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.

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.

 

 

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…

Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011

When someone close dies it’s not uncommon to imagine them still alive, still there. It can happen in the most banal of circumstances. For example, when the phone rings, one imagines it might be them on the line, ready to talk, as before. The realisation that it isn’t them – can’t be, won’t ever be –  follows quickly after. In this way, we may feel their death many times over.

The same is true of Christopher Hitchens, who has died from cancer. It is hard for me to accept anything other than he is still there. But unlike the example above, I didn’t know him at all in person. Like many, I ‘knew’ him, whatever that might mean, from reading his books and articles, and from listening to him in argument and debate. As I’ve said before, feeling that you know someone you have never met is often most acutely expressed by how we refer to them. For especial intimacy, we might use the first name, or a nickname, of someone who is otherwise a stranger to us. For many, he became simply ‘Hitch’ – or perhaps ‘The Hitch’, the definite article reflecting our unspoken understanding that the likes of him cannot be found elsewhere, or again.

Like the bereaved waiting by the phone, suffice to say that I keep thinking that, when the next edition of Vanity Fair is published, there will a new article written by him. Perhaps, for a short while, there will be: we know that a posthumous publication, provisionally entitled Mortality, will collect Hitchens’ thoughts on death and dying, drawn from his final articles for Vanity Fair. Eventually, however, publication of new writings will stop and those times we listen to him will be from the archive.

How should I remember him? Certainly not to say ‘rest in peace’ since, like Hitchens, I don’t believe he is ‘resting’ anywhere. Annihilation doesn’t offer such a cosy future. Nor in hagiography. Like many, again, I disagreed with some of what he wrote. I think he made mistakes, inevitable perhaps if you consider his scope and engagement. Besides, thinking of him in godlike terms would have a perverse irony given his infamous dismantling of deities in god is not great. I don’t think it would have been the kind of irony he would have enjoyed. Once again, and as I have said before, it is his passing – the irreversible loss of the potential to live more, enjoy more of his only life – that I regret, as much as I regret the pain to his friends and family and all who benefitted from his work.

So, instead, I bought a bottle of his beloved Johnnie Walker Black Label, poured myself a glass, and listened to him read his autobiography, Hitch-22. He spoke of his mother, Yvonne, in ways beautiful and touching. When I had drained the glass, I went downstairs and stacked his books into a pile alongside those that I will read next, to read again.

Reading Hitchens has been in education in learning how to live. In the final months of his life, reading him has been an education in learning how to die. No writer, no one, can hope for anything more.

And now – to life.

‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’: Edward Thomas’ poem, ‘Rain’

It’s raining this morning. The clouds have completely covered the mountain – in fact, I can barely see the neighbouring houses. I have to take on trust that the trees that border the field opposite are red and gold and in their last throws – I can’t see them from here.

As I write, the rain is tip-tapping onto the skylight above my desk. If you’re going to love the seasons, the idea of a changing landscape, as I do – then you’re going to have to love the rain too. It helps if there is a good poem to accompany it. When I hear the rain I sometimes, often, think of Edward Thomas’ poem, ‘Rain’:

Rain

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Edward Thomas

It might seem a sombre, even morbid, poem to you and I suppose it is – Thomas would die in the First World War only months after signing up. But it captures for me that moment of contemplation that rain might bring, when you can hear it on the roof, when you imagine it covering everyone.

Above and beyond irony: Madonna and David Foster Wallace

Madonna on stage

Years ago, around about the time that sub-culture was dominated by an ironic distance, evidenced by grunge and Nirvana and Linklater’s ‘Slacker‘ and Coupland’s ‘Generation X‘, pop-culture’s Madonna said the most remarkable thing. At a concert she called out to the audience of actual and wannabe teens and said something like this: “Don’t let irony get in your way. Irony can mean not trying. You’ve got to try.” As equally as Cobain’s ‘When I was an alien / Cultures weren’t opinion’ from ‘Nevermind’ impressed me, so to has Madonna’s call to action moved me. She’s on to something. I’ve always been saddened by those who adopted the ironic distance that implies: ‘I could, but I’m not going to’; made suspicious by that that coolness which suggests: ‘Now that you and the rest of the world like it, it’s so over’; felt uncomfortable by those who would mock rather than make. It was easier to stand back, shake the head slowly at the naivety and sentimentality, grin that sad, knowing grin – and walk away.

David Foster Wallace speaks so eloquently on the withering effects of irony that it’s a wonder I didn’t just stand back and leave it to him (although without the mocking and knowing grin). In the BBC Radio 4 documentary on Wallace, it’s suggested that his time in self-help centres for depression and addiction contributed to his hostility towards irony as a cultural and especially literary approach that undermines truth and authenticity.

This entire documentary on Wallace is informative and inspiring, but at 18.00 minutes there begins a short discussion of irony, starting with a reading of his in which he describes the ironist as ‘a witch in church’ in the group of recovering alcoholics:

His fiction, and especially ‘Infinite Jest’, is a way of exploring that tension created by the desire to move beyond irony and yet retain a protective layer that shields us from our fears. Wallace says of irony in this clip:

“Irony is this marvellous carapace that I can use to shield myself from seeming to you to be naive or sentimental or to buy the lush banalities that television gives. If I show you that we’re both bastards and there’s no point to anything and I was last naive at about age 6, then I protect myself from your judgement of the worst possible flaws[s] of sentimentality and naivety.” (19:45)

It’s ironic, listening to Wallace who attributes the desire to shield ourself from judgement to popular culture (and television in particular, which he is critical of in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never do Again’) that Madonna should say what she did in the face of irony as the dominant mode of discourse. But she did. And she was right.