Yesterday, a few hours after the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to Tomas Transtromer, I received from former Nobel staffer Simon Frantz an audio clip that seized my heart. It is a 1954 recording of Ernest Hemingway reading his acceptance speech for the prize that year. (Hemingway did not attend the banquet, but had the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden read his short speech; soon after he recorded this audio in Cuba.)
I have read the speech a few times before. Yet when I listened to it today for the first time, at a time when I am re-reading his stories now and have him much on my mind, the words struck me with a new power. He was in a terrible place just then. He had written several great books and, more recently, some not so great and one, The Old Man and the Sea, a sort of small triumph that yet fell short of his best. In the seven years that remained before he would take his life because he could no longer write, he managed to assemble his powers for only one more great book — A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris and youth. He still reaches, but he cannot grasp. It will get worse, but he reaches still.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
This, from “A Cat in the Rain,” 30 years earlier:
It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.
That last sentence is the surf; less representation than replication of a natural cycle.
I don’t know how hard he had to work to write it — sometimes it came easy to him, sometimes not — but he did it. By the time he won the prize he couldn’t do it anymore. He could not generate the luck and could only rarely succeed, and he knows it. His pain imbues every second of this recording. So does his courage in trying to continue.
… out past where he can go, where no one can help him.
The text is below. But best to listen.
No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.
It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with good luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.
- Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)
- Hemingway writing George_Plimpton
- Wired 14.11: Very Short Stories
- Big Two-Hearted River (excerpt)