”Once writing has become the principal vice and the greatest pleasure, only death can put an end to it.” Ernest Hemingway.
Some people read their Bibles. I read my Hemingway. I think if I had only two books to learn writing from, I could do a lot worse than Hemingway and the Bible. Add a bit of Jane Austen, some Shakespeare and a few licks from Dickens and I could be one heck of an writer.
But back to the Maestro, Ernest Hemingway. Who else would begin a chapter, much less a book, with these words: “Then there was the bad weather”? What other writer would take the chance of being a laughingstock? Yet there the sentence is, laying on the page, a perfect beginning to “A Moveable Feast” about his years in Paris. There are the words, clear and simple and saying all that is needed to be said in an opening sentence. They make me want to read more. They make me think I am not at the beginning of the story but in the middle of something. Which is always a good place to begin.
Now you may be thinking that I read Hemingway to imitate him. I do not. If I did, it would come off as very bad Hemingway. No, I read him to discover the excesses in my own prose, my authorial commentary, my character’s thinking when he should be doing, an excessive passive voice, and anything to avoid the action. It all has to go, including my favorite little ditties that bear witness to excess. What more could I want to say than “Then there was the bad weather”? I just wish I had said it. It is kind of like Dickens beginning “David Copperfield” with the first chapter titled “I Was Born”.
I’ve never considered “The Sun Also Rises” as his best work. Oh, it’s okay Hemingway but not really first class. He has too too many scores he wanted to settle. With Henry James, with James Joyce, with H. L. Mencken, maybe even Gertrude Stein. It is not nearly as good as his short stories. But he had been talked into believing that the only way he could be considered a “real” writer was to write a novel. It is “A Farewell to Arms” where Hemingway really shines.
The opening paragraph is one of the best in American literature, up there with “Moby Dick” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. It opens this way: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Very little latinized English and a hell of a lot of Anglo Saxon.
Some darned fine writing. And there are so many other examples of this writing. Things like: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Or “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” He makes it look so simple, so easy to write prose that well that he has fooled many a writer into thinking he could do it, and never do. Some come close but most fail, and fail miserably.
And one of the things I love about Hemingway is the theme that seems to move through much of his fiction. That theme is loss. The loss of sexual potency in “The Sun Also Rises”, the loss of the love of your young life in “A Farewell to Arms”, the loss of your dignity in “The Short Happy LIfe of Francis Macomber”, the loss of not just a fish but of a living in “The Old Man and the Sea”. Loss is written all over Hemingway’s fiction. The question he keeps asking is: How do you face loss, the devastating kind which can suck a life dry? I don’t think he ever came up with an answer but he came close in “The Old Man and the Sea”. You accept it, and you accept it with dignity.
Oh sure, there is machismo, the macho world of the hunter and the bullfighter and the soldier. But none of those people are winners. Much of his fiction is about losers, about men who suffer great loss and soldier on. Underneath all that machismo is a sensitive soul for which Hemingway gets little credit. You see, he was constantly playing a bluffing game and he got away with it most of the time. I think the bluff is why feminist critics don’t like Hemingway. I also think that his sensitivity is what attracted quite a number of women to him, and women who were strong and independent like the war correspondent Martha Gelhorn who became his third wife. They saw beneath the machismo and the bluff. They saw a very sensitive soul.
At the beginning of this blog post, I referred to Hemingway as Maestro. I got that from the great Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the late 1950s, Marquez was in Paris and walking down one of the boulevards. He looked across the street and there was Hemingway with his lady. Marquez struggled with the words of what he would say to the great writer. Finally he could only get one word out. ” ”Maaaeeestro!” Hemingway acknowledged the young writer by turning and calling out, ”Adiooos, amigo!’
For me, Hemingway is the master and I will always be his pupil. And that is why I continue to read him.