July 21, 2021

“It Is Lyrical” — Reading Hemingway on His Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Ernest Hemingway began The Sun Also Rises (1926) on his 26th birthday, July 21, 1925. “Everybody my age had written a novel,” he told the Paris Review’s George Plimpton, “and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.” He finished the first draft exactly six weeks later in Paris.

I came back to Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” novel by way of John McPhee’s April 19, 2021 piece in the New Yorker (“Tabula Rasa: Volume Two”). Referring to a passage in which the protagonist Jake Barnes and his pal Bill Gorton are walking “across a meadow and through rising woods and across high open fields and down to a stream,” McPhee, who turned 90 on March 8, observes how “each successive sentence, in stairstep form, contains something of its predecessor and something new — repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing, like fracture zones on the bed of the ocean. It is not unaffective. It is lyrical.” Years later when he was teaching his Princeton course in creative non-fiction, McPhee assigned the passage to writing students, “asking if they could see a way to shorten it without damaging the repetition.”

Don’t Touch a Word

Reading the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises for the first time in decades, I was surprised to find evidence of the “elephantine facetiousness” Scott Fitzgerald pointed out in the ten-page-long handwritten letter he sent to Hemingway in the spring of 1926. I was 16 when I first read the book, although “read” isn’t the word for it. I drank it down like an underage drinker on a binge.

Three years later I opened A Farewell to Arms (1929) to one of the most celebrated examples of Hemingway’s “repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing” don’t- touch-a-word-of-it prose topography: 

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

“Unavoidable Awkwardness”

Asked by George Plimpton in the same interview how much thought and effort went into the “evolvement” of his “distinctive style,” Hemingway said, “What amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made.”

Hemingway makes a virtue of unavoidable awkwardness when he opens the last chapter of Death in the Afternoon (1932) by proclaiming, “If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it.” In the nine pages that follow, he manages to put everything he’d have wanted to put into it into it anyway. It’s Hemingway’s variation on Faulkner’s metaphor for the enormity of the novelist’s task (“putting the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin”) — he’s putting Spain on the head of a nine-page pin in sentences like “Clouds come across the mountans from the sea but when the wind is from the south Navarra is all the color of wheat except it does not grow on level plains but up and down the sides of hills and cut by roads with trees and many villages with bells, pelota courts, the smell of sheep manure and squares with standing horses.”

The book that would have been “enough” if it had had everything in it ends: “Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it. No. It is not enough of a book, but still there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.”

To that you can add what John McPhee says in Volume Two of “Tabula Rasa,” that after reading every book on the subject of bullfighting, “there was only one Death in the Afternoon.”

McPhee’s Variation

McPhee’s premise in the two Tabula Rasa pieces resembles a variation on Hemingway’s “if I could have made this enough of a book.” In Volume One, from January 2020, he’s in Spain, “so beguiled by Extremadura that I started writing a short story called ‘The Girl from Badajoz.’ With respect to publication, she stayed in Badajoz.” McPhee kept thinking about Extremadura as a subject for a piece in The New Yorker, “the sort of thing I would actually do about Alaska, Wyoming, and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. I kept thinking of the storks in the church towers of almost every Extremaduran town. I kept thinking of the cork of those oaks — six inches thick. I kept thinking of the dehesa, the vast dry woodlands with fighting bulls in them and jamón ibérico hogs, and trees spread out like checkers on a board.” He presented the idea to his editor William Shawn, who was all for it: “But I went to Alaska. I went to Wyoming. And although I had been obsessed with the subject since 1954, I never took my notebooks to Extremadura.”

Don’t worry. The article ends with McPhee giving you everything you need to know about Extremadura, putting it on the head of a two-page pin, from the conquest of the Aztecs to the battle of Guadalcanal.

Doing It Anyway

In the third chapter of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s protagonist Frederick Henry is explaining what kept him from visiting his friend the priest’s home in Abruzzi. The priest had made preparations for the visit and felt sorry that Henry had not been able to come. “I myself felt as badly as he did and could not understand why I had not gone,” Henry admits, and goes on to say that he tried to explain to the priest “how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” Henry had wanted to go to Abruzzi, “where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting,” but “had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafés and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring. Suddenly to care very much and to sleep to wake with it sometimes morning and all that had been there gone and everything sharp and hard and clear … ”

The passage continues as Hemingway describes Henry’s awkward attempt to make the priest understand how drinking and whoring diverted him from the promised visit. Hemingway finally has to admit, as Faulkner admitted about the writing of The Sound and the Fury (“I never could tell it right”), “I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now.”

The passage about not going to Abruzzi is hard to read aloud without being moved because you can feel Hemingway’s excitement in writing it and you wish someone had been there to read it back to him on the early morning of July 2, 1961, the day he ended his life with a double-barrel 12-gauge Boss & Co. shotgun.