Monday, July 4, 2011

Haunted by Hemingway

A half century ago on July 2, 1961, the day Ernest Hemingway’s body was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Idaho, I had just finished my first year at college and was attending summer school. I fancied myself a writer, publishing short stories in the college paper and literary magazine. I was walking across campus when in the newspaper rack I saw the headline that Ernest Hemingway had shot himself. I was reading his stories and novels during that summer, dreaming of living on the Left Bank in Paris and going to the bullfights in Madrid.

I did not get to Spain or Paris until much later. A few years ago, I was in Madrid. My wife, who loves all animals, told me not to go to the bullfight. But my youngest daughter who was with me, had read Hemingway recently, and said she wanted to see it. So we did, and it was brutal and cruel and not at all beautiful. I re-read Death in the Afternoon and understood that it could be beautiful only if one watched the pure pattern and form of it, elevating it above mere flesh and blood.

A few weeks ago, I walked the streets of the Left Bank in Paris and sat with my eldest daughter at the sidewalk café where Hemingway once sat. When I got home, I reread A Movable Feast and smiled at Hemingway’s efforts to write at the small round tables of the cafes.

Last week, my wife and I saw the new Woody Allen Movie Midnight in Paris, and laughed a lot, with the few others in the audience who knew the Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in-jokes. Corey Stoll, who played Hemingway, spoke the lines Woody Allen could not resist giving him, as if Hemingway actually talked like the clipped, stylized voice of his fiction. Allen had Stoll play Hemingway well over the top, which, it seems, is the only way one can play Hemingway.

I got my new copy of the New Yorker yesterday, and there was a story by Julian Barnes entitled “Homage to Hemingway, which revolves around Hemingway’s story “Homage to Switzerland.” I couldn’t remember that story and could not find it in my library because I had given my Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway to that youngest daughter, who is now working on her Ph.D. in English (going into the family business, as it were). I looked for it online and was happy to find a Manchester Guardian podcast of British writers reading and commenting on their favorite short story (like the New Yorker podcast in America).

And sure enough, there was Julian Barnes reading “Homage to Switzerland.” It’s a relatively simple story in which Hemingway sets up three different versions of the same man waiting for a train. “Homage to Hemingway” sets up three different situations of the same man conducting a creative writing seminar on three different occasions. At one point, the teacher talks about “the myth of the writer and how it was not just the reader who became trapped in the myth but sometimes the writer as well.” He adds, that people thought Hemingway was “obsessed with male courage, with machismo and cojones. They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.”

The Los Angeles Times ran an article on the anniversary of Hemingway’s death and a more personal article by reviewer David Ulin appeared the next day. Many critics and writers feel they have to apologize for liking Hemingway. Ulin’s article in the Sunday July 3 LA Times is headed, “Learning not to dislike Hemingway,” noting how questions about his legacy still linger, particularly his now discredited and politically incorrect stereotypes of masculinity. Although it has been getting some publicity, I am not tempted to read Marty Beckerman’s The Heming Way; the sub-title--“How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!”—puts me off, although I have no desire to apologize as many now feel they have to for reading Hemingway. I have always been more drawn to Hemingway’s magical style than his macho image and have always admired his short stories more than his novels.

A friend of mine sent me a copy of an article from the New York Times by A. E. Hotchner, friend of Hemingway and author of Papa Hemingway. He recounts those last years when Hemingway was haunted by a conviction that the FBI was tapping his phones and following him—paranoid fears that lead to shock treatments. As Hotchner points out, however, “Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file,” revealing that J. Edgar Hoover “had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones.”

Several years ago when I put together a textbook collection of short stories for use in the university classroom entitled Fiction’s Many Worlds, I chose a Hemingway story for the introduction—“Hills Like White Elephants”—trying to lead students gently into the close reading of a finely structured and complexly human short story.

Here is a brief excerpt from that Introduction:

One of the most powerful conventions of short fiction is the convention of selection of details. Every story is made up of two kinds of details--those realistically motivated details that exist merely to give the illusion of hard, concrete reality, and those that are mentioned because the teller has a rhetorical purpose for mentioning them, such as Kipling's repeated mention of the suspenders. Edgar Allan Poe suggested in the earliest discussion of the short story in American literature that the writer should not use a single word that was not carefully chosen to contribute to the overall purpose or effect that he had in writing the story. Anton Chekhov, the great Russian author, once advised a young writer that if he described a gun hanging on a wall on the first page of a story, then that gun should be fired before the end.

Using the terms of the Russian Formalists, we can think of details in a story merely to give us a sense of actuality as being relatively "loose" and even dispensable, or at least changeable. Details in the story because they are relevant to its meaning or overall rhetorical effect we can think of as being relatively "bound" to the story, that is, intrinsic and not easily detachable or changeable. Trying to determine which details in a story are "loose" and which are "bound" is one of the most important skills for reading stories effectively. One basic way we can determine which details are bound and which are loose is by applying the principle of redundancy or repetition: If a certain detail or kind of detail is mentioned more than once or twice in a story, we might suspect that it is relevant in some way.

Let's first look at the time frame of "Hills Like White Elephants." The couple are on the way to Madrid, Spain. They have stopped at a junction and are awaiting an express connection from Barcelona, which, we are told, will arrive in forty minutes and stop there for only two minutes. Thus, we have a situation explicitly cut off from the ordinary flow of time; the couple are enclosed between the time they got off one train and the time they will get on another. On the first reading of this story, the fact that the train will arrive from Barcelona in forty minutes may seem merely a "loose" realistic detail. However, at the end of the story the time is mentioned again when the waitress comes out and says that the train will arrive in five minutes.

This means that the events of the story we have just read from beginning to end take place in a time span of thirty-five minutes. However, we know that it only took about ten to fifteen minutes to read the story. How do we account for this discrepancy? After all, if the author had not wanted us to be concerned with the time element, he didn't have to mention the time frame both at the beginning and end of the story. Moreover, if he had not wanted us to see the disparity between the time of the events of the story and the time of the reading of the story, then he could have made the time span of the events more closely match the time span of the reading; Either he could have made the train arriving in fifteen minutes instead of forty minutes or he could have made the story longer.

The fact that there is a fifteen to twenty minute discrepancy between the announced span of the events and the time of the reading should lead us to ask what happened to those extra twenty minutes. The only answer is that they must be in the blank spaces in between the lines of the story, that is, points in the story when the characters are not saying anything.

Our realization that there are more blank spaces in the time span of the story than spoken dialogue should make us more aware of the basic problem that we began with--that is, that the story is about something that is never explicitly mentioned, but only hinted at and referred to, if at all, by the neutral pronoun "it." These two elements--the reference to "it" and the many blank spaces or silences inherent in the story--seem to be related. What we must examine now is why the couple do not speak of their problem explicitly and why there are so many silences or blank spaces in the story.

Perhaps a look at how the story exists spatially may provide further understanding. The author makes the spatial reality of the story as explicit as he does the temporal reality. The first paragraph locates the couple at a station situated between two lines of rails. One line of rails is going the way the couple have come, whereas the other is going in the direction they are heading; they are at a junction. If we make the assumption that this spatial location is a "bound motif" or idea, since it is made so emphatic, then we might suspect that the spatial location is meant to communicate the psychological location of the couple as well as their physical one. The spatial situation of the rails suggest where they have been (much as the labels on their luggage suggests all the hotels where they have stayed), as well as where they are going, which, of course, is precisely what is at issue here. She wishes to go one way; he wishes to go another.

But there is a further indication of their physical location that also may be meaningful; they are in a valley. On this side there are hills that are long and white and the country is brown and dry with no trees. Later on in the story when the girl gets up and walks to the end of the station she looks toward the "other side" of the valley, were there are fields of grain and trees along the banks of the river. This is the scenery she looks at when she says "And we could have all this. . . . And we could have everything and everyday we make it more impossible."

Several years ago, I wrote an entry for the “Bad Hemingway" contest. I did not win. Forgive me for offering it to you now. I mean no disrespect to Hemingway, whose conscientious work I have always admired.

Going to the Devil in the City of the Angels

The Avenue of the Americas was made wet by el nino, the incontinent brat from the sea who brought the heavy rains and made the lives of the beautiful Angelenos a misery. Their small sporty cars flooded in the streets and their flat-roofed houses slid down the steep hills toward Hollywood. The man with the hat and the healthy girl sat at a table in Harry's Bar and American Grill and waited for a taxi that would take them away from the misery the rain made. It was warm and dry in Harry's, and the beer was cool, but they were not happy. They were not beautiful and could no longer look at each other.

"The streets of the city are clogged with the fetid feces of a child," she said.

"I wouldn't know," he said. "I quit my stupid thesis on the man called Papa, for he began to sound hollow to my ears."

"I cannot see your ears," she said; "you wear your hat low, for where once there was hair, there is nada. It is your shame."

"I never said you were to blame," he said. "I can not stay in this city. It is the end of something."

"Yes," she said. "I know. We will go to another country."

"How will we know it is time?" the man said."

The bartender said he would tell us when the taxi passes the Schubert," she said.

"Your body does not need the sherbet," he said, and I do not understand why there would be taxes on it."

"I grow weary trying to talk the good talk to you," she shouted. "Will you please, please, please, please, please, please, please take off that hat."

The man took off the hat and laid it on the table. "I never said you had to take off fat. But the little man called Richard Simmons did say if you danced to the oldies, it would be perfectly simple."

"He would say that; he is without cajones, that one." The woman looked around the bar at the slim beautiful people and the men with much hair. "If I do it, will the earth move for us again?" she said.

"That is another reason we must leave," he said. "One never knows when the earth will move here."

"No, I mean, will we destroy each other in bed as we used to?"

"You destroy me too much now as it is. You need only to get some fat out," he said. She was indeed a very healthy girl. "It's perfectly simple," he said.

"Then I will do it," she said. "I will dance to the oldies and lose the fat. We will go to another country. We will find a place without so much water. You will write the thesis on the man called Papa, and he will not sound flat to your ears. We will again have the good destruction in bed, and the earth will move for us. We will talk the good talk as we did before, and you will like it."

She kept talking the good talk and she did not stop. He put the hat back on and pulled it over his ears. The rain from el nino continued to fall in the city of the Angels. He watched her lips move soundlessly and prayed that the taxi would come soon.


Nik Perring said...

Brilliant post, and a cool story too. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. May,

My name is Tim McIntyre, and I understand you might still need my bio for the Critical Insights volume on Alice Munro. (Sorry to "hijack" the comments on your blog like this). I had sent the bio on June 14th and have now sent it again a couple times, but I'm not sure if you've gotten it. Perhaps something is wrong with my email. I seem to receive your emails however -- could you let me know if you've received it or still need it? Sorry again to bother you.



Anonymous said...

Very nice, Very nice. Dex