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Hemingway’s Last Novel

A Moveable Feast

by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner’s, 211 pp., $4.95

This is about how Paris was in the early days when Mr. Hemingway was very poor and very happy and handling himself very carefully because he knew there were going to be some rough contests, not only with Mr. Turgenev and Mr. Stendhal but also with life, “the greatest left-hooker so far, although many say it was Charley White of Chicago.” The sadness of the book comes at the end because it explains that something got lost and the author was no longer making love with whom he loved, an activity to which he attached much importance. But it also speaks very happily about Paris, which is the best place in the world to write in. It explains writing carefully: the great thing is not to describe but to make, not to invent but omit. And to be a good writer, as Hemingway has formerly explained, you need a built-in shit-detector. With one of those, working well, you can purge not only your prose but your acquaintance; so this book tells how Hemingway detected Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis and even Gertrude Stein, though it also tells how and why he put up with Scott Fitzgerald. It also tells about skiing, horse-racing, and fire-swallowing; about fishing in the Seine and the troubles of waiters, and how the Kansas City whores drank semen as a specific against tuberculosis. If I make it sound a little as if the figure of Lillian Ross’s Papa must be casting a shadow over the book I do it no wrong. But I do it wrong beyond question if I seem to suggest that it could have been written by any but a great writer. This is, in some ways, Hemingway’s best book since the 1920s and that makes it altogether exceptional.

At the beginning we have him sitting in a café on the Place St. Michel writing “Up in Michigan”; he names the streets he walked by to keep out of the wind, as elsewhere his route is determined by the need to avoid foodshops. A girl waiting in the café provides a kind of emblem of what he is feeling, and gets into the act; he sees her when he breaks off to sharpen a pencil, and she belongs to him as he to his craft. Finishing the story he feels “empty and happy, as though I had made love.” This passage, which is about writing, is written not only with the skills but in the manner acquired during the period in which it is set, and so is the book as a whole. Some of the older attitudinizing Hemingway has got into it, certainly—a sort of sentimental understanding of his own gifts and problems. But the book has that sharpness and suggestiveness which Hemingway means to achieve when he pursues his famous policy of omitting the known, the familiar links with other experience. And the power of it comes from its being a return—though by a man still sentimentally engaged in the struggle for style—to the time when he first made that hero’s effort. The old writes about the young Hemingway, but in the prose of the latter.

The coexistence in this writer of technical and personal ambitions which seem at odds with each other has attracted much comment. Technically he intends to purge his prose in the interest of accurately representing the structure of experience and the texture of the world. It is the getting rid of littérature. The young Hemingway was dedicated to this effort. He had been a fluent journalist, and had had to learn that the good thing is the thing done with difficulty. So he went hungry when he need not have done, and “learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cézanne”—the hardest kind, demanding strict technical application, like boxing and shooting. And he listened to Stein and Pound. “Isn’t writing a hard job, though? It used to be easy before I met you,” he wrote to Stein. “I certainly was bad, gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.” He learned how to leave things out and get right the things he did not. To all this he returns at length in the new book, telling how he took up Cézanne in Paris where he had left him in Chicago, “learning something from the paintings…that made writing simple true declarative sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put into them.” And when the light went in the Luxembourg he called on Gertrude Stein and watched her “alive, immigrant hair” as she told him “many truths about rhythms and the use of words in repetition.” It was taking him a morning to write a paragraph, but he was in training, like a fighter.

This book is in the manner then acquired. But it is far from bloodlessly insistent on purely technical feats. It is explicit that a living man, a natural heavyweight, was involved in these cerebral experiments, and they are accompanied by beer, whisky and oysters. The technique involved a technician, human material which felt itself involved in the demands of harsh difficult skills. And the behavior of this material under stress came to interest him more and more. Perhaps we remember best of all the stories in his first book “Big Two-Hearted River,” with its concentration on a sporting technique and a sportsman’s life. But Hemingway moved on, as he had to, from paragraph to story, story to novel; and he moved also into larger attitudes—the hero and not his skill became the focus. This is probably why Gertrude Stein could say that in her view he wrote nothing so good after 1925, the date at which this book ends. It is certainly why he began to lay the foundations of the heroic Hemingway myth.

This myth has often been characterized as self-indulgence, as something very different from the genuine dedication with which he went about making a style. In life it produced the insecure toughness ridiculed by Stein and rendered more sympathetically, a quarter-century later, by Lillian Ross. In prose it produced a writer who, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “put away the significant reticences of the artist” and “opened his heart like ‘a man’.” The ethics of Jordan, the aesthetics of Cantwell, the cult of honor in defeat, too rigidly expressed, loosen and trivialize the writing, which invites harsh comparisons with the rigorous truth-telling and uncompromised structures of the earlier work.

This is a not unfamiliar line of argument. And yet this book strongly indicates something that was always there to be seen: only this hero, for all his self-indulgence, could have developed the manner of In Our Time. It is the same man throughout. The difference between the pre- and post-Stein Hemingways, as he himself represents it, was the difference between a man who could do a lot easily and a man who could do a little only fairly well, and with great irritation and pain. He was learning a difficult craft and learning to do it with one hand. He thought it heroic, and perhaps it was; anyway the man who did it became the suffering hero of the novels. It is worth noticing that Barnes’s wound in The Sun Also Rises is a very literary wound, and is obliquely compared with the mysterious accident of Henry James. After that the wounded writer is replaced by all those other sportsmen-technicians who have to hold the line of maximum purity in the utmost exposure: the bull-fighter who, incapacitated by an accident, has to kill his bull with one good hand; Morgan’s last fight, one-handed against an evil world; Cantwell’s wounded hand, which the perfect contessa loves; and finally the Old Man and his bad hand. Once he had beaten a powerful Negro in an all-night handgame at Casablanca; but now his hand betrays him. “If he cramps again, let the line cut him off.” When he sleeps after returning with his skeleton fish, the boy sees his hands and weeps.

So the years in Paris were not only a time in which Hemingway was learning how to do it, but how to be heroic in doing it, one-handed. And there is an intelligible relation between the self-denial of the writing and the self-indulgence of the attitudes, between finding out how to do it “so it will make it without you knowing it,” and being the big game man, the afiçionado, the marksman, the fisherman, the DiMaggio of the novel. The style is a painful stripping away of all that is not declarative, everything that could be suggested without being openly said. And what goes in must have the same kind of authority as a manual of instruction in some manly technique. Now the man who makes such prose is affected by it, and develops an increasingly simplistic theory of manliness. Hence the attention paid to the life of honor (“this honor thing is not some fantasy I am trying to inflict on you. I swear it is true”) or the life of pure timeless and mindless love, even the life of the mystic. But above all, as we see when the lines of the literary diagram grow sharper, it is the life of the heroic and gifted peasant.

Hence the cultivated fellow-feeling for proletarian heroes—bakers, bulfighters, fishermen, all possessing techniques to be maintained in purity by imperfect human equipment. The theme is most diagrammatically proposed in The Old Man and the Sea. There the hero speaks as the Spaniards spoke, an invented language, common and pure, evading the transience of refinement or of slang, It is not spoken English any more than the language of the characters in the Civil War book is Spanish. It is the language of Wordsworth’s Michael, resettled, after all, in the tropics. It is very understandable that The Old Man was at first taken to be an allegory of some personal disappointment, perhaps over the reception of Across the River and Into the Trees. It is simply the fullest representation of a pastoral myth, the myth of the author reduced to the simplicity of a one-handed struggle against the world, saying everything by saying a little accurately.

In the meantime, what happens to the reticent, heroic prose? The truth, it seems, can be known only by simple men who cannot speak English. One consequence is a sort of bombast, for Great Ideas can be mooted and discounted at the same time, as when the Old Man argues that you are entitled to kill a fish if you love it, but at once reproaches himself with thinking too much. This is certainly a difficult line to hold without falling into self-indulgence, and the later Hemingway is marred by a great deal of this disingenuous simplesse. Only one sees how it is related to his virtues, and developed from them.

So, if we consider this posthumous book ad hominem, it will strike us as very moving. It was written by a man who thought he had, over the years, disciplined his technique to the point where he could deal with what he called the fourth and fifth dimensions; who had, year in and out, fought his handgame with language till blood came from under his nails: who knew that he could do it any length, yet published nothing in the last decade of his life except a novella of the crystalline variety, very different from the arduous prose of the first heroic period. And a few years later he began to write this book about the heroic apprenticeship. It opens with a passage which equals in subtlety and power anything in the great stories. “Then there was the bad weather” is the first sentence—what was omitted before he arrived at this declaration?—and before the end of the first page we are in the midst of a painter’s description of sewer wagons in the moonlight on the rue Cardinal Lemoine. Then he tells about the girl who got into “Up in Michigan,” and goes right on to a description of one of Stein’s lessons. He wants it to be clear that this book is about writing, about the heroic apprenticeship.

Much of what he says of Paris is generally familiar from other books. But no other book is of this authority and distinction, and no other so strongly conveys (largely by omission, of course) the sense of time regained. This, however, is to be understood as a side-effect of the principal effort, which is to celebrate the hero and his struggles. What happened in Paris was important in so far as it helped or hindered him. Being in love, knowing Pound and Sylvia Beach, going hungry, watching the fishermen, helped. Racing, though absorbing, didn’t, so it had to be given up. Many things were positive hindrances: people who interrupted him as he wrote in cafés, and were foully insulted; people who upset him by being homosexual; people who in one way or another were out to con you. Some of these were well-known people, and the most obviously interesting thing about the book is that it says disagreeable things about such people.

There is a malice here, recollected in tranquillity; as in the pages on Stein, and those on members of what she called the lost generation. (Incidentally Hemingway’s explanation of the expression “la génération perdue” is that Miss Stein got it from a garage proprietor who was reproving the help for slowness or ineptitude in repairing her Model T. This is far less convincing than John Brinnin’s version, which is that she borrowed it from a hotel-keeper who argued that men got to be civilized between eighteen and twentyfive, or never, and that a generation had missed its chance of civility because of the war.) It was obviously fun to get back at Stein for the nastiness of the Toklas book, and Hemingway invents some beautiful dialogue—which he could always do, and which she, he claimed, could not—to say wicked things about her. The two chapters on Stein are written like very good stories, especially the second, called “A Strange Enough Ending,” which has in it why he could never make friends with her again; the reason given is not, most of us would think, a good one, but it sounds good. Wyndham Lewis is disposed of in a hideous little vignette; Hemingway goes home afterwards and tells his wife, “I met the nastiest man I’ve ever seen today.” “Tatie, don’t tell me about him,” she said. “Please don’t tell me about him. We’re just going to have dinner.”

Ernest Walsh, who was dying of consumption, flaunted a “marked-for-death look”: “and I thought, you con man, conning me with your con.” Of Ford Madox Ford: “I took a drink to see if his coming had fouled it.” Scott Fitzgerald is a kind of critical case, absurd and offensive but a writer. So to him is devoted the most elaborately written section of the book, a carefully devised tragic farce about a trip to Lyon, with a scene in which Hemingway takes Fitzgerald’s perfectly normal temperature with an immense bath thermometer. The food and the conversation are remembered or invented with total authenticity; from start to finish this is the work of a great writer, and one should also remember that it has a structural function in this book.

For this, as Hemingway himself suggests, is a work of fiction, and ought to be considered among his novels. It is an ingenious and deliberate way of revisiting the sources of a great writer’s strength; and it displays that strength as very little else of his had done in thirty years.

Letters

Hemingway & Ford July 9, 1964

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