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Happy Birthday, Hemingway!

Posted on Jul 18, 2013
Flickr/Robert Burdock

By Allen Barra

(Page 2)

Nevertheless, to judge from the evidence of “By-line: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades,” he was a superb journalist and war correspondent. Filing from Spain in 1937: “This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.”

And then he made us believe it. Writing fiction he had a weakness for the sentimental, but his journalism transmuted the terrible into something the reader could trust: “They wrote in the old days that is it sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog. …”

I don’t know, though, that he was as good a war correspondent as A.J. Liebling, who was much better at conveying war to the average man, possibly because he was an average man, or at any rate more average than Hemingway. Hemingway was not as good a war correspondent as Martha Gellhorn, with whom he openly competed. Hemingway the reporter took in much at first glance, but what he missed in his first glance he was likely to miss all together. Gellhorn had a more sweeping vision and was far more capable of objectivity—or at least of getting at the big picture without letting ego intrude. She never injected herself into a scene, as Hemingway did at D-Day when he wrote of an admiral who asked him, “Mr. Hemingway, will you please see what flag is over there with your glasses?” Fiction, surely; admirals don’t need celebrity novelists to assist them during battle.

There is much more great nonfiction to consider. “A Moveable Feast,” compiled and edited after Hemingway’s death, will always be a book that inspires young writers to move to Paris, and “Death in the Afternoon” is still mistakenly referred to as sports writing, despite Hemingway’s insistence that “Bull fighting is not a sport. It is a tragedy.”

It isn’t necessary to overcome one’s repugnance for bullfighting to be fascinated by “Death in the Afternoon,” if only because it’s the most incisive look inside a culture that was starting to fade well before Franco’s death. “For one person,” he wrote, “who likes Spain, there are a dozen who prefer books on her.” But for anyone who is interested in pre-Civil War Spain and what bullfighting reveals about its temper, “Death in the Afternoon” may be the only book there is for English speaking readers. One wonders what Papa would think about a Spain that cheers louder for soccer, basketball and tennis than for blood sport.

Finally, there are the stories. Even his severest critics admit that many of the stories have a value lacking in the novels. Nabokov, who was no fan, thought so. “I read him for the first time in the early ’40s,” he famously said, “something about bells, balls and bulls… .” Hemingway and Joseph Conrad were “writers of books for boys.” Ouch. But in 1963 Nabokov told an interviewer for Playboy that Hemingway was better than Conrad: “ … He has at least a voice of his own and is responsible for that delightful, highly artistic short story ‘The Killers.’ ”

If he had been in a more generous mood, Nabokov might have bestowed the same status to “A Way You’ll Never Be,” “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” “Old Man at the Bridge,” “The End of Something,” “Soldier’s Home,” “The Undefeated,” “In Another Country,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Hills Like White Elephants” and a score of others. Nabokov also thought “the description of the iridescent fish and rhythmic urination in his famous fish story”—that would be “The Old Man and the Sea”—“is superb.” Go fish, Dwight Macdonald.

Even at his best, Hemingway teetered toward self-parody; no other American writer has been so easy to satirize. Even Raymond Chandler—the second-most parodied writer?—had a bead on Hemingway: “Hank unscrewed the top of the toothpaste tube, thinking of the day he had unscrewed the lid of the coffee jar, down on the Pukayuk River, when he was trout fishing. There are larches there, too. It was a damn good river, and the trout had been damn good trout. They liked being hooked. Everything had been good except the coffee, which had been lousy. He had made it Watson’s way, boiling it for two hours and a half in his knapsack. It had tasted like hell. It had tasted like the socks of the Forgotten Man.”

Hemingway’s reaction to Chandler’s jab is not known, but on reading “Across the Street and Into the Grill” by E. B. White in The New Yorker, he grunted, “The parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer. … The greater the work of literature, the easier the work to parody.”

Maybe, but you make it easy if you have a lot of stylistic tics. When I was in college, “Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without” by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne (first published in 1968), was fashionable among glib young critics who wanted to dismiss books and authors they didn’t quite know how to deal with. Here are some passages I quoted in a paper when I was a smug student at the University of Alabama:

“In place of Gertrude Stein’s varied, and purposely varied, cadences, Hemingway ties one short, blunt instrument to another by means of and: ‘She had a lovely face and body and lovely smooth skin too. We would be lying together and I would touch her cheeks and her forehead and under her eyes and chin and throat with the tips of my fingers. …”

Brophy, or whoever wrote the book’s Hemingway chapter, didn’t like the “ands” or the repetition of “lovely” that in several ways had violated Gertrude Stein’s principles. I’m going to have to take that on faith as I’ve never read Stein and I’m not going to read her now just to determine where Hemingway went wrong.

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