A trip to Oxfam near one of my schools, i return with Martin Chuzzlewit, The Library of Shadows (Mikkel Birkegaard), and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The Birkegaard (Birch Yard?) was the priciest, at 5 € (i thought it was 3), the others 1.50 € each.

i read the Hemingway first. i’ve meant to re-read him for years, a little tempted by the contempt poured on his fuzzy head by all & sundry. He is no longer in fashion, and so, naturally, i like him more than in his glory years. Hemingway exists in a category of one for me, as a great writer who many regard as utterly worthless; and, also, his stories are only either very good or very bad. In the former, i would put A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The First 49 Stories, and now, A Moveable Feast, though there are slack passages here (i’ve read Fiesta but remember nothing of it and felt no impulse to re-read it). At his worst – The Green Hills of Africa and Across the River and Into the Trees – he is astonishingly bad. His badness isn’t a failure of technique, it’s rather a failure of perspective; in the bad books, he immortalises the trivial and (to me) irritating aspects of his Papa Hemingway mythos, with his drinking cronies, heavy-handed humour, his patronisingly friendly way with servants, the bluff and hale Great Writer/Adventurer who tells it like it is and damn everyone, waiter, another bottle of your finest, if you please, aren’t we having a swell time, etc. etc.

Hemingway is almost genre fiction; by which i mean that, if you don’t share the basic assumptions of Fantasy literature (heroism, a love of violence, some interest in magic), it seems juvenile and silly. And so with Papa, if you have no taste for bravado, danger, unabashed, adolescent adventure and romance, he seems – stripped of rhetoric as he is – utterly worthless. It doesn’t help that he sails quite close to sheer bullshit, that he can dip suddenly into inflated pomposity and posturing, then back, several times in a page. However, all told i feel he will be valued again, in time.

Some nice passages from A Moveable Feast:

Scott [Fitzgerald] was very articulate and told a story well. He did not have to spell the words nor attempt to punctuate and you did not have the feeling of reading an illiterate that his letters gave you before they had been corrected. I knew him for two years before he could spell my name; but then it was a long name to spell and perhaps it became harder to spell all of the time, and I give him great credit for spelling it correctly finally.

The best passages are about Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound. Only Pound (and, in his fleeting appearance, Joyce) comes off well, as a human being. Of these writers, i only know a little about Pound at the time (1920s), and Hemingway seems fair to me here; and so perhaps with the others. Here he is on Ford – sitting together at a cafe, Ford “cuts” someone he thinks is Hillaire Belloc (but it turns out to be Aleister Crowley), and gloats on his brutal cutting to the bemused Hemingway; Papa inquires:

‘Tell me why one cuts people,’ I asked. Until then I had thought it was something only done in novels by Ouida. I had never been able to read a novel by Ouida, not even at some skiing place in Switzerland where reading matter had run out when the wet south wind had come and there were only the left-behind Tauchnitz editions of before the war. But I was sure, by some sixth sense, that people cut one another in her novels.

‘A gentleman,’ Ford explained, ‘will always cut a cad.’

I took a quick drink of brandy. ‘Would he cut a bounder?’ I asked.

‘It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder.’

‘Then you can only cut someone you have known on terms of equality?’ I pursued.

‘Naturally.’

‘How would one ever meet a cad?’

 ‘You might not know it, or the fellow could have become a cad.’

‘What is a cad?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t he someone that one has to thrash within an inch of his life?’

 ‘Not necessarily,’ Ford said.

‘Is Ezra a gentleman?’ I asked.

‘Of course not,’ Ford said. ‘He’s an American.’

 ‘Can’t an American be a gentleman?’

 ‘Perhaps John Quinn,’ Ford explained. ‘Certain of your ambassadors.’

‘Myron T. Herrick?’

‘Possibly.’

 ‘Was Henry James a gentleman?’

 ‘Very nearly.’

‘Are you a gentleman?’

 ‘Naturally. I have held His Majesty’s commission.’

 ‘It’s very complicated,’ I said. ‘Am I a gentleman?’

 ‘Absolutely not,’ Ford said.

Reading this little book, i’m reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s observation, that for a writer the greatest danger is booze. It’s strange to think that Hemingway was still tinkering with this memoir just before his death, his talent wrecked by booze and fame and bullshit; and that it records his 25-year-old self’s still undamaged talent and vision. Here we have the youngish Ezra Pound, a wayward, generous spirit, 20 years later to become a fascist demagogue and out & out crank; Fitzgerald in the midst of The Great Gatsby, later to follow the ineluctable Path of Booze. It’s a pity Hemingway didn’t postpone suicide a year or two, and write a book about all that can destroy a writer; for in this he was an expert.

Uncontrolled intoxication is the danger, whether it is the heady lunacy of fame (prizes, interviews, etc.), or the self-administered poison of booze. Then there is Fitzgerald, whose Great Gatsby is my candidate for the perfect novel, and who wrote nothing of comparable stature. For him, it seemed a combination of booze and a domineering, crazy wife – to which he was made vulnerable by his own sensitive, feminine nature, a writer’s openness to influence; Hemingway presents this physically:

Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the coloring, the very fair hair and the mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.

The great writers are often a blend of the feminine and masculine – even the seemingly butch Hemingway, if one attends, let alone, e.g. Dante, Shakespeare, Milton. Hemingway at his best is unerring, and here he sees the sensitivity and weakness in Fitzgerald’s mouth (as in TS Eliot, also). As with Gatsby, that which doomed Fitzgerald also rendered him unusually sensitive to life, and so, gave him what he needed for his work. In his life it was not merely booze but also his lunatic wife, who purposefully destroys him with alcohol:

Zelda had hawk’s eyes and a thin mouth and deep-south manners and accent. Watching her face you could see her mind leave the table and go to the night’s party and return with her eyes blank as a cat’s and then pleased, and the pleasure would show along the thin line of her lips and then be gone. Scott was being the good cheerful host and Zelda looked at him and she smiled happily with her eyes and her mouth too as he drank the sherry. I learned to know that smile very well. It meant she knew Scott would not be able to write.

Zelda was jealous of Scott’s work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern. Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly. He would start to work and as soon as he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party. They would quarrel and then make up and he would sweat out the alcohol on long walks with me, and make up his mind that this time he would really work, and would start off well. Then it would start all over again.

But, and perhaps this is natural with fey, damned genius, that which destroyed Fitzgerald also stimulated him:

Zelda was very beautiful and was tanned a lovely gold color and her hair was a beautiful dark gold and she was very friendly. Her hawk’s eyes were clear and calm. I knew everything was all right and was going to turn out well in the end when she leaned forward and said to me, telling me her great secret, ‘Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?’ Nobody thought anything of it at the time. It was only Zelda’s secret that she shared with me, as a hawk might share something with a man. But hawks do not share. Scott did not write anything any more that was good until after he knew that she was insane.

Such men work under the aspect of Ansuz, intoxicated. The trick is to regulate one’s necessary poison, to use it then cork and replace the bottle. But this is difficult, for it is in the nature of intoxication that it is almost impossible to control; otherwise, it would not be useful. Estuaries flow into the sea, where men drown; and so it was.

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