Hemingway: A Maker of Small, Fragile Things

by J. S. Porter

For Jennifer Tan who invited me to speak on Hemingway at Sky Dragon, and Birgitta who greeted each Zambian morning with, "Hemingway's dead and the birds keep shitting on my windshield."


His favourite word in the language was farewell. He learned to say the word to war, to love and finally to prose. He loved the names of streets and cities and countries, none more than Paris and France and 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, his first apartment. "There is magic in the name France. It is a magic like the smell of the sea or the sight of blue hills or of soldiers marching by. It is a very old magic." A Moveable Feast is full of Parisian street names.

Fidel Castro liked the interior monologues in Hemingway; he liked how the central character from Nick Adams to Robert Jordan to Santiago talked to himself. F. Scott Fitzgerald liked how Hemingway made sentences. He was particularly fond of this sentence from "In Another Country:" "In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more." Rhythmically perfect. It has Hemingway's signature melancholic undertow.

Hemingway's best sentences combine action with reflection, mood with music. Life surges in his sentences while death perches nearby on the windowsill. His style is paratactic where he leaps and jumps within the sentence without concern for one part of the sentence logically adhering to another. The sea goes out and comes in. It rides to shore a surprising cargo of bric-à-brac.

Take a sentence from A Farewell to Arms, for instance. "I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting." The road, the weather, the snow, the animal tracks, the peasants and their hats, their calling you Lord and good hunting keep company in the sentence. You wouldn't think you could put all these disparate things together and the sentence would work.

Marguerite Duras sometimes writes Hemingway sentences in French. She has the melancholy and the music. No one -despite all the imitators--writes Hemingway sentences, unless the bad ones, in English. The music comes but once and then goes somewhere else where you can't get it back any more than you can get a lost dog back, call him as you will.

Biographer Jeffrey Meyers comprehensively summarizes Hemingway's life in sentences with a simple declarative sentence of his own: "Hemingway described with unusual knowledge and authority physical pleasure, the natural world, violent experience and sudden death." He was the last of the Romantics, the last of the celebrity authors, the last of the prose poets.

With Henry James you're stylistically in the middle of the 19th. century and know it. With early Hemingway you're in the 20th. century and know it. Early Hemingway, even more radically than early Joyce, rewrites how English is written. Select at random a sentence by Henry James. (Hemingway had great respect for James and enthusiastically recommended his "Madame de Mauves," The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady and The American.) Juxtapose it with a sentence from Hemingway's In Our Time published in 1925. Keep in mind that James published The Wings of the Dove in 1902, The Ambassadors in 1903 and The Golden Bowl in 1904. It's hard to believe that a little more than 20 years separates late James from early Hemingway. James sounds like a formal rhetorician while Hemingway blends terse telegrams with the rhythms of the King James Bible, something old and something new, like a bride's gown.

James thrives on adjectives and subordinate clauses. Hemingway eschews adjectives and subordinate clauses. The sentences -- "Nick stood up. He was all right." -- are inconceivable in James. Maybe even inconceivable in Joyce. In James, it would take two or three sentences for Nick to stand and another five to specify the degree of his rightness. James' sentences are full of qualification and modification in which one thought is slightly altered by the invasion of another. Hemingway's sentences are full of movement in which one thing happens and something else happens at the same time. And is his key word. Now is his only time frame. His short stories are small miracles of compression.

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost refers to the "original nature of the imagination in those early Hemingway stories (an imagination that in a handful of pages transformed the short story and American prose)."

In sentences like this one from the posthumous True at First Light, you lose your heart drop by drop to melancholy: "In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is absolutely true, beautiful and believable."

Hemingway thought he was about large themes of love and war. Large experiences: bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and lion-hunting. He thought he was about death and machismo, big books and large canvases. He wasn't. He was about small works on paper. Stories that flirt with Nada and sometimes enter it. Remember the tenderness of the waiter in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" who won't abandon a client to the night.

Hemingway was about hypnotic sea-rhythms. He was about "one woman, another woman, various women, but only one woman really, some friends, speed, animals, cowardice, courage ... pride, co-ordination, the migration of fishes, many rivers...dogs, roads, all good writing, all good painting, the principles of revolution ...the different winds, the changes of the seasons." He was a poet who wrote in prose. He was about writing one true sentence, and then another and another.

Accuracy of detail and honesty of emotion mattered to Hemingway. Ceremony and ritual mattered, too. You sometimes think that you should ceremonially dress up when you're reading him. Every book was a new attempt at a gold-medal performance. Failure and death waited around the corner like over-familiar drunks.

Did the persona veil the person? Probably. Beneath the veil was a person as tender and vulnerable as the words he wooed into line. For a glimpse of the tenderness and vulnerability, turn to the writing. Turn also to some of the photographs, particularly ones where he has a cat in his lap while typing or is standing holding a cat in his arms outside his Cuban home.*

He was a reader. Always telling people what to read. In one book, what Americans to read; in another, what Russians to read. ("I've been wondering about Dostoyevsky," I said. "How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?") Along the way, he recommends to serious readers a small library of essential texts, including Tolstoy's novels, Chekhov's short stories, Mann's Buddenbrooks, Stein's Making of Americans, E.E. Cummings' Enormous Room, Yeats' Autobiographies, "all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev," Lawrence's "The Prussian Officer," O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra...His literary judgements were sound. Who now quarrels with the idea that the voice of Huck Finn is the beginning of modern American literature?

In Hemingway what once enchanted me now bores me. I can't read the false bravado, the masculine posturing, the mannered stoicism. But I can read the fragility, the fear, the sexual confusion. I can read the tides of memory and melancholy in his sentences. Something remains, but it's not what initially drew him to me.

My Hemingway is smaller now. His strength lies in sentences, paragraphs, scenes, snatches of dialogue, unfinished works, incomplete sketches. He is a miniaturist, a maker of small, fragile things. No big novels, no eternal masterpieces. Just: how easily everything breaks and how you need to protect yourself against the dark. Maybe he knew where his talent lay more accurately than some believe. A letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins seems to hint as much: "All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones."

I still respect the first shiver of a new way of writing English - In Our Time, a handful of stories including "In Another Country," and "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," the unwritten stories in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," selected sentences from True at First Light, the final conversation between Jake and Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises, paragraphs from A Farewell to Arms, the unfinished bravery of The Garden of Eden, The Old Man and the Sea, the rivers, the sea, landscape at large, talks on writing, the weather, animals, all the talk about Paris from all the different books, especially A Moveable Feast. Did anyone ever serenade a city so lovingly as Hemingway did Paris? "...Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight."

The work he is the most famous for is the early work, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, the Nick Adams stories. In the middle years he seemed to sag; taut lines sagged into mawkishness. In mid-career he went from failure to failure: a boring narrative about bullfighting, a boring African non-fictional narrative about lion-hunting, one unsuccessful novel after another. He fell into self-parody. Nevertheless, he picked up his talent for a final short masterwork, The Old Man and the Sea, the novella that Gabriel Garcia Marquez described as "a stick of dynamite" when it first came out.

"This is the prose that I have been working for all my life," he tells his publisher in a letter written in 1951. "[It] should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of a man's spirit."

After the triumph of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway's mental health declined all the way from medication to electroconvulsive shock to shotgun suicide. In Philip Roth's wording, he fell from grace "when his force was bottomless, his belligerence radiant, and the preeminence of his prose established throughout the world."

His body and mind broke from an accumulation of affliction -- malaria, dysentery, skin cancer, concussions, internal bleeding, cracked spine discs, severe burns, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, alcoholism, hepatitis and severe depression. He could no longer patch wounds with words, no longer recreate the self in language.

He bloated into volubility and sentimentality, and yet his final attempts at poetry-in-prose are still bold. It's his last books in particular that tug at me, his last words--unfinished, failures and posthumous: A Moveable Feast, about Paris and writing, True at First Light--I'm not sure what it's about--and The Garden of Eden, a book about sex and sentences, mostly about the writing of sentences.

It's in The Garden of Eden where Hemingway dissolves the boundaries between masculinity and femininity. It's in that very bitchy and beautiful book, A Moveable Feast--who would think that you could combine bitchiness with beauty? -- where Hemingway opens his heart widest: "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." One true sentence. It's in First Light that the narrator in Hemingway's voice affirms, "There is a virginity that you, in theory only, bring once to a beautiful city or a great painting. This is only a theory and I think it is untrue. All the things that I have loved I bring this to each time ..."

Writing for Hemingway is always about the making of sentences to which, in John Updike's phrase, he brings "liturgical gravity." He has a sacramental view of writing. He is a priest conducting mass for language; the word is womb-wet. Byronic in posture, Proustian in practice, he devoted himself to the discipline of writing good sentences.

He leaves a certain sound in the ear, a certain sad sound found in Irish poetry and the Japanese novel. Burdened with memory, his sentences have to do with missing someone, with not being able to sleep, with losing control or losing what you once had, with techniques for warding off intimations of doom. Sometimes more cargo floats into the sentence than the current can syntactically bear: too much experience, too much memory.

Good sentences have pictures in them or sad sounds or unbearable memories. Like Noah's doves, they fly into the Flood to keep us from drowning. They bring back evidence of the land we once knew. They make the world fresh and strange again, like orchids in a rainforest. That's why the writer David Bourne in The Garden of Eden can carry on writing after his wife has burnt his manuscript: "David wrote steadily and well and the sentences that he had made before came to him complete and entire and he put them down, corrected them, and cut them as if he were going over proof...He wrote on a while longer now and there was no sign that any of it would ever cease returning to him intact."

In Hemingway's case "it" did cease.

Good sentences need more than a dove. They need ravens, too, and the odour of death. Sentences, like us, have beginnings and endings. They gently intimate our mortality. In the perverse wisdom of our language, sentences are related to sentencing. They serve their time and run out. They fly skyward and the raven brings them to earth.

You need will for a good sentence, a strong will. You need something else: a willingness to woo. You woo the word. You dress up in your favourite gown, go for a swim, put on some music or take a shot of Amaretto. Your mood turns towards melancholy where Irish music is and Armenian music is, maybe where most music is if you play it long enough. You ask the language, as if it were a river god, to give up its treasure even though you're unworthy. You clasp the treasure for a moment, entrust it to your line and return it to the river.

Trust, that's what you do when you woo. You trust the language to give you the right word and a string of them in the right order and if you get the sound right you don't need to go back and if you do go back no amount of revision will make the poetry and the music right.

"All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time," Hemingway writes to his wife Mary on April 9th., 1945.

He tries once again to see things for the first time in his last book, a bloated chaotic mess of 1500 pages whittled into form by Tom Jenks into 247 pages. What a strange and transgressive book The Garden of Eden is. It takes the reader back to Eden, just as In Our Time did. The writer David Bourne this time, as with another writer, Nick Adam(s), before him, freshly names what is around him and what he cannot--or will not name he leaves in mystery. Charged with ambiguity and ambivalence, the novel constructs a triangle, a married couple and an outsider. They do what Hemingway characters often do: they drink, eat, go places, see things and talk. They also do what few other Hemingway characters do: they swim a lot and they play games in the bedroom, games about gender, hair length, skin colour, cross-dressing, lesbianism, penetration and group sex.

At the centre of the sexual electricity, there is a man trying to write sentences. Eden is simple at first. "They had been married three weeks and had come down on the train from Paris to Avignon with their bicycles, a suitcase with their town clothes, and a rucksack and a musette bag." A dark-skinned woman enters the marital idyll. David and his wife Catherine play games with Marita. Things go smoothly. Then jealousy, pride and resentment catch hold. But through it all -- the rise and fall, the attraction and repulsion--David continues to write. "But David did not want to think about the story. He cared about the writing more than anything else, and he cared about many things, but he knew that when he was doing it he must not worry about it nor finger it nor handle it any more than he would open up the door of the darkroom to see how a negative was developing."

One true sentence. Hemingway didn't always achieve it. Sometimes he deceived himself by bluster or fear or lies. But when he achieved it, he wrote lines that linger as good music does.


*Debra A. Moddelmog's Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999) is a charming read for its sensitive response to The Garden of Eden and its cover photo of Hemingway holding his cat "Christopher Columbus" while he examines his words in the typewriter. Feral descendants of Christopher and other Hemingway cats still roam Finca Vigía near Havana.

(Originally published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Issue 3.1, Spring 2010)

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