It’s hard to think about Hemingway. His early life seems a model of how to live as a writer; his later life a model of how not to. His short stories are grand feats, yet they don’t move me at all. From my incomplete reading of his works, his best is “The Old Man and the Sea”, but this seems both a triumph and an emblem of his limitations. And the world he described has long passed away, and so in Ernest Hemingway, the frailty of the writer is shown most painfully: able to write only about the concerns of his era, only within the boundaries of his mentality, and only within his years of good health.
Firstly, why don’t I enjoy Hemingway’s short stories? On a broad level, I suspect that the gravitas of tales like “The Killers” is meant for a particular world – the world that was falling apart after World War One. The nihilism of the two hired killers doesn’t seem so powerful now; we are not Victorians waking up to pessimism, doubt and global destruction: we have already been born into that world; we have already grown old in that world. Even the madcappery of William Burroughs seems tame to us; the fatigue described in novels like “The Hours” and “The Beach” feels more suited to our fate: a slow drying up, a slowly intensifying pettiness, a seeking for fresher writers in India and South America.
Additionally, Hemingway’s style has become so influential that it is now hard to appreciate him. One cannot approach Hemingway the right way round, so to speak – one cannot read him and feel released from some Victorian strait-jacket – one can only approach him from the present, which is already populated with his disciples. Everyone speaks like Hemingway now; Raymond Carver’s work seems like an application of the style to everyday, domestic nightmares; half the blogs in America read like parodies of the Hemingway terseness.
The Hemingway view of writing may make the craft look easy, but this is deceptive: not even Hemingway could sustain it for long. One can only make it work if every single word is examined and rewritten dozens of times (this was Carver’s way of making it work, too). And in a book like “A Moveable Feast”, one can watch Hemingway failing at his own test. The pages of the “Feast” contain awkward clangers that do not read like profundity concealed – they read like a poser trying to sound deep. And its more conversational form brings out the limitations of Hemingway’s manly philosophy: his descriptions of Gertrude Stein’s sexuality, Fitzgerald’s drinking and his own infidelity seem rather naive, rather small-minded, or, perhaps instead, rather dishonest. Read a story like “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses“, by Irwin Shaw, to see this Hemingway world-view at its unpleasant best.
One can choose to read “The Old Man and the Sea” as Hemingway’s apotheosis, as his entrance to the gates of heaven, but one can also read it as a man given a great, harrowing gift: the ability to recognise himself for a moment, and then, having taken stock of his limitations, deciding to do the best job he was able to do – and no more.
I imagine Hemingway thinking to himself, as he stared at the first blank page: Ok. I suffer when I try to write a novel-length story, I can’t philosophise as well as other writers, and I’m not sure I can write a decent female character. But, I can write about simple, serious men; I can write about struggle and victory and failure; I can write about deep-sea fishing; I can write about physical endurance and physical pain. Fine, let’s begin.
Hemingway as a person is equally ambiguous. Those Paris years frighten me: the immense drive and discipline that he had, and his once-in-human-history collection of mentors and friends (Joyce, Pound, Stein, Fitzgerald…). The only full biography I’ve read of him was in Paul Johnson’s poisonous book, “Intellectuals”, and while I don’t know how much of Johnson’s account of Hemingway’s later life is true, it does sound like Hemingway couldn’t follow his own advice. A Moveable Feast shows the young, healthy Hemingway surrounded by writers with terrible problems: Joyce’s eyes are failing; Fitzgerald’s talent will soon be destroyed by drink. Hemingway presents himself as being stronger than all those wrecks, but I don’t know whether I can trust the man who proclaimed the “one true sentence”. Hemingway was no longer young when he wrote A Moveable Feast, and he must have known that he too was an alcoholic, and so there is a second, tragic way to view the book: Hemingway looking back at his vital, strong youth, and his relatively innocent first marriage, and knowing he had lost both.