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Posts tagged ‘Hemingway’

For your consideration

Apparently “slush pile” is the technical term for unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publisher, as in “have a wade through the slush pile and see if there’s anything decent.”  It must be a daunting experience for first-time or unpublished authors to submit their creations to publishers in the knowledge that the default reaction of the latter will probably be to assume that what they have been sent is rubbish.  I suppose it is understandable really, given that of the thousands of manuscripts sent to a publisher there are probably only a handful that are worth reading let alone publishing.  This undoubtedly makes the publisher’s role a difficult one: how to be selectively dismissive without missing the real gems out there?  It is not a new problem, nor is it confined to literature.  When Beethoven’s Fifth was first performed it was variously called a “vulgar din” and “the end of music”; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring started a riot on its opening night in 1913.   Clearly, human beings are not enormous enthusiasts of novelty, and it can take decades for an artist’s work to be fully appreciated.

Sticking to literature though I thought it might be amusing to collect a few quotes of publishers’ initial reactions to classic novels, partly as a way of encouraging budding authors not to take criticism too seriously and partly because they’re sometimes quite a hilarious reflection of human ignorance and misunderstanding.  I owe most of them to the recent book This Is Not The End of The Book, in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière discuss, among other things, the history of human stupidity.  If anyone has any others (or personal experiences), we want to know about them –

On Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “It may be a lack of intelligence on my part, but I fail to understand why it should take thirty pages to describe how someone tosses and turns in their bed, unable to sleep.”

On Hemingway’s Fiesta: “Sir, you have written a travel book.”

On Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “Sir, you have buried your novel beneath a hotchpotch of detail that is very well done, but utterly superfluous.”

On Melville’s Moby Dick: “There is little chance that a book such as this would interest a young readership.”

On Emily Dickinson: “Your rhymes don’t work.”

On Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It’s no good trying to sell the Americans a novel about animals.”
The Editors

Iceberg theory

Men Without Women – Ernest Hemingway

Much has been said about Hemingway’s minimalist style of writing, and Men Without Women is perhaps his most stripped back work.  The collection of short stories, first published in 1927, is almost like a series of anecdotes, with some of the stories lasting no more than a few pages.  It has to be said that this abruptness can be frustrating for the reader, who must constantly turn back on himself in an attempt to clarify the context and setting of each story.  There is no doubt that reading Hemingway can be hard work, and often it’s not even the sort of hard work that reaps tangible rewards – the effort made to come to terms with each character can at times feel utterly futile.  So what is to be gained from this truncated approach to writing?  I’ve read The Killers at least a couple of times and I’m still not sure I understand why Ole Andreson resigns himself to his fate.

Some critics have coined the term “iceberg theory” in relation to Hemingways’s writing – the idea that more is concealed than revealed in his books.  This is interesting because it assumes that there is something to be revealed in each case.  Sometimes it’s hinted at, as in Hills Like White Elephants, where the elephant in the room is almost certainly an abortion, but even where we are given some clue regarding the underlying plot or a character’s motivation, this almost never gives the full picture.  Herein lies the paradox: as readers, we want to know everything we can about what we read – we want to know the whys, hows, wheres and whens of every story – and yet our thirst for omniscience assumes that everything can be known.  Like deterministic scientists we try to reduce the characters we read about to skeletons of humanity – puppets that are masterfully manoeuvred by an author pulling on the strings of psychological and social theory.  Suffice to say that Hemingway did not buy into this reductionism; his characters are alive in all their unpredictable glory.  As such, we can try to understand each one as best we can, but often they are simply beyond us, which is what makes them so fascinating in the first place.

Oh, and it’s not sexist just because he writes about men.

The Editors

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) – Ernest Hemingway

Something extraordinary happens to young people when they cross out of their own country and into that wider space on the map and in the atlas marked ‘the rest of the world’. Concertinaed into one wide open plain full of opportunity, adventure, danger; foreign countries exist without boundaries, without subtleties as there are at home; exist divided only by adventures and the excitement of discovery.

So perhaps with books.  Few books more clearly chart that space than Fiesta (the Sun Also Rises). A book about young Americans in Paris and Pamplona and places inbetween. A book about a bull-fight. A book about the enchanting Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn (“no one had ever made him feel he was a Jew, and hence any different from anyone else, until he went to Princeton”) and Pedro Romero the precocious young bull-fighter. It’s a book written about the gaps in which the passions live (las aficiones) written by a man who knew how to find them and how to live them: “Robert Cohn said. ‘Let’s bet on something else. Can you bet on bullfights?’ ‘You could,’ Bill said, ‘but you don’t need to.’ ‘It would be like betting on the war,’ I said. ‘You don’t need any economic interest.'”

The book is one long bull-fighting metaphor of hierarchy: horses, steers, bulls, bull-fighters. Atop the tree a Lady (and perhaps atop that the narrator). The violence of the fight (“it’s strange how one doesn’t get used to the blood”) and the incongruity of the celebration, the goring of the steers, of the runners, of the horses, of Lady Ashley’s many would-be lovers is all transcended by the power and control of Hemingway’s skill as a writer and the deft benevolence of his narrator who is magnanimous in what is ultimately a victory for him. The other characters fight each other beneath him and he gives each the space to display their qualities and yet ultimately he masters them one by one: “The fight with Cohn had not touched his spirit but his face had been smashed and his body hurt. He was wiping all that out now. Each thing that he did with the bull wiped that out a little cleaner. It was a good bull, a big bull and with horns, and it turned and recharged easily and surely. He was what Romero wanted in bulls.” The narrator as bull-fighter. The lover as bull-fighter. The writer as bull-fighter. In the Hemingway universe we all fall somewhere within the hierarchy of the bull-ring.

Hemingway’s first novel uses five young Americans beyond the boundaries of America to mark the boundaries in which he would work for the rest of his career ‘in the terrain of the bull’; which in male writing is to write honestly about men, beautifully about women and ‘unwarily’ about everything. Hemingway is charmingly didactic: he writes characters to show us how we can live, to reveal to us, even tangentially, who we are,who we might be and all in the catching Hemingway brevity. Perhaps, with that in mind, this description of craftsmanship is as apt a description of Hemingway’s writing as any – a formula by which the potent redraw the boundaries around us all and most of all themselves: “Pedro Romero had the greatness. He loved bull-fighting, and I think he loved the bulls, and I think he loved Brett. Everything of which he could control the locality he did in front of her all afternoon. Never once did he look up. He made it stronger that way, and did it for himself, too, as well as for her. Because he did not look up to ask if it pleased he did it all for himself inside, and it strengthened him, and yet he did it for her too. But he did not do it for her at any loss to himself. He gained by it all through the afternoon.”

The Editors

In praise of living

CoverFor Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

“Venceréis […] pero no convenceréis.” – “You will win […] but you will not convince.”

So said the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at a fascist convention held at the University of Salamanca during the Spanish Civil War.  Unamuno, as rector of the university, was presiding over the meeting, at which Falangist general José Millán Astray was also present.  Having endured various impassioned speeches by the assorted fascist luminaries, as well as the chanting of the well-known francoist motto “¡Viva la muerte!” – “Long live death!”, Unamuno rose to give this closing address:

“I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán-Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is a war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him.”

“This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.”

The outrage that followed this shameless affront to fascist sensibilities is probably best summed up by General Millán’s cry of “Death to intelligence!” at the ageing academic, who was 72 at the time.  Apparently, Unamuno only survived a lynching because he was escorted off the premises by Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo Martínez-Valdés.  Aside from this being perhaps the single greatest instance of intellectual courage on record, it brings to the fore one of the central confrontations of the Spanish Civil war.  Fascist (and Nazi) ideology, imagery and language were obsessed with death and repression, whereas those fighting on the Republican side for the most part believed in the individual’s freedom to live life however he or she saw fit.

No book I have read on the Spanish Civil War makes this ideological juxtaposition feel more vivid than Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.  It is a novel that celebrates life, and yet it is a novel surrounded by death.  The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is a young American demolitions expert behind fascist lines who must compete simultaneously with enemy patrols and the partisan band’s own problems of disloyalty and infighting.  The odds of survival are stacked hugely against him, a fact that he is fully aware of, and yet it is from this desperate situation that he truly begins to live.  In fact, the reader is left overwhelmingly with the impression that Jordan’s thirst for life increases in direct proportion to his consciousness of death:

“Maybe that is my life and instead of it being threescore years and ten it is forty-eight hours or just threescore hours and ten or twelve rather […] I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years.”

During his time in the Spanish Sierra, Jordan falls in love with María, a young Spanish partisan, as a result of which he is forced to struggle at all times with the tension that arises between his duty to the Republican cause and the overpowering emotion of his first love.  It is a tension between love and war, life and death, and is not, of course, an original idea – one that is embodied in Freud’s conception of Eros and Thanatos as fundamental psychological drivers.  It is a theme that runs throughout Hemingway’s novel and is reinforced by the author’s terse prose and the manner in which he channels Jordan’s subjectivity via a staccato stream-of-consciousness.  In fact, such is the originality of the book’s style that this central idea feels completely novel, as if the sum of human experience can be compressed into seventy hours, or the pages of a book for that matter.

The Editors