A Book for Fans of Ernest Hemingway

Those of you who follow my aniblog, Medieval Otaku, know that I proposed to write an article each day for a fortnight.  Having fallen behind, consider this Friday’s article.  Deo volente, two more articles shall drop from my pen ere midnight tonight.  (Yours truly is an incurable optimist.)  Long waiting periods at NYC’s government buildings allowed me to complete a compilation of Hemingway’s essays titled A Moveable Feast.  These articles were assembled by Hemingway’s fourth wife following his death and first published in 1964.  My own 1977 edition has written over the top of it “By the author of Islands in the Stream.”  This strikes me as odd for two reasons: 1) By April 1977, Hemingway’s fame had not apparently reached such a height that the average reader would know him sans connecting him to a more popular book of his; and 2) the understanding of which works rank highest in Hemingway’s canon (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, etc.) had not yet been established in its present form.  A Moveable Feast stands as a memoir of Hemingway’s early life in Paris following the First World War while he was still married to his first wife, Hadley.

Not my edition of A Moveable Feast.  This one has the kind of heading one would expect to see atop one of Hemingway's books.

Not my edition of A Moveable Feast. This one has the kind of heading one would expect to see atop one of Hemingway’s books.

This collection of essays strikes me as curious for a variety of reasons.  It immerses the reader in the “Lost Generation,” an appellation Hemingway himself detested, and in the lives of many important writers with whom Hemingway was associated: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in particular.  I was hoping that Hemingway at one point would meet Hilaire Belloc, but he seems to have mistaken Aleister Crowley for the distinguished writer.  (Actually, comparing the two side by side, I can see how easily the mistake might be made.  The two were only five years apart.)  Hemingway’s description of Ezra Pound was perhaps the most interesting.  The first thing most English students learn about Ezra Pound is that he wrote some very complicated poems called Cantos, the second is that he was a Fascist, and the third is to treat him like a leper.  But, Hemingway recalls Ezra Pound as the most saintly man he ever met.  Pound supported writers who sought his help whether he thought they had talent or not and spent many long nights talking writers down from suicide.  The portrait painted by Hemingway is very compelling.

Hemingway in Paris

Then again, many essays are dedicated to Hemingway’s relationship to F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom Hemingway describes as an excellent friend when sober.  One is shocked to learn just how much Fitzgerald’s wife went to sabotage her husband’s writing career.  Also, the frankness of Hemingway and touchiness of Fitzgerald made it a sure thing that the two would eventually clash, leading to the deterioration of their friendship in 1926.  Fortunately, Fitzgerald did not see these essays–many are hardly complimentary except for Hemingway’s praise of The Great Gatsby–as he died of a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1940.

Fitz and Hem

But, candor makes these essays great.  Some lines made me flinch, especially his remarks concerning prostitutes in Kansas.  The lack of respect toward one veteran of the French dragoons also shocked me.  The establishment where this veteran worked as a waiter forced all of its employees to shave.  This former dragoon’s service earned him no exemption, despite having won the Croix de Guerre (the French equivalent of the Medal of Honor) and the Military Medal.  How can one think to diminish the dignity of such a hero?  But, this event and others goes a long way to show the rift between those who fought in the war and those who excused themselves from the cataclysm.

But, what else can I say?  If you love Hemingway’s work and wish to know more about the man himself, you must read this work!

On the Necessity of a Writer to Write

I had the pleasure of reading through the notebook which contained the grand majority of my posts written since Christmas.  Looking over them gave me a definite pleasure, as looking over one’s past accomplishments does.  My firm hope is to fill many more notebooks in the same manner; to which end, I have purchased five more Clairefontaine notebooks.

Painting of Dostoyevsky

Painting of Dostoyevsky

Which brings me to the question of why I bother to write so many articles, especially those posts which have only the slightest chance of drumming up interest: posts on old anime, obscure old authors, and unpopular figures in American history.  Part of it has to do with my love of the Great Conversation (n.b. the kind between authors, not the one held in purgatory), the delight of sharing what I know, the delight of someone revealing my ignorance, the joy of hitting the sublime, and the happiness of knowing that my words made someone else happy.  But, there is also a negative impetus on my writing: melancholy, envy, and misanthropy start to darken my soul if I do not write–especially if I do not write artfully.  Here’s a certain proof of the artistic temperament: one can neither be charitable, content, or unselfish unless they get their art out of their head and onto the page.

Philosophy, religion, and human nature--the components of the Great Conversation.  All of them are found in Plato.

Philosophy, religion, and human nature–the components of the Great Conversation. All of them are found in Plato.

Melancholy seems to be the primary affliction of artists and writers alike.  The only ones who avoid it are those who write or paint to the fullest powers of their ken.  For example, has one ever heard of Shakespeare becoming melancholy?  On the other hand, writers with stretches of time where they do not produce are those most prone to insanity or melancholy: Hemingway, Cowper, Hesse, etc.  Though, I have no doubt that the hatred showered on Hesse by the militant German public in WWI for his pacifism produced the need for Hesse to be admitted into an asylum and subjected to shock therapy.  (Does the latter really work?)

Herman Hesse

Herman Hesse

This brings me to another curious feature of writers: the need to be praised.  As Mark Twain once wrote: “I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat.”  This is a great weakness, as I often find myself anxious about whether a piece has been well received.  Instead of rolling up the time with vexation or allowing praise to puff up my ego, writers should simply busy their minds on the next task.  But in our defense, how else will we know whether we have written something worthwhile or need to go back to the drawing board?  If all the lights go on, an electrician knows he has done a good job; if there are no leaks, the plumber is satisfied; and if the beer is flavorful and refreshing, the brewer has a smile on his face.  When the last word is placed on the page, a writer is happy because the work is done.  But, many questions still swirl in the writer’s head: will no lights go one in readers’ minds?  Is the logic and plot rather full of holes?  Will there be a smile on the reader’s face at the end of it?

Why do my dear readers writer?

Christian Mihai: A New Joseph Conrad?

Those of you who follow Cristian Mihai’s blog, know that he recently made his work Jazz free for download.  This counts as his breakout novel.  Without anything to lose, I decided that I would give a current author a try.  (Looking at my reading list reveals how hesitant I am to read the works of the living.)  From reading Mihai’s blog, I expected a work of quality.  My disenchantment with contemporary literature made that the limit of my expectations.

As it turned out, I was blown away by this stunningly complex and wonderfully written piece.  The writing felt as if some inimitable combination of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  The novel’s vision seemed to combine a Scholastic focus on happiness with a Conradian or Dostoyevskian knowledge of the fallen nature of humanity despite a drive for nobility.  One felt as if one were reading about real people, yet on an elevated level and vividly alive.  Yes, you’ve read this passage correctly: we have here an utterly unique young novelist, who’s well worth reading.

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Jazz follows a young man named Chris, who has had the misfortune of having Cupid incite love in him for a girl named Amber.  Formerly, this girl was the fiancée of Chris’s cousin Jay; but, following a rather squalid dissolution of this relationship, she flees New York City for Paris.  Chris follows her hither to discover that he has taken up with a new boyfriend called Jacques.  This beginning leads to a riveting psychological tale written in beautiful style.  Many native English novelists have less exciting prose style than this Romanian–hence my calling him a new Joseph Conrad.

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I could not put the book down for the first six chapters, at which point errands called me away before I could finish it in a second sitting.  The mesmerizing quality of Jazz is especially due to the fast-paced and vivid style of Mihai.  It pays special attention to the characters’ expressions and actions–rather like what one finds in Hemingway.  But, the action is always fleshed out by the narrator’s thoughts and interior struggles á la Fitzgerald.  The effect is most compelling, and Jazz can easily withstand several readings.

My only hope is that Mihai continues to fascinate his present readers and manages to reach an ever wider audience.  I now find myself eager to shell out money for his other works!

Parisian Painting

Medieval Otaku’s #10: Ernest Hemingway

Thomp D. James’s insistence on the importance of Stephen King is most curious–so curious that I feel compelled to peruse some of his suggested readings.  It is a wonder that the sheer weight of fine English novelists from Daniel Defoe onwards should not have tamped down Stephen King from the list.  Yet, I wish to give the number ten spot on my own list to an author others would wish to see absent from such a list: Ernest Hemingway.

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Some find Hemingway’s prose too simple or even his vision nihilistic (e.g. Kenji Nakajima’s “Big two-hearted river” as the Extreme of Hemingway’s Nihilism).  But, concerning the former complaint, let the simplicity be understood as the poetic vision of Hemingway’s prose–the well known iceberg theory.  The direct and unadorned style of Hemingway’s prose may cause some to feel as if they were reading a newspaper.  But, Hemingway is certainly capable of great poetry, as may be evident from vocally reading this passage from The Big Two-Hearted River:

The river was there. It swirled against the log spires of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their [position] again by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

 He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

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By the way, “The river was there” reminds one of how a Roman poet might have introduced a similar descriptive passage: “Erat Flumen.”  So, beginning his description in this way almost sounds like a nod to Silver Age Roman poetry.  At other times, the sparseness of the words forces the reader to examine closely each word, whose latent richness can bring delight to the careful student.

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Certain people call Hemingway nihilistic, but I do not think this is true.  Rather, he describes the pain people endure, often without apparent logic or meaning, and leaves the question of whether this suffering has value open.  Rather than nihilistic, I should call this humble.  We see through a glass darkly.  Was the love of Henry and Catherine of A Farewell to Arms, which ended with Catherine’s death during child birth along with what would have been their firstborn, vanity?  In The Old Man and the Sea, was there any point to the old man’s struggle to bring in a marlin to shore, which ended with sharks biting it to pieces?  A certain Spanish youth is killed in foolish and innocent horseplay: did his truncated utterance of the Our Father have any merit?  Hemingway neither closes the box on hope nor elaborates on what we believe by faith.  For that matter, he also avoids the fallacy of claiming that the subjective worth we bestow on our deeds gives them true value.

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In following these methods, he creates characters and situations of marvelous reality.  We relate to these people, we have met them, and we might even imagine them palpable enough to touch–the men, at any rate.  Hemingway did rather poorly construct his female characters.

So, what should I recommend?  Any of his short stories is the best place to start, especially The Big Two-Hearted River.  My favorite happens to be For Whom the Bell Tolls with The Old Man and the Sea following a close second.  I can say that Hemingway occasionally produces a lackluster work: I shall never read The Sun Also Rises ever again.  But, try out his short stories.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

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C. S. Lewis and Getting into a Woman’s Head

As I was reading That Hideous Strength, I was reminded of an anecdote Professor Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College told us about a certain female student who claimed that it was necessary to be a woman to depict a realistic female character.  After Professor Bauman, a man of great intellect and kindness but pugnacious in argument, discovered that his arguments claiming that understanding women as human beings sufficed to allow a male author to depict a female character adeptly were falling on deaf ears, he brought in a book for her to read sans cover, title page, and any other identifying information.  When she had finished, she told Professor Bauman: “At last, we have an author who can truly express the female voice/person!”  (The exact wording escapes me.)  To this, Professor Bauman responded that the book she had read was Till We Have Faces, which incidentally happens to be C. S. Lewis’ favorite of all the works he wrote.

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However, I think that neither the student nor the esteemed professor were completely correct.  C. S. Lewis has a rare talent for writing female characters.  I am reminded of this in That Hideous Strength as he flawlessly describes the character and motivations of Mark’s wife, Jane.  She wishes to remain an independent woman, a scholar, and free of the chains of masculine dominance.  But, in creating a character of this kind, he does not condemn her as being an unreasonable woman following the fashions of the time.  Rather, her position is described as perfectly rational, and Jane is one of the most sympathetic characters in the work.

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Also, he adeptly depicts Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the evil organization’s secret police.  She smokes cheroot cigars, possesses a powerful frame, and has a no nonsense attitude toward how the organization will affect social change.  C. S. Lewis could have made this character overbearingly masculine, and yet he eschews this by giving her light feminine touches and showing how Mark finds her a little attractive.  If there were any deficiencies in C. S. Lewis’s earlier methods of writing compelling characters, he had certainly solved them by this novel!

Balalaika: the anime version of Miss Hardcastle

Balalaika: the anime version of Miss Hardcastle

All in all, of the few male authors able to delineate female characters, Ovid and C. S. Lewis stand head and shoulders above the rest.  (I suppose that we can place Ernest Hemingway at the bottom?)  One can learn more about a woman’s psyche reading his books than those of many a female novelist!

Do you know of any other novelists who are as capable of getting into the opposite sex’s head?  Especially male authors?

One more picture of Balalaika. I admit that I rather love this character–not Miss Hardcastle, though.