Hemingway’s reputation has suffered immensely over the last two or three decades. Read around enough and you’ll see this. And I can feel it when I occasionally confess to people — for you don’t tell this, you confess it — that I love him and his writing. I always sense a bit of a surprise, as if that’s a rather strong feeling for a man who could be so odious and a writer who at times nudged close or fell in to self-parody. I’ve long thought of trying to explain what makes him so great and how he so utterly captivated me when I discovered him in my early 20s. Now I don’t need to explain it. For James Salter, in an essay in the New York Review of Books that is itself achingly beautiful and sad, does the job splendidly:
Almost from the first there is his distinct voice. In his journal of a camping trip he took with a friend when he was sixteen years old, he wrote of trout fishing, “Great fun fighting them in the dark in the deep swift river.” His style was later said to have been influenced by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, journalism, and the forced economy of transatlantic cables, but he had his own poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down. He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness. There is a nervy tension in his writing. The words seem to stand almost in defiance of one another. The powerful early stories that were made of simple declaratives seemed somehow to break through into a new language, a genuine American language that had so far been undiscovered, and with it was a distinct view of the world.
He was a romantic but in no way soft. In the story “Indian Camp” where [Nick, the narrator, still a boy, and his doctor father] have rowed across the bay and are in an Indian shanty near the road:
Nick’s father ordered some water to be put on the stove, and while it was heating he spoke to Nick.
“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” he said.
“I know,” said Nick.
“You don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.”
“I see,” Nick said.
Just then the woman cried out.
“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” asked Nick.
“No. I don’t have any anaesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”
The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.
The birth, the agony, the Caesarean, and the aftermath are all brilliantly described in brief dialogue and a few simple phrases. But every word, every inversion or omission is important. Of such stuff were the first stories made. “My Old Man”was chosen for Edward O’Brien’s Best Short Stories of 1923. “Up in Michigan,” another story, was—for its time—so frank and disturbing that Gertrude Stein called it unpublishable.
They were beginning to pic him, to get him to lower his head. The letters of outrage he wrote were childish and violent. He believed in himself and his art. When he began it was fresh and startling. Over time the writing became heavier, almost a parody of itself, but while living in Key West in the 1930s he wrote two of his finest stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” both published in Esquire. And in 1940 his big novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, based on his experiences as a correspondent in the Spanish civil war, redeemed his reputation and restored him to eminence.
in 1958, he finished the beautiful remembrance of his youth in Paris, A Moveable Feast, written with a simplicity and modesty that seemed long past. As with much of Hemingway, it fills one with envy and an enlarged sense of life. His Paris is a city you long to have known.
Deeply flawed man. But along with the power and freshness of his best writing, which Salter describes so well, distinguishing Hemingway most was an intensity of desire and ambition that outshone even the immensity of his vanity. It wasn’t just an ambition to be recognized as the very best, though it was that too; it was a hot burn to write something truly fresh and great and beautiful. To read his best prose is to see that. A Farewell to Arms? My god, the power of that book. I can’t read either the first or the last page without weeping.* You see the same wild ambition in his interviews and his letters.
The clarity and heat of that desire, so evident in the prose, captured me as a 19-year-old reading his stories, held me throughout my twenties as I read almost everything he wrote, including his letters, and much that was written about him, and sustains and moves me today. When I was 18, Virginia Woolf ** stirred in me the desire to write. Hemingway made it last. For that I will always love him.
Hemingway’s Boat [the book under review] is a book written with the virtuosity of a novelist, hagiographic in the right way, sympathetic, assiduous, and imaginative. It does not rival the biographies but rather stands brilliantly beside them—the sea, Key West, Cuba, all the places, the life he had and gloried in. His commanding personality comes to life again in these pages, his great charm and warmth as well as his egotism and aggression.
“Forgive him anything,” as George Seldes’s wife said in the early days, “he writes like an angel.”
*The latter, which delivers in full the spare art Salter describes above, also generated one of the best interview exchanges ever. In the Paris Review interview, a very young George Plimpton asked Hemingway if he revised much. Hemingway answered that he rewrote the last page of Arms 39 times. Plimpton asked, “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that stumped you.” Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”
**Woolf too long remained (and remains) an obsession. Wasn’t easy to pursuade those two to get along in my head.
- Hemingway writing George_Plimpton
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