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.

Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 2 – Larkin and accumulation

Philip Larkin

In the first part of this three-part series, I wrote about the use of what I call ‘simple’ allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending. In this second part, I turn to a ‘complex’ allusion, where the novelist discusses ideas of accumulation, growth and loss by referring – indirectly – to the poetry of Philip Larkin.

Unlike our ‘simple’ example of allusion, where the author’s name – Stefan Zweig in this case – is referred to directly, the reference to Larkin is not direct and he is not alluded to by name. Despite this, I think we can learn a great deal about the themes of loss, accumulation and growth by thinking about Larkin’s work when reading The Sense of an Ending.

A key theme of the novel is that addition – of a lover, a job, a car and house, etc – needn’t mean a positive improvement. This is also a central preoccupation of some Larkin’s poetry, who I claim is indirectly referred to as ‘the poet’ in the novel, as we find in this extract (my emphasis):

‘He took his own life’ is the phrase; but Adrian also took charge of his own life, he took command of it… How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. As the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.

Here, I take ‘the poet’ to refer to Larkin and the poem in which he ‘pointed out’ this idea to be ‘Dockery and Son’. Here is the key section from the poem (the poem needs to be read in full to make complete sense):

[…] Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of […] how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

The narrator of the poem, like Antony in the novel, compares himself to a peer and what he finds is that addition, rather than ‘increase’, means dilution. It is a compelling, counter-intuitive idea that is captured in Larkin’s brief lines and which is explored more fully in Barnes’ novel. Barnes, like Larkin, not only challenges the very things that we ‘accumulate’ – people, things, memories –but like Larkin, disputes the very idea of accumulation as a profitable gain.

The path that Antony follows is one that many of us take: we approach life without guidance from a series of carefully-considered plans, and go on to make decisions as the opportunity arises; rather than seek out new horizons, we continue on our path of least resistance. This is why Adrian is significant a character in the novel and for Antony – he takes ‘his own life’, which literally means suicide but also suggests he takes control, makes conscious decisions rather than fulfil our obligation in the status quo. Larkin again, from ‘Dockery and Son’:

Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

The notion of ‘hardening’, that almost physiological image, reminds us that accumulation may as equally lead to a stopping heaviness as well as a comfortable ballast. Larkin used a similar image in ‘Afternoons’, a poem that laments the loss of innocence and energy of whose lives have become unravelled by time:

Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

The imagery of a person ‘thickening’ brings with it a sense of solidity; it is a comfortable state but a stagnant one and the weight of accumulations ties us to that very lethargy that removes from us the ability to shake off the weight of our encumbrances and start afresh. We’re tethered by our accumulations, like a balloon; they clip our wings.

I call these examples ‘complex’ because they do not directly refer to a specific poet or poem in name but they do share a more than coincidental connection to some of the themes. That is – it is complex because it is a significant theme, or motif, that runs throughout the novel. Referring to another treatment of this theme – by, in this case, the ‘poet’ – helps develop the meaning and effect of the allusion. It is true that the reference is short and does not reappear in quite this manner again. But it is a theme that lingers throughout the novel grows in complexity as we read on.

In the final part, I will discuss the ‘resonant’ allusive relationship between The Sense of an Ending and the work of literary criticism which shares its name.

Coda – accumulation and responsibility, from Sex Lies and Videotape

The notion that addition meaning dilution is not uncommon. In Steven Soderbergh’s film Sex Lies and Videotape (a deeply ‘intertextual’ film, in that it depends upon other films for effect), James Spader’s character Graham Dalton explains why he is reluctant to look for an apartment in this clip. Dalton finds the addition of keys – symbols of responsibility and security – an undesirable dilution to his freedom.


Is photography art? All you ever needed to know is in this portrait

Identical twins - 1967 - Diane Arbus (Copyright Arbus Estate)

For some, photography isn’t quite art because it simply captures reality. There is no artifice in many shots, no craft: the world comes together in a moment of specific configuration, more or less outside of an artist’s intent, and a photographer simply points the camera and – click! Art is made. Or isn’t, since the artist has very little to do. There isn’t the sheer hard work that goes in to, say, a painting or a novel. We might feel – ‘I could have done that!’ And indeed we could, if all photography means is to point and click.

Diane Arbus‘ photo ‘Identical Twins‘ shows us in a very immediate way that photography can do more than that. On one level we have a photo of two very similar girls. However, despite their clear resemblance we quickly notice differences: one girl is frowning a little while the other smiles; one pair of eyes is hooded, the other clear and open; the hands are slightly different, the hair; and so on. And as we notice those differences, we interpret those them as significant and meaningful: we might say that one child is happy; one less prim and proper than the other; one more dominant, and so on. We might then go on to think about the nature of identity, of how uniqueness triumphs uniformity. We find meaning in gaps, the differences between the two girls.

This process of finding ‘meaning in the gaps’ also lends itself to discovering the ‘art’ in photography. In this way of thinking, the similarity is not between two subjects but between the photograph and the reality it represents. The gaps are those elements where the photographer has introduced an element of creativity, artifice, illusion, call it what you will. In the above example, there are many examples. First, the photographer has assembled the two girls in a certain pose, emphasising the same hairstyle, clothes and so on. This helps us in seeing the differences – and finding the meanings – between the two subjects. It’s clearly not just a slice of life, although it might include that.

But note the junction between wall and floor: it is at an angle, higher on the left compared to the right. This is deliberate. We might interpret this as saying: what seems a balanced portrait is actually askew; although seemingly identical, our immediate perceptions are upset by the uncertainty that their differences bring; that the photograph wants to destabilise our preconceptions about what it means to be the same and yet not the same; that ultimately what seems to be a simple capturing of reality is really the product of the artist-photographer intent.

Reading photographs like this is underpinned by two central ideas. The first is that there is no such as thing as an ‘innocent’ photograph, that is, one taken without any kind of artifice or creativity. Even when taking holidays snaps we don’t just point and click: we might frame the face so the top of the head of our subject is not cut off; we’re told to put the main subject to one side to promote a sense of harmony, create some interest. The second central idea, following from the first, is that even the smallest details are often there deliberately. In ‘Identical Twins’, the slant of the junction between the wall and floor is deliberately significant, as we’ve seen.

What we have in this photo is a metaphor for the relationship between art and reality. Where two very similar images (ideas, symbols, techniques) are placed in close proximity it is likely that we will find differences between them. It is in those differences that the meaning lie. ‘Identical Twins’ (it’s title at once both plainly descriptive but, as we’ve seen, highly charged with meaning) by Diane Arbus is one of those key photographs that tell us more about the relationship between photography and reality, and between photography and art.

If you find this image a little unsettling there are good reasons for it. Our minds are programmed to identify the human face. When we see slight discrepancies between the real and the near-real, as we might most often in Japanese ‘humanoid’ robots or ultra-realistic computer games, we enter the ‘uncanny valley’, that phase of interpretation where an image appears strange,   Here, the differences between two ‘identical’ twins remind us of that disjunct. It is also the starkness of the black and white; the unfussy background which focusses our attention; the confrontational quality implied by the pose and gaze direct to the viewer. The film director Stanley Kubrick would later use a similar image for the murdered twins in his ‘The Shining’.