Papa Hemingway at his desk. 1939.
It’s quite possible I couldn’t pick two writers further apart from one another to deal with back to back. Temperamentally, artistically, biographically. Rilke and Hemingway. Yet both men were profoundly influenced by their days in Paris, and both men learned much about their art at the knee of an older woman. Perhaps it’s less than dime-store psychology to also suggest that both men had “issues” with their relationship to female sexuality. Issues that led to very different attempts to resolve that conflict – internally and externally. But, issues nonetheless. People really are complex.
Finished Humphrey Carpenter’s book about Americans in Paris, and was reminded that the core material for The Sun Also Rises was a rather banal little trip taken by Hemingway and a few friends to see the bulls in Pamplona. Years later, many of those friends looked back at that trip, having read the book, and saw it as an end of an era. For Hemingway, the success of the book was a beginning of sorts. His first title for the novel was Fiesta, which Carpenter thought fit better. Hemingway took the eventual title from Ecclesiastes.
In many ways, Hemingway is the poster boy for the negative effects of success. His best writing was early on, before it became formulaic, too Hemingwayish. There are metaphors within metaphors involved, as he took the idea of repetition from Gertrude Stein, shaped it to suit his own purposes, added a bit of tough-guy journalism to the mix, and kept on repeating himself. A rose is a rose is a rose became a novel is a novel is a novel.
Of course, it was more complicated than that. It’s also more complicated when judging the short stories and the novels. Perhaps repetition works better in the short form. Perhaps it’s more effective to use any literary device sparingly, or for sprints rather than marathons. In short, he wrote great short stories pretty much all the way through.
My favorite Hemingway novel is A Farewell to Arms. I think that’s where he put it all together, matched the artistry with the subject matter. Matched interesting subject matter with artistry. Not an easy task, which is why so many writers try to live like it’s their last hour when young, and then spend their later years, if they’re lucky to have them, trying to recapture their high-wire act on the page. They want to be able to draw upon actual experience, lived to the fullest, and hope that experience and their rendition of that experience capture the fancy of a multitude of readers.
But Papa Hemingway was different. He actually seemed to increase the high-wire act stuff as he got older, taking more and more chances, crashing planes, testing himself against the myths of his heroics, trying to kill those myths with reality. Big game as that myth. He killed a lot of big game. In some ways, strangely enough, when he was young and living in Paris, he was older in spirit, more cautious, more worried about appearances than he grew to be much later in life. One would think this would lead to better novels, not a decline. More risk taking for his art. One would think.
So what novelist, musician or artist got better as he or she lived life to even greater extremes as they aged? Was there ever such an eternally youthful beast? Something to ponder for the next installment of ” I haven’t wrestled a bear in years!”