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.

Naomi Wolf on Madonna: we apologize

Naomi Wolf writes on why Madonna receives such vehement criticism for her work. Having admitted that Madonna’s film W.E. was ‘far from perfect’, Wolf goes on to suggest the reasons why the singer and director attracts such hostility:

The reliable media theme of “Hating Madonna”, whenever she steps out of her pretty-girl-pop-music bandwidth, is so consistent that it deserves scrutiny in its own right.

Why can the press just not wait to hate Madonna at these moments?

Because she must be punished, for the same reason that every woman who steps out of line must be punished. Madonna is infuriating to the mainstream commentariat when she dares to extend her range because she is acting in the same way a serious, important male artist acts. (And seizing the director’s chair, that icon of phallic assertiveness, is provocative as hell.) She is taking for granted that she is allowed to stretch. This is intolerable, because Madonna has not done the sorts of things that allow women of immense talent to get “permission” or “to be liked”.

What is so maddening? She does what every serious male artists does. That is: she doesn’t apologize for her talent or for her influence. What comes across quite profoundly when one interviews her is that she is preoccupied with her work and her gifts – just as serious male artists are, who often seem self-absorbed. She has the egoless honesty of the serious artist that reads like ego, especially in women.

Madonna is that forbidden thing, the Nietzschean creative woman.

I’m not sure this is true of everyone and I know it’s not true of me. I think we need to look at something like Everything Bad is Good for You to recognise how far audiences have grown in sophistication. As such, audiences are easily able to separate when necessary the superstar status, the riches, the incredibly successful pop career when assessing a new film. I’ve seen some of Madonna’s films and they are not very good; similarly, I didn’t like her former husband Guy Richie’s films (to mark a convenient point of comparison) either.

It’s difficult to prove a precise ‘external’ influence when assessing a work’s reception. Even when we look at a director’s or writer’s ‘psychology’ we need to be careful when over-ascribing its effect on the work. Similarly, it’s difficult to link the pervasive inequality faced by women to encompass an attitude by an entire industry, or wider still, the entire audience. It may be true; but the kind of bald assertion we find here (necessarily, given its a newspaper piece) serves to undermine those who think they deal even-handedly with the things they see, read and listen to – which is everyone.

One way of tackling Wolf’s assertion is that there are examples of powerful women who are adored (as Madonna was for so much of her career and still is) and think of how men who have been equally successful have been reviled. This kind of necessary and sufficient conditional analysis (as it’s known in philosophy) soon reveals examples that appear to counter Wolf’s cursory reading.

I think we need to trust the audience, ourselves, more and at the same time be suspicious, as Wolf is, of the critical biases and attitudes that critics betray. Little is pure or innocent, few of us are immune from prejudices. Certainly there’s some sparkling commentary on this article of Wolf’s and so I’ll leave you with one from GregUS, who captures that odd sense of feeling one should apologise for something someone else may or may not have done:

I can’t remember ever hating Madonna, so I can’t apologize for hating her, and I’m very sorry for that. I apologize wholeheartedly for being a man who isn’t apologizing. I firmly resolve to do something for which I should apologize, since a good pro-feminist new man should always apologize for something.

I will plow my car through a mailbox, in front of a patrol car, when I know a female officer is on duty. I will apologize profusely to her and to you.

Now do you like me? I apologize if you don’t.

Writing about France

I’ve read some amazing books on France – notably, Graham Robb’s Discovery of France and his Parisians. Long live travel writing! But there’s been some horrors, too. Ah, the thwarted promise of Tim Moore’s French Revolutions (cycling and France, what can go wrong? Much, it seems).

So, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sceptical when one finds a new addition to the canon. It seems I’m not alone in my cynicism. John Crace in his (often comically irreverent) ‘Digested Reads’ series for The Guardian compresses Pamela Druckerman’s story of why she thinks French children are better behaved. Writing as if from Druckerman’s perspective, he chimes:

I came to motherhood late and, being a hack and not having much work on, I naturally decided to write a book about it. All I needed was an angle. And then I remembered I was living in France and could pass off some general observations about the few middle-class Parisians I knew as insight.

The tendency to ‘pass of some general observations’ based on limited experience is a compelling one and you’ll find me doing this most night about the French, the Swiss and the English as well as anything else that comes my way. Now, where’s my pen and paper…

The digital article as analogue book: no comment

Brooker's 'The Hell of it All' - 'a genius of spleen'

I love the writing of Charlie Brooker; you may do too, he’s very popular (and if you’ve not read him, he writes here). I think the ‘genius of spleen’ quote, published on the front cover, captures him well, at least for the collection I’m currently reading ‘The Hell of it All’. I’ve bought all of Brooker’s books and I like them. I’ve read most of the articles already on the web but they stand reading again.

But I’m not sure a book (or ‘analogue’, the paper form, to be more precise) is the right format anymore. I felt something was missing when I’ve been reading the latest collection – and that something was the comments and being ‘connected’. Sure, some of them are terrible (there’s still a band of chumps who type ‘First!!!!’ when they’re first to comment) and add little to the article. More, ‘reading below the line’ is notoriously unrewarding for some articles or posts, especially when trolls arrive. But there are is often some genuinely funny and thoughtful stuff, too, well-written and carefully composed little nuggets of wisdom and fun that add to article rather than dilute it. Sometimes the author contributes to the discussion (although not Brooker, to my knowledge). What’s more, the comments often contain links and without them, without the article being connected, it’s harder to enjoy now.

I’m not saying anything particularly new here – the analogue version doesn’t work when derived from the digital. That said, I think the conversion the other way around would work fine but I’ve yet to see it done. Further, it’s not the articles I’m critical of – as I’ve said, I enjoy them equally in book form. It’s just Brooker’s one of those writers who probes, jousts, pokes, encourages – you’ll have an opinion about him, and you’ll want to read what others think, too, on the whole, and perhaps share your own view.

I don’t blame Brooker or anyone else come to that for publishing their work in an analogue form. Indeed, Brooker goes further than most in adding some bits that were cut from the online edition and rearranges them thoughtfully. But now that we’re reading on iPads and other tablets, where we can read the article archive online easily and portably, there’s just little to recommend the analogue over the digital collection of online articles or blog posts.

Barely-related coda

It also occurred to me that when reading digital works, it’s impossible to quote a page number, since people read with the font set at different sizes and therefore the ebook is paginated differently. Is this the end of the use of page references?

Cultural relativism and uncertainty – Julian Baggini’s ‘Heathen’s Progress’

I’ve been interested for a while in cultural relativism, especially that found in morality and aesthetics. Julian Baggini, in one of his excellent ‘Heathen’s Progress‘ series of articles on belief for the Guardian, outlines an extreme form which he calls ‘dogmatophobia’:

What I call dogmatophobia is the liberal fear of being judgmental of the beliefs of others. Because everyone has a right to her opinion and no one has a monopoly on the truth, there is a tendency to think that any kind of assertion of a truth, other than of the blandest factual kind (“Paris is the capital of France”), is intolerant and morally imperialistic. Hence, people who assiduously avoid factory-farmed meat will go out of their way not to condemn ritual animal slaughter that causes needless suffering. People who would not tolerate even the sniff of sexism in their workplace bend over backwards to allow religious traditions their “right” to systemically discriminate against women.

This leads to the undesirable consequence that because we cannot be certain about everything, then we can be certain of nothing, an assertion which he takes to task:

Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things. To criticise people who express a firm belief as suffering from a lust for certainty is therefore to see the speck in another’s eye while missing the plank in one’s own: an excessive lust for uncertainty that makes any conviction appear misplaced. The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable.

My interest has been particularly focussed on aesthetic relativism, which you might call an ‘anything goes’ attitude to arguing about the value of specific works of art, where, at its extremes, the infant squiggle could mean as much as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’m ambivalent about its use. On the one hand, the dizzying possibilities of challenging dominant forms of culture, such as the questioning and dismantling of the literary canon, are very welcome. On the other, I think the notion that culture, including science and belief, is merely opinion has damaged the ways in which we think and the values we hold.

Understanding new poetry: Amy Winehouse – ‘Back to Black’

Back to Black

Back to Black

I remember recently reading a sniffy article on the use of lyrics from an Amy Winehouse song, ‘Love is a Losing Game’ as a way of introducing accessible and commonplace ‘poetry’ to novices, undergraduates in this case, embarking upon a close reading of poetry for an exam. Untypically outmoded for The Guardian, it suggested that these lyrics would compare unfavourably with the other poets on the syllabus, including Walter Raleigh.

Have you heard her lyrics? – I thought. Have you reckoned at their poetry? Her lyrics are not always as good as ‘Love is a Losing Game’ – in some cases, they are better. In ‘Back to Black’ we find in its lyrics many of the elements of poetry clearly identifiable, employed with sophistication – and they’re beautifully effective, too. Here are the lyrics in full, and then I’ll do a quick close reading of some of the most salient bits as I see them:

Back to Black – Amy Winehouse

He left no time to regret
Kept his dick wet
With his same old safe bet
Me and my head high
And my tears dry
Get on without my guy
You went back to what you knew
So far removed from all that we went through
And I tread a troubled track
My odds are stacked
I’ll go back to black

We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to…

I go back to…
us

I love you much
It’s not enough
You love blow and I love puff
And life is like a pipe
And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to (x2)

Black
Black
Black
Black
Black
Black
Black
I go back to…
I go back to…

We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to…

We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black

First of all, there are local instances of poetic language. In the second verse/stanza we find: ‘And I tread a troubled track’. The repeated use of the sounds ‘tr…’ at the beginning of more or less successive words is a sound equivalent of the steps she takes, an aural approximation of her path of recurring steps, one after the other, that lead her ‘back to black’. (Important for the undergraduate, it’s called ‘alliteration’ and along with assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds, often at the beginning of works – and a technique best used sparingly.)

What precisely does ‘black’ mean in this song? An advanced paper might argue whether this is an example of metonym or metaphor (do we literally go back to ‘black’?) but we understand that ‘black’ represents or stands in for depression, bleakness and unhappiness. And widening the poem’s use of poetic language, we find that Winehouse rhymes ‘black’ with ‘back’ in that recurrent motif, suggestive of the monotony, inevitability even, of her return to darkness as a result of the loss of her lover. The verbal nearness of ‘back’ and ‘black’ echo the tired movement from happiness to sadness as he returns to his ‘old safe bet’.

But this is not just a poem, it’s a lyric, and just as theatre loses some of its power when not performed, so this song is diminished when read solely as poetry divorced from its music. (If you can use Spotify, the link is at the bottom). When Winehouse sings: ‘And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside’ much of the power is lost without its vocal incarnation, her intonation reminiscent of the path a penny might take as it rolls around the sides of the pipe, like a water drop gradually slipping down a drain, or one of those circus motorcyclists that trace an ever decreasing circle around a turning wall as they brake and slowly come to a halt. In another example, present in the doleful repetition of the single word ‘black’ several times in the middle eight, perhaps more obvious in the way it achieves its effect, but no less powerful for it.

I’m not the first to discuss the matter and the whole idea that song lyrics represent some of our most vibrant poetry is an oldie, and a goodie. I could have written this for a number of songs – the lyrics to Elvis Costello’s ‘Beyond Belief’ are astonishing, and I’m a fan of Midlake’s lyrics on their new album, too. No doubt you’ve your own examples. Which all goes to show – we’re lucky in our post-modern age that we are not limited by the genre and perceived seriousness of the artform when we consider what is, and what isn’t, art – and poetry.

Link via Spotify: Amy Winehouse – Back To Black