On Hemingway

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.

21 thoughts on “On Hemingway

  1. Also, not my favourite writer, but this lovely post makes me warm to him. I think the thing about Hemingway and his writing is that he did what he did so well, but that doesn’t mean all writers have to adopt his style. My reading and writing would be all the poorer without adjectives and subclauses.

  2. “knowing that against my will I might well like him, but that in my heart I would continue to always, deeply, disapprove of him.” Yes, exactly right! I feel the same way. I’ve read several of his short stories and loved each one. I love The Old Man and the Sea. By the time I read The Sun Also Rises I had learned more about the man and I set out to purposely hate the book which I mostly managed to do. I do like his prose style very much and he really can tell a story, but by golly I can’t like him. Though I suppose being able to like the author isn’t a requirement for enjoying good literature.

  3. I read lots of Hemingway while an undergrad, but I haven’t re-read his works in over 20 years. As a student, I liked what I read, despite the ever-present gender-politics of teaching Hemingway in my program. Clearly, we were not suppose to like him; or we were, depending on the professor. Left a distinctly bad feeling towards him. Yet, there are times when seemingly out-of-the-blue, I’ll see something, observe a couple, hear a report on the news, read a passage by another author, and in an instant I’ll think of a piece of some Hemingway short story. Oddly, I can’t remember much of anything about his novels; they all blend together, although the locale of one was the sea, another Spain, etc.

  4. “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.” This is why I think it is useful to read Hemingway, this was fundamentally important to him. It is what made him – despite his shenanigans and bad behavior – a terribly conscientious and careful writer.
    I can’t wait to see what you’ll have to say about his fiction.

  5. I have only read one Hemmingway novel ‘The Sun Also Rises or Fiesta’ and I really enjoyed it. If read alongside F.Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Great Gatsby’ it epitomises the Lost Generation of men and women without purpose after the Great War. I think a dislike of the author: ‘the man’ shouldn’t stop an admiration of the author: ‘the writer’.

  6. Hemingway! For Whom The Bell Tolls read first as a newly hormone driven 14yo who found – was it page 39? – the rummaging amongst the petticoats in a cave to be sufficient to power me to the end looking for more of the same. Followed by The Old Man And The Sea as a term read. I fell in love with that book and have re-read it, sat through the movie on numerous occasions and had a hatred of sharks ever since. I have tried “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and other Hemingways since and found him disappointing. A reporter with little to say about people but a lot to say about events and quite willing to include a very masculine view of sex in the story. I find his prose to be sterile and many of his plots to be self-indulgent. Almost a precursor to the chaste, facile, read in a night thrillers of Innes and MacLean. But then I am an unlearned reader, not a critic who knew of Ernest’s background and life.

  7. Daniel – hello and welcome and thank you so much for a lovely comment! I’ve come across to visit your blog and very much enjoyed your travel writing. Dear Charlotte – I think your comment sums up an admirable truth about writing, which is the better you do your own thing, the better writer you are. That was what Hemingway sussed so early on and worked so hard to achieve. Like you, I’m very fond of a subclause or two! Bluestocking – and do review it if you read it – I’d love to know what you think. Stefanie – I’m glad it’s not just me, and what fine company with whom to share an opinion of Hemingway! I’m living proof you don’t have to like the man to enjoy the work, and I’m looking forward to The Sun Also Rises, even more so if you found it good. Cam – how intriguing that Hemingway’s works should come to you so often like that. I wonder what that says about them? And interesting too, that liking or disliking Hemingway should be intrinsic to the teaching of him. Extra strange when you think how his prose is pared down of all that kind of messy emotion. Verbivore – you’re so right to call him careful and conscientious. That description seems very apt, and an interesting comment in itself on what might constitute good writing. Not the wild abandon, then, but the assiduous dedication to the minutiae of what is. Ms Wiz – hello and I quite agree. The post sort of ended up a demonstration of the fact that you can dislike an author as a man and still respect the work. I’m interested in comparing him more directly to Scott Fitzgerald now, given that they compared themselves to each other in life so much! Archie – and doesn’t your experience prove that, on every level, you don’t need experience to be a reader? I think it’s odd really how much Hemingway the man intrudes on Hemingway the author, and wonder at that. But I’m sure he would have been secretly pleased you read him young for that glimpse of petticoat.🙂

  8. It’s interesting to consider how often Hemingway is brought in by magazines such as _Writer’s Digest_ as an example, even today, of ‘how to write,’ and how his style became, soon after it appeared, ‘the way’ to write. Hard-boiled detective fiction took a lot from him. And he became a parody of himself. Norman Mailer and others learned much from him.

    Litlove, for a contrast on how to write about paris, about war, and about people who were known then and are legends now, by a man who is cattily maligned in _Feast_ (alongside his tiresome macho posturing, Hemingway was often bitchy), check out Blaise Cendrars’ tetralogy: _The Astonished Man_, _Planus_, _Lice_ and _Sky_. Quite a sharp difference in approach, and in style.

  9. Your description of his writing style at the beginning is what made me toss this book in bewilderment and derision. After coming off his more (I suppose) conscientiously written fiction the odd “early learner” stuff threw me wildly off course. Your post leads me to a better understanding as to why this book is so admired. Still don’t think I’ll ever read it though🙂. “The Sun Also Rises” remains one of my top favourites.

  10. I’ve warmed and cooled to Hemingway at various times over the years. I taught American Literature last year for the first time and included some Hemingway shorts–which meant studying his work closely for the first time in a long time. Of course I convinced myself that I loved him all over again as I rediscovered what he was doing. Months later, thinking back, I’ve changed my mind yet another time. His idiosyncrasies feel so outdated that I can’t make myself remember what I liked about the style.

  11. I tend to have a fondness for those writers I’m not supposed to like, and Hemingway is one of them — I think people tend to conflate the person and the work too much and see hypermasculinity in the fiction, when it’s possible to see a critique of it, or at least an illustration of its emptiness. I appreciate the way the pared down style takes on a political dimension in A Farewell to Arms, the Hemingway book I’m most familiar with — in that book he wants to avoid abstractions because political leaders can so easily use them to manipulate and deceive. Sticking with the concrete becomes a form of resistance. I enjoyed your review!

  12. Thank you for this — I’ve been thinking for weeks about why I don’t like Hemingway, something I didn’t know was true until a few weeks ago when I read some short stories and was terribly put off by them. I liked hearing your thoughts about him. I did not have the experience you did with A Moveable Feast, because I read it when I was in my twenties and badly wanted (a) to live in Paris; and (b) to be a writer, so all I noticed was how pure his life seemed to be, and how lovely the cafe with the oysters and small glass of white wine and the light headed walking all seemed. Now he just seems unreadable — because something’s missing in those stories — and that’s what I’m going to have to think more about, with the help of this post! xo

  13. What a terrific post (as usual, darling). In a way, I hate to admit that Hemingway is one of my favorite authors in spite of his Neanderthal attitudes about women and his defense of sadistic hunting practices (ugh).

    I read “A Moveable Feast” a long, long time ago, and I felt like you at the end of it–that his ego was so huge that he couldn’t possibly be blamed for his own poor judgement.

    Thanks once again, litlove!

  14. I’ve tried to like him – I admire Old Man and the Sea, read some short stories by him, and I think For Whom the Bell Tolls, but in the end I don’t like his characters and especially his stories. I admire that he can write the way he does, but I don’t like what he is writing! But you give a very interesting and persuasive review of him, anyway!!

  15. JB – I can always rely on you for amazing reading suggestions. I’ve never read any Cendrars and can see that I should. Thank you so much for the recommendations. As for Hemingway’s style as being ‘right’, I imagine it’s because it’s highly particular – right up the far end of the scale of simplicity. If that’s what you want, then Hemingway delivers it, and so if you like it, you laud him. But we all know there is no ‘right’ way to do it, right? Imani – isn’t it interesting how you can love and hate books by the same author? I’m looking forward to reading The Sun Also Rises, and even more so if you rate it. J.D.- I’m getting the same message from several bloggers here, which is that Hemingway is both loved AND disliked by them. I’ve never known another author cause so many issues of ambivalence! And what’s most intriguing is that this is in an author who found a groove and stuck steadfastly to it. It must have been very interesting to teach him. Dorothy – I really appreciate what you have to say here, and the alternative light it throws on Hemingway. I understand what you mean about the avoidance of rhetoric, and that’s something I know I would applaud. I’m looking forward to reading his fiction now! Bloglily – oh I was far from untouched by the desire to live in Paris and become a writer! I think that’s what really sells AMF. It’s all I’ve read by him and I am most intrigued now to see how the fiction turns out. But there are blanks in his work which made me feel sometimes that I just didn’t know what was happening (why does he fall out with Gertrude Stein? Is it just me? It seems incomprehensible?) and I’ll bet they carry over into the fiction too. Chartroose – anyone who calls me darling is deeply appreciated here! I’m very much looking forward to reading more by Hemingway now to see how I get on with it. I will turn the other cheek to the misogyny and the hunting too – after all, I tell myself that few authors were saints! Susan – hello and welcome – it’s lovely to have you commenting here. I think Hemingway is such a particular flavour that he either appeals or he really doesn’t. You’ve certainly given him a very good shot, no one could possible ask you for more! And it’s odd but I feel I have no idea how I’ll respond to his fiction, even having read one of his books. But I’ll let you know!

  16. You are a far better soul than I am. I read this post carefully, hoping you could somehow change my dislike of Hemingway’s writing. Didn’t happen. I love your points (and your writing), but Hemingway still turns me sour.

  17. Emily – having read your blog for some time now, I know for sure the quality of your soul is impeccable. I quite understand a dislike of Hemingway, not sure that I’m so very convinced of him yet myself! And judging from the comments I’ve had, you are not alone in feeling that way…

  18. What a wonderful post (and nicely balanced, too). I’ve only read The Old Man and the Sea and that was longer ago than I care to admit–when I was in high school. Of course I have pretty much forgotten it. I always like learning about an author I am reading, but this might be one case where it’s better to just enjoy the fiction and not delve too much into the history of the author who created it. I am still hoping to read some of his work this year, if not this summer! He seems to evoke some very strong reactions/emotions, and I’m curious how I’ll feel about it.

  19. Danielle – I’m still intending to read The Sun Also Rises later on in the summer, and would of course love to know what you think of it when you find a moment to fit it in. There’s no need to take Hemingway’s life into account in his writing, and probably much better just to read him and form an opinion solely on that. Lots of people seem to have read The Old Man and the Sea – it must be a classic book for American teenagers!

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