Somewhere in the matronly quarter of my heart, where life is disciplined and controlled and just a little bit starchy, I have always disapproved of Ernest Hemingway. I should point out first of all that this is tremendously unfair as up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t even read anything by him. My prejudice was based entirely on an account of his many marriages written by Jeffrey Meyers, who is very good at dealing in a really satisfactory way with the fairly gruesome relationships so many writers got themselves into. Whilst most biographers pay deferential respect to all the parties concerned, and hesitate to draw scurrilous conclusions, or (heaven forbid) read anything into the fictional works that might not truly belong there, Meyers leaps into the swamp of human relations and manages to wallow around in them in an intellectually pleasing way. Well, anyhow, I was convinced that Hemingway’s treatment of the women in his life was not an admirable thing, and that he was the kind of person I most disapprove of – one who stubbornly persists in the absence of self-knowledge. Although Gertrude Stein said it much better when she said of him, ‘Anyone who marries three girls from St. Louis hasn’t learnt much.’
But I was very intrigued to read his autobiographical account of the early years he spent in Paris, entitled A Movable Feast. I’m a sucker for that kind of aspiring-writer type of memoir, and I knew it involved Hemingway’s friendships with several of the great writers of the day, including Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and of course, Gertrude Stein. In it, Hemingway returns to the years between 1921-26 when he was married to his first wife, Hadley, making a name for himself as a writer and scraping a living as a journalist. Paris was working its usual magic on his creative faculties and Hemingway was spending the vast majority of his time writing in cafés (not something you could attempt nowadays in the UK, but very in vogue in that era). Or else he was doing manly things like gambling on the horses, nipping down to Spain to watch the bull fights or spending extended holidays in Switzerland, skiing. The account he writes of this time in his life is so pickled in nostalgia that it is both impossible to get a proper sense of what it was actually like, and it is also a tremendously enjoyable read; the reader bobs along buoyantly on the surface of the narrative, drifting past any number of idyllic landmarks on the journey to writerly excellence in exotic, inter-war Europe. I really enjoyed the accounts Hemingway produces of his time spent in the company of other authors, particularly the conversation with Ford Maddox Ford, in which Hemingway tries to sort out the distinctions between cads, bounders and gentlemen, and the disastrous road trip with Scott Fitzgerald who performs a formidable Princess-and-the-Pea routine with every little bump and distraction in the course of their journey. Paris has never been lovelier, and of course what gets any would-be author salivating is the way Hemingway describes his apprenticeship in art: crafting his sentences, disciplining his thought, powering his way forward with confidence and brio into a startling new voice in twentieth century literature. If there’s anything Hemingway sells in this book, it’s the concept of the good life at the root of magnificent literary endeavour.
But what a strange voice it is. This was the first Hemingway I’d read and it took me a while to settle down into that clipped, often repetitive, child-like first person. Sometimes he comes across like an early learning reader, naively pointing with his words at the world, sometimes there is an almost biblical cast to the tone, in the insistence that all is good, that all can be seen to be good, that food and drink are simple pleasures and the thrill of nature best of all… Most often I felt he sounded like a man who needs to prove he can dance and still look macho, that his masculinity would somehow be offended if any frilly petticoat of an adjective, any lacy bonnet of a complex sub clause, should somehow insinuate itself into his hard-working, stiff-drinking, uncluttered representations. But then sometimes he would unclench and with a dash of humour added in, he sounded like a man who knew how to tell a really good anecdote in a bar. Which is probably fundamentally what he was. I felt dangerously certain that I would have liked Hemingway had I ever met him, that I would have been amused by him, and that he would not have liked me at all.
Why not? Well, Hemingway was interested in women primarily for the nurturing they could give him, and for the idealising admiration they paid to his work. After that he used them to make art. He worked best when there was friction between himself and the woman in his life, or when she was ill and discontent, and whilst each marriage break up was fraught for all concerned, with Hemingway clearly suffering terrible guilt and remorse (as well he should for in each case it was never the faithful woman’s fault), those emotions only fuelled his work and often resulted in a major novel with each new wife. The other part of the deal was that the women should take the blame for anything that happened. At the end of A Movable Feast the narrative turns dark and surprisingly enigmatic as Hemingway skates over the surface of his marriage break-up, attributing it to ‘the oldest trick there is. It is that an unmarried young woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband.’ Poor Hemingway! Such passivity for one so determinedly and aggressively masculine. Of course, in the changeover from Hadley to Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway was up to his eyeballs in desire, intention and manipulation, but it suited him very well not to admit to it and to lay the blame fully and squarely elsewhere.
Many people will have heard of the writing advice Hemingway gives in A Movable Feast, the injunction, stated to himself that: ‘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.’ Lots of people have wondered and marvelled in equal measure at this fine advice, but like all great statements of authorial intention, it has to be taken with a huge dose of salt. What Hemingway can bring himself to write about his marriage break-up is far from true, and the account of his time in Paris is wonderfully free of all he chooses not to tell, equally true, of his black depressions, his lack of self-confidence, his unhappiness at becoming a father. I found myself more struck by something else he says, a little later on: ‘I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.’ Now that seemed to me the essence of Hemingway’s style – a struggle, heavily disguised, for absolute congruence between what the author understood and its expression in language. Hence the carefully marshalled simplicity, the emphasis on sensual pleasure, the meandering technical descriptions, the inner certainty that what is happening is right. What Hemingway understood, in a resolutely non-analytical way, he wrote. And everything else he omitted: ‘you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.’ If ever there was a statement that backed up the recognition that simplicity is deceptive, this is it. Hemingway’s style of simple truths is based on a tremendous amount of suppression, with all that is hard to understand, unpalatable, perhaps, or emotionally wearisome being left rigorously to one side. It probably does work as a formula for some interesting literature (and I will read one of his novels later in the summer to see), but it also makes for one of the most fictionalised memoirs I’ve read in a long time, and for a style that seems to me to outline the contours of a man who only sees what he wants to see, stubbornly only understands on his own terms of understanding. So I found it very fascinating to read Hemingway’s account of his Paris days, knowing that against my will I might well like him, but that in my heart I would continue to always, deeply, disapprove of him.