Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Farewell to ‘Farewell’

Turns out I have one thing in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We both started Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with high expectations and ended up bored and indifferent. The love affair with Catherine, like the battlefield romance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, was one of the least convincing things I’d read up to that point:

I thought the protagonist fell in love because the book required it, and I never got any firm picture of who Catherine Barkley actually was. The obvious contrast for me is Wharton’s Madame Olenska and Newland Archer, where you see two people falling in love out a kind of need. I don’t really believe in literary romance for romance’s sake. I think love comes from actual places.

Hemingway was the second Certified Great Author I took on as a teenager, after spending a summer and most of the fall reading my way through John Steinbeck. At the time, Hemingway and Steinbeck were often lumped together by reviewers and teachers, which was not simply a mistake but a crashingly obvious mistake I still can’t fathom. Steinbeck could be an astonishingly clunky stylist, but he created undeniably powerful work in a variety of modes: near-documentary realism with In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, mock epic with Tortilla Flat, magic realism with Cannery Row, allegory with The Wayward Bus, morality play with The Winter of Our Discontent. Hemingway crafted some of the most beautiful sentences ever set to paper, but he had only one mode, and while he could play it beautifully, in some of the later works — Across the River and Into the Trees anyone? Anyone? — he sounded like Vladimir Horowitz banging on “Chopsticks.”

Steinbeck was chiefly a novelist, though he could so fine work in short stories: see The Long Valley and the story-collection-as-novel The Pastures of Heaven, the book that shows him discovering his true narrative voice. Hemingway’s magic is in the short stories, not the novels.          

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The old man and the flea

HBO has a pretty high batting average with its original programming, but Hemingway & Gellhorn still has me shaking my head a week after viewing. It’s the kind of Did I really see that? jaw dropper that only comes around once every decade or so.

Conceived as the chronicle of Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (the penultimate Mrs. Hemingway) fighting and fucking their way through history, the film shows director Philip Kaufman reclaiming his Nineties title as the king of high-minded softcore, literary division. His initial entry (so to speak) into this field, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had enough going on to make it worth another look, but Henry and June (the literary passion of Henry Miller and Anais Nin) kept me snickering into my Raisinets the whole way through. Hemingway & Gellhorn is the further detumesence of Kaufman’s ambitions. When the two writers consummate their simmering passion in the Hotel Florida during a Fascist bombing raid, Kaufman shows them rutting atop a desk as shells explode and plaster dust blankets their bodies. I dunno — drizzles of grit and debris never really worked as turn-ons for me, even with Nicole Kidman, but Kaufman is just getting started. Later on, the scene shifts to Havana and we see the two getting it on in a nightclub dressing room as Cuban hotties twirl their feather boas and get their g-strings nestled properly. James Wolcott likens Hemingway & Gellhorn to one of Joe Eszterhas’ heavy-breathing schlock epics — “the Showgirls of the Lost Generation.” Kaufman goes Eszterhas one better (or worse) by using Forrest Gump trickery to splice his lovers into the Spanish Civil War, with each transition telegraphed by the color draining from the image. “Look Papa, we’re turning black and white! We’re entering history again!”

When people say they don’t like Hemingway, they usually don’t mean the work as much as his image. That’s understandable: It’s an unattractive image, easily ridiculed, and Kaufman (along with his screenwriters) never skips a chance to hammer us with it. Though lip service is paid to Hemingway’s talent and dedication, Hemingway & Gellhorn paints him as a mechanical bull, a capon pretending to be a rooster. The endless dick-measuring with other men, the readiness to cock a leg over any writer who might threaten his top-dog status, the pompous self-mythologizing — all of it gets trotted out here, emphasized by Clive Owen’s blustery performance.  (With his bushy moustache and dorky beret, Owen alternately resembles a buffed-up Groucho Marx and Kevin Kline’s moronic assassin from A Fish Called Wanda.) All of it will be old news to anyone familiar with its source: the 1950 profile Lillian Ross wrote for The New Yorker. What’s more interesting is the fact that the New Yorker piece, widely remembered as a stake through the heart of Hemingway’s reputation, caused barely a ripple in his friendship with Ross:

As a friend, Hemingway was stalwart. He had told me to feel free to write whatever I chose to write about him, and he never reneged. “I thought your piece was a good, straight OK piece,” he said about the Profile initially. A week later, he said: “Don’t ever worry about loseing” — it was his habit to keep the “e” in his participles — “me friends nor anything about piece.” He added, “I take the wind like an old tree; have felt the wind before; north south east and west.” Another time he said that he lost about a friend a day over the Profile. “But what the hell; any friend you can lose you might as well lose them early and anyway it is too late.” Once he said: “Please don’t think you ever have to answer any jerks or ever defend me. I am self-propelled and self-defendable.” And again: “Actually good old Profile made me about as many enemies as we have in North Korea. But who gives a s—-? A man should be known by the enemies he keeps.” Several years later, he told me that people continued to talk to him about the Profile: “All are very astonished because I don’t hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say. I always tell them how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?”

That Hemingway is absent from Hemingway & Gellhorn, as is any hint of the talent that led Gellhorn to hitch her wagon to his star. Ironically, Kaufman and his writers let Hemingway off the hook too easily with their chaotic depiction of the Spanish Civil War episode, though they at least take the trouble to put the key figures into place. Among the writers staying in Madrid at the Hotel Florida was John Dos Passos, who had just completed his U.S.A. trilogy, a kaleidoscopic view of America during and after the Great War that made him Hemingway’s creative equal, if not superior. (To Have and Have Not, completed and published during this period, was certainly bad enough to threaten the reputation earned with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.) Hemingway, a romantic without much interest in politics, admired the Republican side for its underdog status, but his loyalty to La Causa was an accident — if he hadn’t wanted to fuck Martha Gellhorn, he could just as easily have ended up sharing drinks with Franco’s men. Dos Passos was losing his enthusiasm for Communism; the murder of his friend and translator Jose Robles by Stalinist agents would tip his politics heavily rightward. Hemingway, cultivated by the Communists on the Republican side (who abandoned Dos Passos as soon as they landed their bigger fish), blackguarded Dos Passos as a coward and turncoat — something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. (In A Moveable Feast, he famously dismissed Dos Passos as “the pilot fish.”) A viewer who doesn’t know any of this background will only be confused by what little is shown in Hemingway & Gellhorn.     

It’s easy and fun to despise Hemingway for his bad behavior, but it’s foolish to apply that judgment to his work: the brilliant short stories, The Sun Also Rises, and scattered portions of the later novels will always tip the scales to favor the writer over the man. Hemingway & Gellhorn would have us believe that once Gellhorn walked out on him, Hemingway turned into a dazed head case out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with his fourth wife playing a chirpy Nurse Ratched. While the man did come to a dark end, I seem to recall a few other things happening along the way: worldwide acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, a Nobel Prize for Literature, stuff like that. The Old Man and the Sea may not be the greatest book evah, but its hero managed to land a pretty impressive fish. Hemingway & Gellhorn ventures onto even stormier waters, but comes back with something much smaller.

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Across the reader and onto the screens

Is there another Certified Big Time Author who’s had worse luck with movies than Ernest Hemingway?

At the bookstore I have DVDs catalogued in various ways, including some categorized by author. There were plenty of good movies to work with from John Steinbeck’s oeuvre: Of Mice and Men has two solid adaptations; Elia Kazan’s East of Eden as well as the not-too-shabby TV adaptation with Jane Seymour as Catherine; John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (begging to be remade); David Ward’s nice-try take on Cannery Row (actually Sweet Thursday with a few incidents from its much better predecessor); as well as movies like The Pearl, The Red Pony, The Wayward Bus, Tortilla Flat, and an obscure made for TV version of “The Harness” best remembered by trivia buffs who need to answer: “What’s the worst thing Lorne Greene acted in besides Battlestar Galactica?”

Or how about Graham Greene? Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, The Human Factor, two excellent takes on The Quiet American, and The End of the Affair. (I’m still waiting for Criterion to bring Brighton Rock out of mothballs.) Somerset Maugham’s had a pretty good run, too.

But Hemingway? Aside from the Spencer Tracy version of The Old Man and the Sea, I can’t think of a single Hemingway-based film I’d want to have in the store, much less watch again. I’m predisposed to like anything with Ava Gardner, but The Snows of Kilimanjaro put me to sleep. Islands in the Stream is up there with A Moveable Feast among the best posthumous books, but the film version with George C. Scott is a snoozer. That strong-silently-suffering grace under pressure business has a way of turning mawkish once it leaves the page and the inimitable Hemingway prose style. Can anybody give me a few decent Hemingway movies?

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Friday finds

Cuba gives a cache of Ernest Hemingway’s papers to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which is certainly ironic when you consider the historical relationship between JFK and Cuba. The papers reportedly include a different ending for For Whom the Bell Tolls, corrected proofs of The Old Man and the Sea, and thousands of letters.

Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, in words and photographs.

Lynn Viehl shares the latest numbers from her bestselling novel.

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is up.

A few words in praise of Ayn Rand.

Jon Stewart does Glenn Beck. He has to call it imitation, but you don’t have to.

Neil Young, who has already released more good music this year than Bob Dylan, has a new disc coming out next month.

Getting to know Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey.

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The potency of cheap paperback covers

in-our-time

When I started reading Ernest Hemingway, the editions that fell into my teenaged hands were the paperbacks issued under the Scribner Library Contemporary Classics imprint. During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school I was almost never without one of these editions, and whenever I read or even think of For Whom the Bell Tolls, it conjures a double memory: Robert Jordan lying on a hillside in the mountains of Spain, listening to the wind stirring the tops of the pine trees, and the younger me stretched out on a blanket at Darlington Lake, hearing the wind stir the tops of the  trees as I read.

 The nostalgia factor is so strong for me that I stopped dead in my tracks last summer when I spotted the above edition of In Our Time on a swim club book-swap rack. While I’m not actively seeking them out, I’ll probably snap up these editions whenever I see them.

a-farewell-to-arms

The curious thing is that these paperback covers, in contrast with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy titles I rhapsodized about a few months ago, really aren’t very good. In fact, they’re pretty lame — Sunday painter kind of stuff. Which is remarkable, considering that Hemingway is one of the star authors in the Scribner catalogue, maybe even the star author. But even though later editions sported different, substantially better cover art, these rather schlocky looking things will always twang my heartstrings just a bit whenever I see them.

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That toothsome summer

Ari reminds us all that something enormously important to pop culture and weather patterns in the Milky Way galaxy took place on June 20 of 1975. Of course I’m referring to the release of Jaws.

I didn’t get to see Jaws when it opened. In fact, it was a few weeks before I could even get into a theater to see it. Remember, sprouts, this was the pre-multiplex era when many theaters had only recently been split into two-screeners, and it was common for successful movies to stay in a theater for a few months. So I guess it must have been mid- to late-July when I managed to wedge myself into a screening at the Hyway Theater (which I’m happy to see still exists). By that point Jaws had had so much impact that Universal Pictures took out a two-page spread in the Sunday Times showing all the newspaper editorial cartoons that had played off the movie’s poster. The show was literally sold out — I got the very last ticket to be sold. the joint was packed.

Up until that night, whenever I’d seen a movie in a theater, the audience had served either as an irritant or a neutral presence. Jaws was my first theater experience in which the audience became a single entity, a great big nerve ending that Steven Spielberg played with virtuoso flair. When Chrissie met her fate out by the buoy, we all hissed through our teeth as the tension wound tighter and tighter. When the mayor erupted in rage at the way the Amity billboard had been vandalized, we all shouted with laughter. When Ben Gardner’s head came through the bottom of the boat, we all jumped. To this day I’m sure the entire building rose a foot into the air and came back down without any of us noticing.

(Dances With Mermaids, the older daughter, got her first look at Jaws a year ago. She still says, “You saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out? Wow!” the way somebody might say, “You helped Julius Caesar change the wheels on his chariot?”)

I’d actually been looking forward to the movie before the word got out. I was enough of a shark freak that when the original novel by Peter Benchley came out, I sprang for a hardcover copy. It was not a god read. I may have been an ignorant high school kid at the time, but I knew the creak of sclerotic Bestseller Writing when I heard it. All those subplots: the Mafia, Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, bleah. Nevertheless, the power of the idea was such that the book carried you along, right up to that supremely unsatisfactory Moby-Dick type ending.  

The film was directed the way the novel should have written: smart, quick on its feet, frequently quite funny and, best of all, unpredictable. Too many horror movies — and Jaws is, at bottom, a balls-to-the-wall monster movie — fall into a pattern of setup and payoff so predictable that you can set your watch to them. Not this movie. Jaws always had a joker up its sleeve. When the shocks came on, they usually went waaaay further than anyone expected — that scene with the Kittner boy is just plain mean. When the laughs came on, you were grateful for the chance to relax — which of course, meant you were about to get creamed by some new scare.

Even at the time, though, I could appreciate just how good Jaws looked as a movie. The trailer above reminded me of the scene in which Brody pages through books on sharks, and Spielberg has his cameraman light the shot so that the gory pages flicker across the lenses of Brophy’s glasses. or the way the appearance of the ocean changes in response to the story’s needs. When Chrissie runs down the beach, the water is flat and opaque, the perfect hiding place for a predator. As soon as she’s beyond the reach of help, the point of view changes and the water is now a shadowy trap in which the predator sees everything while the prey sees nothing. It’s still startling to think that this was only Spielberg’s second feature, and one made under extremely demanding conditions at that. I’ve had my problems with Spielberg’s work in the past, and his growth as an artist has been erratic, but right from the start his craftsmanship and technical expertise were beyond question.

One of the greatest things about Jaws as a film was the way it left people feeling gassed. The tension and release, always delivered in the most unexpected way, was exhilarating. You walked out of the theater jangling and charged up. For weeks afterward, whenever you encountered somebody who’d seen the flick, you automatically fell into reminiscences of some great moment. For a movie with so many intensely scary passages, Jaws was a remarkably benign movie. It plumbed some of the darkest terrors imaginable — the fear of being eaten, of dying horribly only a few yards from safety — and yet it left you feeling cleansed and caffeinated at the same time. Quite a trick. I went home from the Hyway Theater feeling lighter than air, chuckling and grinning as my legs moved twice as fast as normal. It’s a rare kind of movie that can send its viewers off with that kind of feeling.

The summer of 1975 was loaded with artistic discoveries for me. I’d just become a Bob Dylan fan, and 1975 was a great time to be following Dylan: the year started with Blood on the Tracks, the summer peaked with the official release of the Basement Tapes, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured New England that fall and Desire appeared like magic after the New Year. Patti Smith’s debut came out a little before Christmas, and I was just starting to hear about something called punk rock I was inhaling books and music at a rapid clip, working my way through Hemingway and Hesse, and in the middle of it all there was Jaws. A great memory, and for that I have to thank Steven Spielberg.            

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