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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Lately I had read with distaste various books written about myself by people who knew all about my inner life, aims and motives. Reading them was like reading an account of a battle where you had fought written by someone who had not only not been present but, in some cases, had not even been born when the battle had taken place. All these people who wrote of my life both inner and outer wrote with an absolute assurance that I had never felt. --Ernest Hemingway, from True at First Light
A graduate student, one of the most talented people in the creative writing program where I teach, came to my office. She was there to talk about my fiction workshop the following semester, to get to know me briefly, and to see if she wanted to take the class. "So," she said. "Hemingway. You're like this big Hemingway fan."
It was not an accusation, but it was not exactly not an accusation, either. She was certainly wary. She said what she said as if my admiration for Hemingway were cute but sadly boyish. Something I ought perhaps to have evolved beyond, like science fiction, pornography, or pulling pigtails. The evidence she had that I was this big Hemingway fan came from a fiction reading I'd recently given, where I'd read a part of a novel of mine in which I'd summoned the hubris to deploy Hemingway as a fictional character. I started out thinking I might parody Hemingway, but I couldn't exactly do it. I reread too much of his work and admired it too much. What I had thought of as a tone of hale machismo was really something else, some charmingly lacking absolute assurance about anything (and, by extension, the punishment of characters prideful enough to imagine there really was anything to be absolutely sure about).
"How could I not admire Hemingway's work?" I said.
She made a face. It was not really to her taste, all that bullfighting and big-game hunting and sweaty male conquests.
I asked her what she'd read and when.
"Touché," she said. The answers, naturally, were not all that much and in high school. When it was assigned.
"Read more Hemingway," I said. "Read it for fun."
She was not alone. People have firm opinions about Hemingway based on his persona and not his books. When a lot of people think of Hemingway, they think of a look-alike contest at a franchised Sloppy Joe's restaurant near you, where there are a row of portly, grinning men in white beards who look nothing like the way Hemingway looked when he was younger and wrote nearly all his best work. His late-life biographical details -- the wives, the drinking, the safaris, the suicide -- overwhelm his work. Worse than that, of course, is thinking of Hemingway not as something to read but as homework.
For all of these reasons and more, Ernest Hemingway may be the most underrated of all American writers.
I recently reread A Farewell to Arms, a book I first read when it was assigned to me during my sophomore year at college and then hastily reread for my grad-school oral exams. I had thought of it as sentimental. Not my favorite of his novels, I had thought. But I thought a lot of things in those days that I do not think now. I had somehow not taken enough pleasure in the astonishing descriptions of the Italian landscape, both at the very beginning of the book and the mirror image of that scene late in the novel, during the retreat from Caporetto: scenes which, read closely, tell the story of the lovers too, scenes full of simple rhythms as complicated and syncopated as anything ever created by Joyce or Faulkner or for that matter Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, or Thelonious Monk.
Also, I had not noticed how funny a book it is.
Right after Frederic Henry gets hurt (the signature Hemingway leg injury), thus facilitating the evolution of a war story into a love story (though of course it's both), comes this scene:
In the ward at the field hospital they told me a visitor was coming to see me in the afternoon.... My orderly had finished pouring water and the bed felt cool and lovely and I was telling him where to scratch on the soles of my feet against the itching when one of the doctors brought in Rinaldi. He came in very fast and bent down over the bed and kissed me. I saw he wore gloves.
"How are you baby? How do you feel? I bring you this --" It was a bottle of cognac. The orderly brought a chair and he sat down, "and good news. You will be decorated. They want to get you the medaglia d'argento, but perhaps they can get only the bronze."
"Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?"
"No," I said. "I was blown up while we were eating cheese."
Actually, Midwesterner that Hemingway was, he has Henry blown up in Italy while eating macaroni and cheese.
"... [A]ll a writer of fiction is really is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men. I am a writer of fiction and so I am a liar too and invent from what I know and what I've heard....
"My excuse is that I make the truth as I invent it truer than it would be. That is what makes good writers or bad. If I write in the first person, stating it is fiction, critics now will still try to prove these things never happened to me. It is silly as trying to prove Defoe was not Robinson Crusoe so therefore it is a bad book." --from True at First Light
Hemingway wrote this at mid-century. In the time it took for that manuscript to go from being his current passion to temporarily abandoned to permanently abandoned to 1,000 yellowing pages in a depressed alcoholic's file cabinet, then to become a part of his estate and then the sort of book that remained unpublished and controlled by his heirs and then to become his son Patrick's current passion (as amateur editor) and then (now), finally, a posthumously published "fictional memoir" -- during those 40 years, things both stayed the same and changed.
Of course nothing has changed about the complex connection between lying that is truer than the truth and daily journalism's onslaught of facts that are accurate but total lies. These are more dangerous than the inaccuracies, because the inaccuracies can be corrected, but there is nothing to remedy a factual, untrue lie except art. Figuring out what that means, acquiring an intuitive understanding of all that, lies at the heart of the slow, painful, wonderful process that is the fiction writer's apprenticeship.
Hemingway knew this better than anybody and said this better than almost anybody and demonstrated this in a body of work as good as anybody's. Anyone who is serious about writing who does not become serious about reading Hemingway is not serious about writing. There are entire creative writing textbooks poised between the lines of some of his short stories. "The Killers." "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio." The overlooked masterpiece "Fifty Grand." And of course the very short story "Hills Like White Elephants," a story that can teach a reader and/or a writer just about every important thing there is to know about dialogue and about setting and about how to skew the reader's sympathies.
"Hills Like White Elephants" is a rebuke as well for anyone who fails to understand that to depict a thing is not to endorse it. Depicting unsavory but true human behavior (in this story, a particularly male style of bullying one's mate -- here, to get an abortion because it would be convenient for him) is not the same thing as endorsing or embodying unsavory human behavior. As the novelist Frederick Busch says in his excellent essay "Hemingway's Sentence" (collected in A Dangerous Profession), anyone who deploys the name-calling to which lit crit has sunk and from which Hemingway's rep has unjustly suffered (charges, in other words, of sexism, of racism, of sentimentality, of machismo excesivo) as an excuse not to read Hemingway's work is not serious about writing and, I would argue, neither serious nor open-minded about reading, either, and would benefit greatly from being locked in a comfortable room for a week with only "Hills Like White Elephants" and a view of some distant green hills and some nearby dusty trees. For the extremely judgemental cases, we will supply on the nightstand some absinthe. Drink at your own risk. Same goes for the failure to reread.
As for the state of critics now (as opposed to critics then, when Hemingway wrote that and called them "critics now"), that has changed. True, there is still the mania among critics -- and even readers, the blessed lay counterparts for which they stand -- to reduce the reading of fiction into a parlor game involving the biographical details of the writer. In Hemingway's time, the form this took was that people would consider the work authentic only insofar as it could be proven that the author experienced things directly analogous to the action depicted.
(To this I say: Tolstoy did not fight in the Napoleonic wars; Emily Dickinson did not often leave the house; and "Charles Dickens" was not a pen name for every single living person in Victorian England. Defoe rhymes with but was not Crusoe.)
That trivializing habit seems to have evolved so that now, too often, a writer's work is read and, alas, taught only to be decoded. The work itself gets short shrift or, worse, dismissed as a means to an end, a document valuable only insofar as it allows hypotheses about the writer's life both inner and outer, written with absolute assurance no good writer would ever feel.
For no writer is this a bigger problem and a larger injustice to the body of work than for Hemingway. Part of this is his own fault, of course; during the last 20 depressed and liquor-soaked years of his life, he invented and played to the hilt the role of Papa Hemingway. Even his last wife called him Papa. His own son, Patrick, calls him Hemingway. His best work behind him, he became more celebrity than writer.
That said, to his credit, he kept writing. Other American writers for whom this is true -- Truman Capote leaps to mind -- neither left behind a body of work as formidable as Hemingway's nor did they keep writing.
To his detriment, however, or at least to the detriment of his reputation, everything he wrote and subsequently abandoned during those years has now been published. Nearly a dozen books' worth of largely inferior material is out there with Hemingway's name on it (published, it must be said, against his wishes): 38 years now of "new" Hemingway in which each book has tended to be a little weaker than the last.
None of these books is without interest, if read with generosity by readers who've already read and reread most of the stories and The Sun Also Rises and the very flawed but audacious For Whom the Bell Tolls and the tight, deliciously mannered The Old Man and the Sea. And then read the stories again. But for people who have not, these volumes of journalism and memoir and letters and failed novels and now "fictional memoir" (and there is no evidence Ernest Hemingway would have labeled it such) tend to stress both Hemingway's excesses (though, to be fair, he never had the chance to edit any of these himself, and, as Busch shows, Hemingway may have been without peer as an editor of his own work) as well as a great many prurient autobiographical details.
With this year's centennial celebration of Hemingway's birth, as his life recedes further into the past, here's hoping for an ushering in of a new era, one that eschews the trivia of the man's life and revels in the richness of his peerless work.
"We are [crazy]," I said. "But you mustn't tell outsiders."
"But you don't really mean all writers are crazy?"
"Only the good ones."
"But you got angry when that man wrote a book about how you were crazy."
"Yes, because he did not know about it nor how it worked. Just as he knew nothing about writing."
"It's awfully complicated," Miss Mary said.
"I won't try to explain it. I'll try to write something to show you how it works." --from True at First Light