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.

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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.

A life less ordinary: William Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’

A life less ordinary

What an audacious ambition – to write the life of another, from the teenage years until the moment just before death. That’s what William Boyd has attemped with his novel ‘Any Human Heart’. Through a series of candid and frequent, if not exhaustive, journal entries we come to learn about the thoughts, feelings and events in Logan Mountstuart’s life: his uncertain academic path at university; his intellectual development and his writing; his loves, friendship, affairs, his wives and children; and finally, his old age and death.

This novel is wonderfully evocative of a past that many of us know only from history books and films, but which we’ve never lived through. Placing a flesh-and-blood character at the centre of such pivotal times and places adds an enormous dimension, bringing them closer for us to not only see but to feel. Paris in the early 20th century, London during the blitz, New York during the volatile but economically booming years: this novel provides a vibrant and sustained insight into some of the 20th century’s most fascinating times and places, from the perspective of events during Logan Mountstuart’s life.

And it’s the events, especially, that Logan (one feels comfortable calling him by his first name, since we come to know him so well) shares with his unintended, unconsidered, unknown audience. Despite the opportunity offered by the candid qualities of the journal format, the novel is essentially plot-driven rather than reflective or philosophical. Boyd takes seriously Henry James’ edict that one must not ‘attempt to know any human heart’.

Instead, we come to know Logan through his actions and trace a path of highs and lows through his rich and busy life. But this isn’t a novel in which one can readily associate with the central character because Logan lived a life that is far from commonplace. This is not an exhaustive list, but a representative one: Logan quickly becomes a published author upon leaving Oxford. His intellectual curiosity and impatience with his home in England takes him to Paris and later Spain, where he meets a series of well-known cultural figures, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and most significantly for this novel, the abdicated former king, now Prince Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson. He witnesses the civil war in Spain; parachutes into Switzerland during World War II to aid the Allies; is captured as a spy and kept in a cell overlooking Lake Geneva; becomes an art dealer in New York during the 1960s; and eventually retires to France and dies there.

Contemplation and action: Woolf and Hemingway

We’re given a clue as to the kind of approach this novel takes in its treatment of two literary figures, Woolf and Hemingway.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf, whom Logan meets in England, arguably most successfully fulfils her Modernist ambitions in the short story ‘Kew Gardens’. In this story she takes the iconoclastic step of focussing, in minute detail and over a relatively prolonged period, on flowers growing in a flowerbed; the random flight of a dragonfly; and later on a snail trying to reach its goal. Against this seemingly unpromising background she sets the lives of several characters who congregate at different times around the flowerbeds in which the flowers and creatures are to be found. In doing so, she shows how these two different worlds – of the mundane, trivial world of the insects and those troubles of the characters who pass by unaware – are intimately connected. It is a story that seeks to introduce subtly drawn, ungilded, commonplace moments as a highly revealing subject for fiction – even if that revelation lacks the kind of narrative resolution that many short stories of the time possessed. Woolf’s writing, in this respect, represents an interest in the revelatory power of the commonplace, even banal, aspects of life. Its method is to emphasise the thoughtful, subtle, nuanced aspects of human thought and feeling.

In contrast, Ernest Hemingway writes stories on grand themes, populated with heroes and anti-heroes, which often focus upon intense human suffering as painted on the broad canvas of war. His collection ‘In Our Time’, for example, bears the scars of war most notably, as men (rarely women) try to come to terms with lives destroyed by modern warfare. His ‘romantic egoism’ as Jay McInerney called it, is far removed from Woolf’s abnegation of the self in her Modernist writing. In the kind of simple description of what is a much more complex reality, Hemingway’s writing is characterised by activity at the margins of human experience; Woolf’s by contemplation of the commonplace and its amazing revelatory power.

Ernest Hemingway

Woolf is lambasted in the novel as socially intimidating, elitist, almost inhuman (interestingly, a new biography asserts that Woolf was more politically engaged and less socially detached than might otherwise be thought). Hemingway, on the other hand, is celebrated as a man of action: he summons his car in war-torn Spain and accompanies Logan on a hunt to find a man with a mysterious gift (the gift is a notable collection of expensive paintings wrapped in a carpet, intended for a friend of Logan’s who dies: Logan keeps the paintings and sells them later).

In turn, Boyd rejects the purely contemplative approach and follows the path of action. He answers the question ‘who would want to read a series of journals based upon an ordinary life?’ – by writing of a life full of incident, heroically lived. But in doing so, Boyd has created a sometimes old-fashioned story of derring do, which flirts with the extremes in human emotion and action and as a result lacks a handle which we might turn to open the door of Logan’s heart. At worst, he is dangerously close to farce by the time he writes Logan as an imprisoned spy: at the end of the novel we learn and remember much more about the events of his life than we do about how he feels or thought about them.

Despite this, there are moments when such extremes of experience is thwarted or restrained. During his period as a journalist in Spain during the 1930s, Logan fires a machine gun at some fascists in an approaching car. Although they appear to take evasive action, their distance makes it impossible to tell. This notion of distance – that Logan skirts around but rarely penetrates the prized inner circle – goes some way in providing a connection between the reader and the life of Logan. But for some it might not be enough. This isn’t our life we watch stretched out over 80 odd years of intermittently completed journals: it’s the life of someone else, someone better connected, luckier (as the novel’s main thrust would have it) than our own. As such, perhaps it’s a critique on our contemporary society, sterile as it sits in front of computer screens, tracking the world in rolling news.

It is a simple line to draw to connect Logan’s relationship with the novel’s attitude to the characters of Woolf and Hemingway and what this reveals about Boyd’s attitude to his chosen approach. It’s churlish, of course, to berate an author for writing about this or that, in this way or that, instead of another. And it’s a coarse analysis to suggest that Woolf writing was purely contemplative, Hemingway’s purely interested in action. Nevertheless, it is revealing that these two writers hold significantly different positions on the ways in which fiction is written and its ‘proper’ subject; and how their treatment in the novel reflects Boyd’s approach to capturing a life.

A luckier life

Logan's life stages, from the TV production

There are memories, dreams, reflections – many of which appear close to the end of the novel and therefore Logan’s life, as befits a life already lived, then weighed and considered. The central idea of the novel – expressed in a rare foray into summarising in a work that is overwise joyously bereft of cod-psychology, armchair philosophy or home-spun contemplation – is that the value of your life is expressed as a sum of the the luck you have, good and bad.

But this is not borne out by the book or Logan’s life. Rather, he continually takes the opportunities when offered to him: and when they are not, he seeks them. Some of those – like his art dealings – are the result of contacts he has made throughout his life. Lucky, yes. But the manner in which he deals with a troublesome colleague in the art world relies less on luck than it does with deliberate, carefully considered decision. Elsewhere, the luck he possesses is a result of who he knows. In a reduced analysis, he becomes a spy because he plays golf with James Bond author Ian Fleming; or a pawn in a radicalised anti-capitalist plot because he can no longer to afford not to eat dog food for dinner.

This does Logan, and the reader, a disservice. It implies there is an essential quality to Logan which sees his life spread out before him, with an uncontrollable and random force of luck as the only influence, when in fact he makes his life what it is, just as we do. We are all subject to the whim of luck but even embracing such caprice we make our own fate; in this novel it is Logan’s fate to live an extraordinary life which we will either be impressed and inspired by, or find lethally out of reach.

Charles Baudelaire wrote of his ‘Journaux Intimes’ (‘Intimate Journals’) that a work that simply captured the mind of a genius – unmediated, without explanation, without recourse to literary conventions – would necessarily be a masterpiece. In his journals, he tried to achieve just that. But it was a failed experiment: the work wasn’t a masterpiece. But it is instructive because it tells us that the unmediated life, captured verbatim, contains no less an authentic story. As JG Ballard wrote, you fictionalise to reach the truth. And the truth of this novel is that we do not – cannot – understand Logan Mountstuart’s very human heart, just as we cannot know the heart of anyone else, including our ourself.