Waugh’s—who, by the way, praised Hemingway’s dialogue. They all did it much, much better. Even Erle Stanley Gardner did it better. Finally, I could agree with the criticism that, yes, all of Hemingway’s characters do sound alike, the women as well as the men, like laconic Gary Coopers.
Here’s another matter: Hemingway was NOT the inventor of the ‘plain style’. Rather, he took the plain style and infused it with his very massive and charismatic personality. It had been done already and done quite well by Sherwood Anderson and Mark Twain—and better still by Edgar Allen Poe. Read Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and then tell me that Hemingway invented the dialogue-driven spare style, without adjectives, using active rather than passive verbs, and showing rather than telling. Poe should get 100% of the credit for its invention. In fact, what modern fiction genre didn’t Poe invent?
Poe’s story also had an added bonus. It had a plot, which Hemingway was always in search of. What is so different about modernity that you can’t tell a story with a beginning, middle, and an end? Any good conversationalist spinning a yarn knows how to start and then build his narrative to a satisfying payoff.
As for Hemingway’s eschewing the Latin-based word for the Anglo-Saxon, so well examined by Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, this also has been done. The English language has experienced this tension between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin forms since the Norman Conquest and this juxtaposition was particularly examined by the Romantic poets—by Robert Burns and especially by Keats who opined about it in his letters, and tended to the Anglo-Saxon.
Speaking of Keats, Hemingway exercised the same humbuggery as the poet did in his biblical borrowings. Remember, writers make things up. Hemingway himself wrote: “A writer of fiction is a congenital liar.” So Hemingway dipped into one of the shortest books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, to find the title of The Sun Also Rises, just as Keats dipped into Ruth to find his mega-famous alien corn metaphor in his most famous poem. This made them both seem like biblical scholars. It certainly gave their works added gravitas. Thank you, Holy Bible. Good thing for me, too, because pondering Ecclesiastes’ lament that “there’s nothing new under the sun” deeply planted a small seed—or shall I say, gestated a small seed—that sprouted years later into full-blown Catholicism.
Here’s another one: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” I guess this was Hemingway’s way of saying that an original writer has to make up an original frame—as if there really was something new under the sun! Did he mean that if a writer used a plot then he’d merely be engaging in interior decorating? What man wants to be an interior decorator, right? But what in the world was he talking about? Is a short paragraph and a simple declarative sentence architecture? His latter writing is so repetitive. For example, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) is a sure-fire snoozer. I’d pondered that statement up and down as if it really were profound and concluded that if Hemingway's prose was architecture, I’d have to compare it to the plain, boring, boxy, modern glass and steel buildings of today’s cities that commuters can’t wait to flee at 5:00 pm. Can’t a writer add a flourish? Can he never maximize? Can’t he accessorize?
Didn’t anyone ever tell Hemingway that plots are the wooden frames, that they’re the metal T-bars and I-bars? How else does one build and hang a tale?
The list goes on. I pulled off a large chunk of Hemingway’s persona during a chance visit to the Zane Gray museum in Roebling, Pennsylvania. I’ll grant you that it’s not as if Zane Gray were the first American writer to cultivate the larger-than-life personality. Twain, a huge influence on Hemingway, developed one to a T on his late-in-life speaking tours dressed in all white gabardine. But Zane Gray, a generation before Hemingway, had already ‘done’ Hemingway. He had the upper middle class background, same as Hemingway: son of a dentist; Hemingway, son of a doctor. He had the wealthy first wife who supported him and had the family who bailed him out. He had the mistresses. He had the blustery bravado. He hunted for big game and fished for marlin in many of the places Hemingway later did. He won fishing trophies and rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars. Yes, it’s true that Gray wasn’t the craftsman that Hemingway was. However, what an eye-opening museum visit that was.
Then we have Hemingway as pugilist taking on other writers as boxing opponents. Hemingway once wrote: “I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.” Did he? I don’t think he wrote anything better than Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and never limned a better character than Bazorov the Nihilist. Hemingway also literally knocked down poet Wallace Stevens and slapped a prominent critic in the face. And he spawned at least one imitator—Norman Mailer—who took on Gore Vidal.
Yet Hemingway didn’t invent the writer-as-fighter meme, either. Horace did in Ars Poetica. Perhaps someone thought of it before Horace. I’m not a classics scholar so I couldn’t tell you for sure. Only instead of the ring it was the Campus Martius with the loser laughed at by the spectators outside of the ring. Now, I can’t swear that Hemingway read Ars Poetica, but I’m certain that he did. It’s just short enough for a former journalist to read and to steal and to make himself sound like a thinker for the ages.
Having worked as a journalist, I know that the typical journalist learns just enough about a topic to seem like an expert. I once covered a town hall meeting about pollutants coming from a sewage treatment plant—so I read a couple of brochures, put long but readable stretches of scientific jargon in my article, and was thereafter treated as an expert when doing subsequent follow-ups. People on my beat looked at me differently after that, and I didn’t disabuse them by divulging my magician’s trick.
But it could be argued that Hemingway should have either chosen his battles more wisely or stayed out of some altogether. During the Spanish Civil War he fought on the side of the Communists. I want to be clear as a tolling bell here. I am NOT saying he should have been fighting on the side of the Fascists. He shouldn’t have been there are all. The Spanish Civil War was not a war of good against evil; it was a war of two evils, between two man-centered ideologies, two modern scourges that continue to reverberate and manifest themselves long after both towers have fallen
It’s well known that Hemingway flirted with the KGB, fished with Castro and Che, witnessed Che’s firing squads, fought on the side of the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War, and probably propagandized for them, too, while practicing his journalism there. He allegedly sullied John dos Passos’s reputation because Dos Passos became disillusioned with the Republican Stalinists. Maybe he would have tried to do the same to George Orwell if Orwell hadn’t become so famous for telling the truth. In other words, Hemingway was one of the forerunners of Vladimir Lenin’s famous “useful idiots” club.
But mine is not a polemic. I’m not an ideologue. I will not and cannot dismiss Hemingway because I don’t agree with his politics. I can’t dismiss him even after sifting out all the chaff because, safe to say, early on he was a consummate craftsman. In his early works he did what Poe suggested that a short-story writer do: Make every word count; and count they did, almost like poetry.
Personally, he made me pursue the writer’s craft. Without Hemingway, I wouldn’t have discovered Turgenev who led me to the other Russians, wouldn’t have pondered style and literary theory so deeply, wouldn’t have spent so much time perfecting dialogue. I wouldn’t have traveled to France and Spain, and played Frisbee with a young woman in the Luxembourg Gardens. And perhaps I wouldn’t have let the wine bottle become the Virgil that led me to Hell, trying to follow my own code of behavior—nor would I have had my moment of Grace leading me out again.
When I reread The Sun Also Rises in my 40s (the last time I picked up one of Heimgway’s books), I began to think that the Holy Spirit used that book to bring me to Christ. Did Hemingway intend that book to be so religious? Or was he just a keen observer of a Spanish way of life permeated at that time by the Catholic Church? I don’t know. The main character—the eunuch Jake Barnes—is more than once compared to a Catholic priest. I also think that pondering the following from Ecclesiastes at an early age inclined me to become conservative (with a small “c”):
Originally published in The European Conservative, December 2018