Hemingway’s early writing for the Toronto Star now online

An excellent resource has appeared online – a collection of Hemingway’s early writing from his time as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Hemingway admitted to owing a great deal to his days as a reporter and critics have claimed it had a huge impact on his aesthetic.

You can see many of the elements of Hemingway’s famous and innovative style in some of these reports. Take this one, ‘The Wild West is Now in Chicago‘, in which his proto-objective, deadpan style captures the intensity of the gamblers’ den, alongside his interest in dramatic situations:

Gambling is flourishing again after a temporary retirement. Of course in every city there will always be certain types of gambling that can go on in spite of all the police can do. Those are the games that require no apparatus, but can be conducted anywhere. When the police raid a crap game, for instance, all that the gamblers must do is have the doors hold long enough for them to sweep the money into the buckskin bag that lies flat open on the billiard table, throw the dice out of the window, and the evidence is missing.

This is a great resource for anyone interested in the development of Hemingway’s writing.

Reading Ernest Hemingway: general repetition

We have seen already how Hemingway uses what I describe as ‘local’ repetition – the repeated use of words or phrases within a single sentence or passage – to create a series of connections between ideas that help us discover more about the meaning and effect of his writing.

Now I want to turn my attention to ‘general’ repetition. In general repetition, Hemingway repeats words and phrases throughout a longer piece of writing. Sometimes, repeating a phrase, an image or idea throughout a work is called a ‘motif’.

General repetition: ‘Mr. and Mrs Elliot’

In the following example, from ‘Mr and Mrs. Elliot, the word ‘tried’ is used repeatedly:

Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was sick as Southern women are sick.

(The Complete Short Stories, p. 101)

The frequent repetition of ‘tried’ is a figurative evocation of their repeated copulation. That they ‘tried very hard’ implies a sense of toil and suggests that such repetitive sex is both joyless and monotonous, culminating in the unambiguously final: ‘They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it’.

A transformation in the relationship between Mr and Mrs. Elliot is expressed through the use of the rhyming word ‘cried’: ‘She cried a good deal and they tried several times to have a baby before they left Dijon.’ which we find later in the story (p. 102) ‘Cried’ has augmented ‘tried’ as the repeated word, shifting the emphasis from a seemingly futile attempt at conception to the unhappiness that is its result.

A further shift in Mrs. Elliot’s relationship is once again expressed through a rhyming word. Crying is now something that she can share with her girl friend: ‘Mrs. Elliot became much brighter after her girl friend came and they had many good cries together’ (103). Later, this forms a comparison between her relationship with her husband and her girl friend:

He and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby in the big hot bedroom on the big, hard bed.

And in the following paragraph:

Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend now slept together in the big medieval bed. They had many a good cry together.

One of the primary motives for using repetition with Hemingway’s stories is for what Stein called ‘insistence’. The repetition reinforces the idea by repeating it; the more it is said, the more it becomes true. It is also a notable aspect of D. H. Lawrence’s prose.

Through the connection between repeated rhyming words, Hemingway offers us a linguistic representation of theme; the direct comparison between the two couples. The transformation of the central idea of the story – that Mr. and Mrs. Elliot ‘tried’ for a baby – into the notion that Mrs. Elliot shared her unhappiness with her new girl friend and ‘cried’ on the married couple’s bed shared is at the heart of this interpretation of the story.

At a local level, the repetition reveals the extent of the frustration at unsuccessful and continual attempts at pregnancy and as such represents repetition as monotonous. But as it appears throughout the narrative, it is transformed into something that eventually replaces it, a sadness shared by the women as they cry together; ‘trying’ inevitably leads to ‘crying’.

The subtle interrelationship between language and meaning is highly sophisticated and demands the reader is able to recognise the changing meaning of a phonetically similar term. It represents a shift away from a direct and controlled indicator of meaning towards a series of complex interactions.

So, the repeated words and variations – tried, cried, cries together – leave a trace that when followed throughout this story reveal the ways in which this story makes meaning.

Reading Ernest Hemingway: local repetition

There has been an interesting discussion on Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time on the Guardian’s Reading Group. I contributed to that discussion, but I realised that I wanted to expand on some of the points made there (some of what follows has already been posted on the Reading Group discussion).

In short, I wanted to demonstrate how Hemingway’s (in)famous style enables us to come to conclusions about what kind of writer he was, his legacy, how we’re able to say he was interested in ‘machismo’, say, or war, or truth. There are two salient elements that even the casual reader knows about Hemingway: that he had a ‘larger than life’ personality and that he developed and innovative, much-imitated writing style. In my view, it’s the latter that reveals the most about his ideas, interests and themes.

Only a close reading reveals more, enables us to think clearly about what the stories mean, and how they fit within our ideas of the kind of writer he was. So, in the following two blog posts, I’ve chosen to focus on a clearly recognisable and direct element of his aesthetic, that of his use of repetition. The first focusses on what I call local repetition, the second on general repetition. First to local repetition.

Ernest Hemingway, outside the bullring forever, Pamplona

Using repetition to create meaning and effect

Hemingway won’t often tell you what to think or what his stories mean directly. Rather, his writing is more likely to suggest meanings and effects that are created through complex configurations of words, images and ideas. One way of creating connections is through repetition, the repeated use of a word or phrase. He used this throughout his career and in much of his writing, including his short fiction.  When you repeat a word you encourage the reader to compare one instance to another. Any changes in context – where that word appears, what it comes before or after – affect its meaning and effect. Often, such meaning and effect take place over several instances of a repeated word or phrase.  One can think of the process as continual accumulation of layers of meaning, as a rock grows through layer upon layer over time. Sometimes, repeating a word implies that this word is significant and so it’s done for emphasis. But that’s not the only reason and repetition is often used to suggest richer, more sophisticated meaning and effect.

‘Local’ repetition

Broadly speaking, there are different types of repetition. This extract is from the opening of the short story ‘Big Two Hearted River’ and uses ‘local’ repetition, repeated words and phrases that appear within the same sentence or passage:

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car.

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen salons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House stuck up above the ground.

The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.

(The Collected Short Stories, 143)

The use of the word ‘burnt’ and its variations repeated throughout the passage create associations between ideas that are not made by an overtly didactic, directly revealing language.

The first use of the word appears while the train is ‘out of sight’ from the perspective of the town and introduces the suggestion of its destruction, although as yet it is confined to the burnt timber. As Nick leaves the train, the reader temporarily assumes his perspective: there is ‘no town, nothing’ because it has been ‘burned-over’, an evocative image about which this passage will turn. There follows more specific examples, the salons and the Mansion house, culminating in its stone that was ‘chipped and split by fire’.

Finally, the perspective becomes once again more distant, as the narrator describes the surface that was ‘burned off’ the ground. The repeated word ‘burnt’ and its alternatives create a pattern of association between non-figurative observations in the text so that the reader is invited to create relationships between seemingly disparate elements.

One of those elements is the link between past and present. Part of the effect of this passage is achieved by comparing how Seney was before it was destroyed by fire and how it is now. Such shifts in time are echoed by shifts in perspective: Seney is at first ‘out of sight’, then it is shown implicitly through Nick’s perspective, through to a specific focus upon the different components of the former town, towards what appears a general summary.

What assures continuity between these accumulating meanings are the associations created by the word ‘burnt’. Importantly, the notion that Seney is ‘burnt over’ introduces an explicit connection with the implicit source of Nick’s distress, the war. Repetition is a form of ‘composition’, a skill Hemingway developed from his work as journalist and through the influence of Pound and Stein, by placing ideas in proximity as to invite a comparison between them.

As we can see, Hemingway doesn’t tell us what to think explicitly: we need to trace the connections ourselves between ideas to make sense of his writing. So far, we’ve done that by looking at how local repetition works in a single passage. Tracing the different meanings of the word ‘burnt’ and its variations reveals both a greater depth to the passage quoted above and the extent to which Hemingway would go to write fiction that revealed more than it resolved.

In the next part, we’re going to look at what I call ‘general’ repetition, where words and phrases are repeated throughout a story, in what are sometimes called motifs.

Toni Morrison on grief: “They say it’s about the living, it’s not, it’s about the dead”

There is a wonderfully insightful and comparatively candid interview by one of my favourite writers, Toni Morrison here. In it, she talks about the death of her son (my emphasis):

The book [Morrison’ new novel, Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”

[…]”… people who were trying to soothe me, were trying to soothe me. I never heard anything about him. They say it’s about the living, it’s not, it’s about the dead.

She doesn’t want “closure”, she says. “It’s such an American thing. I want what I got.”

I made a similar point in a recent post, where I discussed feeling a loss for those who had yet to fulfil their potential, those who would never live their lives, and yet without knowing it. It’s comforting to hear a similar sentiment echoed and amplified in this interview, and expressed so well.

Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: an animated version

This is wonderful. I’ve long been a fan of Ernest Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea is one of my favourite of his works (you can find my discussion of Hemingway’s minimalist approach on this blog, here). This lovingly crafted 20 minute animation captures it beautifully.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6079824527240248060&hl=en

Courtesy of the excellent OpenCulture website, where you can find another animated version.

The myths of creativity and genius

I love this candid and earthy rebuttal to the idea of suffering as central to creativity, from AL Kennedy’s piece in The Guardian:

The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory. Those who are not led on to glory will be unworthy and deserve to fail. Economic Darwinism will crush them as they should be crushed. This kind of pressure can’t, naturally, be applied to nice people David Cameron might meet at parties or have gone to school with, because they would find it unpleasant. And might be crushed. This kind of thinking divides human beings into categories, as more and less human. Art almost inevitably does the reverse – hence, I have to assume, the established insistence on extra-special suffering, just for artists. Because suffering keeps artists quiet, just as it can weaken and muffle anyone else.

One only need William Styron’s account of his crippling depression in Darkness Visible to realise that suffering might a subject of writing but not its everyday context, experienced by the writer alone at his or her desk. Similarly, especially after Wordsworth’s suggestion that he and other poets are ‘chosen’ by an unknown but infinitely intelligent hand to see where others cannot, the notion of creative genius is inextricably linked to that outmoded Romantic model. Hopefully, studies like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will go some way in suggesting that hard work, perseverance and determination – things that we all can aspire to – are the source of creative success rather than an imperceptibly inherited fate.

We like to personify nebulous notions. It provides a handle on a difficult to explain behaviour or ideas. We also privilege charisma and intuition above hard work and deduction. Ultimately we’re left with models of behaviour we deserve.

Ebooks, print and the reading experience: it’s in the words

We might well have lost sight of the following important idea when thinking about the ways in which the ebook has influenced our reading habits in particular, and the book market more generally:

The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

It’s part of an excellent outline of why we might celebrate being able to read, regardless of the format. Tim Parks is here particularly interest in literary experience, but I think we can fairly replace it with a broader ‘reading experience’ without losing its significance.

In a  masterstroke, Parks suggests we might even be closer to what he calls the ‘essence’ of literary experience, one in which all attention is paid to the words on the screen, rather than their superfluous vehicle, the book:

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. […]  It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves.