Saturday, October 31, 2015

"For a poet he threw a very accurate milk bottle," or Why I Heart Ernest Hemingway

Don't think that I'm unaware that I tend to write about books when I've not liked them, while remaining fairly silent about those that I have enjoyed. I've wondered why this should be and, having just finished A Moveable Feast, which is the sort of book that leads one to think that another drink is perfectly reasonable, I have a few theories.

 It's possible, I might suggest, that after you finish reading an abysmal novel you don't worry about how lousy your own writing might be. Oh, you might be particularly careful about not having grammatical errors as you write to complain about a writer who can't manage noun-verb agreement, but you don't feel like every sentence you write is not good. But I think that's only part of it. Maybe. More, maybe, it's just hard to write much in praise of a good book without it being fatuous, false, and, really, in the case of something like a book by Hemingway, utterly unnecessary.

 But I've come late to Hemingway, it being only a few years ago that I read one novel or another, possibly The Sun Also Rises, and realized that I'd been wrong about him all my life; he really does write a fine novel and his language, once you get used to it, is as good as anything anyone has ever written. It's a weird cross between naivete and cynicism; it's not only his characters, but the writing itself that shares those characteristics. It's plainly beyond my ability to identify properly, let alone explain. But it's pretty darned breathtaking and obviously a lot harder than it looks. It's like what one sculptor or another said about chipping away all the parts of a block of marble that aren't the statue. 

 I'm not claiming that this bit I'm going to quote exemplifies what I'm talking about but I love it because it's just such a fine view of a different world (and, you know, cats):

When there were the three of us instead of just the two, it was the cold and the weather that finally drove us out of Paris in the winter time. Alone there was no problem when you got used to it. I could always go to a cafe to write and could work all morning over a cafe creme while the waiters cleaned and swept out the cafe and it gradually grew warm. My wife could go to work at the piano in a cold place and with enough sweaters keep warm playing and come home to nurse Bumby. It was wrong to take a baby to a cafe in the winter though; even a baby that never cried and watched everything that happened and was never bored. There were no baby-sitters then and Bumby would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big loving cat named F. Puss. There were people who said that it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby. The most ignorant and prejudiced said that a cat would suck a baby's breath and kill him. Others said that a cat would lie on a baby and the cat's weight would smother him. F. Puss lay beside Bumby in the tall cage bed and watched the door with his yellow eyes, and would let no one come near him when we were out and Marie, the femme de menage, had to be away. There was no need for baby-sitters. F. Puss was the baby-sitter. 

 (from page 197 of  A Moveable Feast, Scribner edition)

Oh, for those happy days when parents not only could leave their infant children at home in a walk-up apartment to be watched by the family cat but also knew that even the most well-behaved child didn't belong at a cafe where, after all, writers needed to have quiet to spend the morning nursing a single cup of coffee while the waiters swept and tidied. I found myself wondering as I read this book, a month or so after returning from Paris myself, if Mr Hemingway's Paris ever truly existed; if there was a time when you really could spend hours writing in a cafe without feeling self-conscious. And then I wondered if maybe it was just that Hemingway and his crowd weren't the sort to ever feel self-conscious and maybe if I were different, I would be able to settle into a cafe table for a few hours. Maybe the waiters would come to like me so much they'd fill my glass full of straight whiskey accompanied by the saucer that indicated that the price of my drink was ten francs--or whatever today's equivalent might be. Somehow it seems unlikely.

 I also realized, as I typed out that extract above, that Mr Hemingway eschewed a lot of commas. 

There's so much in this book: Paris, of course (in Hemingway's Paris, milk goats trot along the streets in the early morning, with the goats being milked on the spot for those who wish to purchase a quart. God, how I want to visit that Paris!), learning to write, portraits of artists and writers, even avalanche and skiing tips. There's also a ton of drinking.

In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism or a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.  .  .  . I could not imagine one whiskey harming anyone who was driving in an open car in the rain. The alcohol should have been oxidized in a very short time.

 (from pages 166 - 167 of A Moveable Feast)

 This bit is from the first chapter about F. Scott Fitzgerald who, lightweight that he is, gets badly drunk on as little as three or four whiskeys and his share of four bottles of "a light white"--the latter consumed while driving that car in the rain. The descriptions of Fitzgerald are things of beauty. The end of the book is surprisingly heartbreaking. The writing isn't gorgeous, because it's not lush. It's just perfect. That's all it is.


  1. He wrote the best short stories ever. "Hills Like White Elephants" is just the best, and "The End of Something" is the second-best. The writing IS perfect, and he gets his characters in these two stories--especially the women as they face their men--perfectly. I think he found most people lightweights compared to him. There are paragraphs after paragraphs in Nora Joyce's letters describing how he brings "Jim" home, and deposits him safely at the door, night after night

    1. I am awful with titles some times so I'm not sure if I've read these or not. Probably not as I think I've mostly read just "The Nick Adams Stories," and, yes, I had to look at the bookshelf to get that title. I think I used to be brighter. His is definitely not a Disney princess outlook.

    2. And what about "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber?" That's a great story, the point-of-view shifting around during the big hunting scene, even for a moment settling on the wounded lion. Amazing stuff.

      Expats tell stories about Joyce starting fights in Parisian bars and then hiding behind Hemingway while yelling, "Hit him, Hemingway! Hit him!" Hemingway must've had immense patience.

    3. Yeah, I think he did have immense patience, and certainly, as described by Nora, he seems to have been a good-hearted man. Imagine the kind of patience *Nora* must've had...

    4. You look at his life and he was clearly a tremendous fuckup, but then you look at what he wrote and you see how much capacity for love he must've had and then it makes more sense why Nora chose him.

  2. "It's like what one sculptor or another said about chipping away all the parts of a block of marble that aren't the statue."

    That would be Michelangelo Buonarroti, of course.

    I have nothing to say about Mr. Hemingway, but I do have something to say about feasting. I have just this very minute past opened the jar of Madame Gradka's 2015 grape jam and spread it upon my toast (it took this long because I sadly had an already opened jar of grape jam, vastly inferior, which needed consuming first, possibly with too many commas), and I must say that it is absolutely scrumptious. Thank you kindly!

    1. I have such clever friends--I knew one of them would know which sculptor it was. Hell, you probably know the correct wording for the quote too. I wonder what Michelangelo's jam-making skills were like. I *am* pleased that you're enjoying this year's bottling. I may follow your example shortly.