2Aug

Favourite Vintage Writers: Hemingway

It’s probably not very fashionable to admit to liking Ernest Hemingway these days, but I felt partially inspired due to Damien G. Walter’s cheap analysis of him, which in all fairness was probably tongue in cheek (and I know Damien likes a good scrap anyway). There’s so much going on in Hemingway novels, but I can’t cover a fraction of it here. This is more of a nostalgic ramble.

I think he’s one of the great misunderstood writers – perhaps people believed the myth of him rather than actually read, engaged with and tried to understand his works. People probably don’t see beyond the ‘clipped’ sentences, but his prose was a significant leap forwards from the hangover of waffly Victorian sentences, something that is probably not really appreciated much these days (a sign of his impact). To be fair, it’s also a bit of a myth that he always wrote strictly clipped sentences – some were hundreds of words long. It’s not just the length of them, but the musculature, too, which fascinated me – his sentences were direct, forceful, strong. There are other dimensions: there’s that kind of underground misdirection of Katherine Mansfield; and also that kind of mantra-like repetition that D.H. Lawrence used. Hemingway’s prose basically reminds me of the artwork of Edward Hopper, which is shown well in his story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.

Anyway, tons has been written about Hemingway’s prose, so I’ll stop there. Just hit Google if you want to know more. His themes are varied, but generally touch on things like death (and suicide), isolation, and violence. It’s not masculine bull-shit, it’s just darkness from a man who has witnessed plenty during wartime (I don’t think any of us today will know what it means to be part of the lost generation). Hemingway has often been considered misogynistic in his life and writing, perhaps symptomatic of his troubled loves, and I’m certainly not going to argue with those interpretations; though other people suggest that women often dominate in his literature, sometimes because of their absence, it’s fair to say that by today’s standards things aren’t perfect (then again, most contemporary novels probably still aren’t).

But one of the main things I really appreciated, as an struggling writer, was the myth of Hemingway. (See Chuck Wendig.) The lifestyle and fame was something that inspired ambition when I started really taking writing seriously (ignoring your friends, explaining why you can’t go out because you need to write etc.). It was a ridiculous thing to attach to, a falsehood perpetuated by the man himself, and possibly to that point where no one – not even him – realised where the truth and the fiction separates. Sometimes it helps to believe it’s possible, if you know what I mean.

Looking back, I probably would not appreciate his fiction like I used to the first time around, in my early 20s. I went through a phase where I read all his output, biographies, criticism, selected letters, and so on. I believe it’s great to fall in love with a writer’s back catalogue and become engrossed by their art. It was a fascination that left me all the better, even if now I possess more wisdom with respect to certain aspects of his writing.

But then again, all writers have flaws – I suppose that’s what helps define their art over the years.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.
  • http://damiengwalter.com Damien G. Walter

    Yeah, I played up my Hemingway hate. I like The Old Man and the Sea greatly. He’s never been a role model, but I can see why he appeals to a lot of writers for that reason. John Steinbeck, now there is a role model. Similarly masculine but a more rounded storyteller I think/

  • http://www.jameseverington.blogspot.com/ James Everington

    He is the master of repetition, and variation, and repetition. I think his short stories are his best work. I find myself rereading sentences and marvelling at how they seem to do so much, with just a few simple words and phrases…

    I guess the reason he is so unfashionable is because he influenced so many other, weaker, writers… He made a certain style of writing look easy, when it’s anything but.

    Liked your description of DH Lawrence and his “mantra-like” repetition, by the way – sums up that pseudo-Biblical side to Lawrence well.

  • http://markcnewton.com Mark Charan Newton

    Hi Damien – Now Old Man and the Sea was one of the ones I didn’t like that much, which is strange since that was the Big One. To Have and Have Not was a favourite. I never really had my Steinbeck phase, but he’s always been one I’ve meant to read more of. I have a couple of nice editions sitting on the shelf somewhere. The depression-era lit is something I’ve been meaning to get into (when I have a free few months on the reading list).

    James – the repetition aspect is fascinating, isn’t it? I imagine if writers tried that now, both editors and readers would tell you to take it out, get to the point, but for a time it was a very big stylistic thing for major writers.

  • http://www.will-ellwood.com Will Ellwood

    I’m an ashamed Hemingway fan!

    I like his short stories best. I inherited some Steinbeck paperbacks from my Grandma, but they’re quite fragile so I’ve not yet taken the chance of throwing them in my satchel.

    He takes the work and innovations of James Joyce’s Dubliners and weaponizes it into a more form that can and was repeated over and over.

    Katherine Mansfield, I’d better not start talking about her. I can go on a bit…

  • http://markcnewton.com Mark Charan Newton

    There are more of you out there than I thought!

    Another Mansfield fan? I need to re-read some of her stories. It’s been quite a few years, but they really did leave a lasting impression.

  • http://www.will-ellwood.com Will Ellwood

    I bought a copy of the collected edition of her notebooks the other week. What I’ve read so far is fascinating. There’s a really interesting section on naturalism that I must transcribe onto my blog.

  • http://markcnewton.com Mark Charan Newton

    I can’t think where I’ve put my (very old and battered) copy of that, but I remember there being some wonderfully vivid descriptions.

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