Issues for His Prose Style

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyThe Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Vol. I, 1907-22 edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert Trogdon
    Cambridge, 431 pp, £30.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 89733 4

Good reporters go hunting for nouns. They want the odd verb too, but the main thing is the nouns, especially the proper ones, the who, what and where. The thing British schoolchildren call a ‘naming word’ was, for Hemingway, a chance to reveal what he knew, an opportunity to be experienced, to discriminate, and his style depends on engorged nouns, not absent adjectives. But at times it strikes you that the cult of specificity in Hemingway is a drug you take in a cheap arcade: lights flash on the old machines and a piano plinks overhead. One evening it came to me as a small revelation that he takes too much pride in the nouns. (And pride ruined him.) He never takes nouns for granted. He invests his whole personality in them, because nouns are the part of speech where a person gets to show off. Papa gets busted on the nouns because he can’t place them on the page without ego. Too often they are there to attract attention. To cause a sensation. To make a blaze. Hemingway will never say someone had a drink when he can say they had a vermouth.

You can have fun with this. In A Farewell to Arms, there are forty occasions when someone has a drink. It begins in Gorizia, where our hero, Frederic Henry (he’d better have his name; we’re going to be with him for a while), sits watching the snow falling while he drinks a bottle of Asti with a friend. Later, over too much wine and Strega, he explains to a priest his regret at not having gone to Abruzzi. The first time he is at the villa housing the British Hospital he is upstairs drinking two glasses of grappa with Rinaldi. He later tells a group of people about a drinking competition – on this occasion, red wine – he got into with a salesman from Marseille. At the dressing station, he sits with one of the medical captains. ‘He offered me a glass of cognac.’ A page after that, stuck in the dugout with a basin of macaroni, he is drinking from a canteen of wine. He has a swallow just as the mortar that will injure him lands in the dugout. ‘Bring him a glass of brandy,’ says the doctor who first treats him. (Rinaldi brings him a bottle of cognac that afternoon.) And when the priest comes to visit him he brings not any old bottle. ‘This is a bottle of vermouth,’ he says. ‘You like vermouth?’

When Frederic makes it to Milan, a little boy runs out and fetches him a bottle of grappa. ‘I sent for the porter and when he came I told him in Italian to get me a bottle of Cinzano at the wine shop, a fiasco of chianti and the evening papers.’ Once he’s up and ready to start courting Catherine Barkley in the style she deserves, they’re off to their favourite café, the Gran Italia, where they ‘drank dry white capri iced in a bucket’. Months pass, and many glasses, before they go to the races and have ‘a whiskey and soda apiece’. My love for the book only increases as it gets a little closer to Brief Encounter.

‘I guess we’re both conceited,’ I said. ‘But you are brave.’

‘No. But I hope to be.’

‘We’re both brave,’ I said. ‘And I’m very brave when I’ve had a drink.’

‘We’re splendid people,’ Catherine said. She went over to the armoire and brought me the cognac and a glass. ‘Have a drink, darling,’ she said. ‘You’ve been awfully good.’

‘I don’t really want one.’

‘Take one.’

‘All right.’ I poured the water glass a third full of cognac and drank it off.

‘That was very big,’ she said. ‘I know brandy is for heroes. But you shouldn’t exaggerate.’

Is this a paid advertisement? But, hold on, we’re only on page 126. The book has named tipples galore, and when Frederic is back in bed with jaundice, another nurse, not the fanciable one, sees a lot of empty bottles. Again, not just bottles, but ‘marsala bottles, capri bottles, empty chianti flasks and a few cognac bottles’. But there’s work to be done, so, once he’s better, our Signor Tenente goes with others to clear the field hospitals in the mountains and take down the wounded. He visits Gorizia again, where, before long, he is holed up in a villa eating spaghetti and drinking ‘two bottles of wine that had been left in the cellar of the villa’. I wondered at the mention of ‘wine’ tout court, then the inevitable comes, after a mention of rain. ‘I like a retreat better than an advance,’ Bonello said. ‘On a retreat we drink barbera.’ There’s more grappa back in Milan and a martini at the Hotel des Iles Borromées (‘the martini felt cool and clean’), before going up to the lake with Catherine.

Here the nouns go mad and Hemingway’s style reveals itself to be an inventory. He drinks vermouth with the barman, then there’s lunch with the Scottish nurse Ferguson and ‘a couple of bottles of [their favourite] white capri’, two bottles of champagne with Count Greffi while they play billiards, more brandy from the barman who supplies Frederic and Catherine with the boat in which they must escape to Switzerland; then there’s a ‘dark Munich beer’ in Montreux, some Glühwein – ‘hot red wine with spices and lemon in it’ – at an inn at Bains de l’Alliaz, more vermouth, a whiskey and soda in a hotel in Lausanne, more capri, more whiskey, more vermouth, two glasses of wine with a brioche (while Catherine is in labour), some beer with choucroute (it’s a long labour), and then several beers with ham and eggs when he finds the baby is dead.

I ordered another beer. I was not ready to leave yet. It was too soon to go back to the hospital. I tried not to think and to be perfectly calm. The men stood around but no one was leaving, so they went out. I drank another beer.

By this point in the novel, not surprisingly, hard up against the end of everything, the prose itself gets drunk, in a modernist fusion of interior monologue and free indirect speech.

Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you don’t let her die. Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die. Please, please, please don’t let her die. God please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. You took the baby but don’t let her die. That was all right but don’t let her die. Please, please, dear God, don’t let her die.

In the last line of the book he leaves the hospital and walks back to the hotel in the rain. The reader watches him go and worries for him. Please, please, dear God, please don’t let the bar at the hotel be shut.

The Ryanair generation must already have worked out the stag night potential provided by Hemingway’s novels. And we’re not only talking northern Italy: The Sun Also Rises – or, better, we say, Fiesta – has enough watering holes (and named drinks) to keep the lads of Dublin and Glasgow engrossed. (Almost at random, page 68: ‘We walked along Port Royal until it became Montparnasse, and then on past the Lilas, Lavigne’s, and all the little cafés, Damoy’s, crossed the street to the Rotonde, past its lights and tables to the Select.’) The experience of writing his books gave Hemingway the chance not merely to draw on what he knew, but, perhaps more important, to draw nearer to the kind of hero he wished he had been. There is a gulf between what he did and what he wrote that for a writer is quite natural, but Hemingway was puzzled by it. ‘You had to do it from inside yourself,’ he says in a passage he cut from his story ‘Big Two-Hearted River’: ‘The only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined. That made everything come true … Everything good he’d ever written he’d made up. None of it had ever happened. Better things, maybe. That was what the family couldn’t understand. They thought it all was experience.’

The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it. If his family mistook so much of what he wrote for experience, that’s because he set it up that way, signing himself ‘Old Master’ when he was barely 18. He made the fiction true, including the fiction of himself, and then struggled to keep up with it. There’s a drawing at the end of a letter written while he was in hospital in Italy in 1918, little more than a stick drawing, of a man lying in bed, his legs all bandaged up, shouting: ‘Gimme a drink!’ ‘Ernie’ has captioned this: ‘Me. Drawn from Life.’ This cartoon character, Ernie, was the prototype of the man who became Frederic Henry, the twisted hero who knows his way around a martini and a bottle of Asti, though the man and his wounds and his appetites are further from Hemingway’s own reality than the author could bear. ‘It has become a critical commonplace,’ Linda Patterson Miller writes in her foreword to the present volume, ‘that his wounding as an American Red Cross ambulance driver in World War One scarred him psychologically and led him to create emotionally damaged heroes attempting to live in a troubled world through the code of grace under pressure. Yet Hemingway’s letters underscore how little he saw of actual battle, and how he was inclined to romanticise his wartime feats.’ Hemingway, to be fair, was not in control of all the myth-making: the Kansas City Star, his former employer, took to publishing postcards he sent to friends who worked there, and his hometown newspapers, Oak Leaves and the Oak Parker, put out as much ‘local hero’ stuff as they could drum up. There was a gap between what Ernie wanted to happen and what actually happened to him – a vacuum that could only be occupied by myth. Hemingway was submerged in the myth, and didn’t know it: it took the books to know it for him.

Hemingway was rejected by the regular army. He was giving out chocolate for the Red Cross when the mortar exploded that damaged his legs. (The subjective correlative in A Farewell to Arms is the basin of macaroni and the wine. That’s how fiction works.) But what the novel takes for granted is the young hero’s military status. Ernie didn’t. Every other letter through the latter half of 1917 into 1918 is filled with hopes of a secondment, but the truth is he missed most of the war and made a great deal of the skirmish that cut his legs. (No bones were broken.) The mass carnage of World War One wasn’t something he experienced: on the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, when twenty thousand British soldiers met their death, our hero was busy hiking in Michigan. Not his fault: Americans weren’t involved and he was too young. But it puts his ‘war experience’ into perspective. A week before those men went over the top, he wrote to his sister, Marcelline: ‘Lew and I were fishing all night on a pool of the Rapid River 50 miles from nowhere. Murmuring pines and hemlocks – black still pool – roar of rapids around bend of river – devilish solemn still – deuced poetic.’

In other words, he was working on his prose style. But the wish for proper war experience would become a hunger the following year – a hunger, a fever, and yet another issue for his prose style. Hemingway, above all his contemporaries, was to become a writer known for his experience of the world, and he sold that side of himself from early in his career, even if the experience he was talking about was often pretty notional. D.H. Lawrence caught the whiff of this when he reviewed Hemingway’s book In Our Time and spoke of a prose in which ‘Nothing matters. Everything happens.’ Better than anything else, the letters show how much was going on in the Hemingway universe in 1917-18, the time that he would make eternally vivid in A Farewell to Arms. The desire for combat is paramount. ‘Not everyone feels such things so intensely,’ James Fenton writes in his introduction to the Everyman edition of the Collected Stories.

Many are simply relieved not to have to fight. But the real test for someone of Hemingway’s cast of mind is: to serve in war as a soldier under military discipline. Hemingway in later life did many things that approximated to this. He carried arms in Spain, but he was a journalist. During the Second World War, he engaged in quixotic reconnaissance activities in Cuba, supposedly chasing submarines on a yacht equipped with a machine gun.[1] During the German retreat in France, he was apparently involved in mopping-up operations with a group of French irregulars … But he was never a soldier under a soldier’s discipline, and he knew this meant that his courage had not been put to the ultimate test.

Failing to do well in the war – then allowing too much to be made of the little he did do – was followed by years of admiring the courage of boxers and bullfighters in the ring, soldiers under the pines, old men at sea, people who by association could channel his wish for courage. The struggle was always a solitary one: the fate of one man against nature, one hunter against savage forces, with no God to help him. Hemingway founded a style in the space left for heroism. Indeed, that is the way his style works: by never actually mentioning the main anxiety. Writing to his siblings from his desk at the Kansas City Star on 5 November 1917, he already spoke of himself in the third person, and, having just gained entry to the Missouri Home Guard, ‘he is a beautiful soldier, and much to be admired.’ And later that month: ‘Today was a Day. The big Army and Navy Game was played here and there were about 5000 soldiers in town.’ He had written six stories for the previous day’s paper – two on the front page – but that wasn’t the kind of heroism he was looking for. He was too blind for the real army but he craved a uniform and jumped at the possibility of the ambulance driving gig when a colleague, Ted Brumback, came back after doing it for five months at the Verdun front. He dreamed himself in love with a movie star, Mae Marsh (she later claimed she never met him), and claimed ‘the only hope to remain single is to get in old War.’ And finally, in March 1918: ‘Any way it is a big relief to be enlisted in something … Oh Boy. Brumstein and the Great Tubby and the stupendous Hix all envy the gt. Hem__y.’ It’s Boy’s Own stuff, an awfully big adventure, and soon the tired American backyard with its lakes and its fishing and all those domestic interiors will gain the weight the young writer needs them to gain when seen through the prism of a European war, a lonely exile, and heady hours in the mountains, clashing by night. You can see it here as it forms in his mind. He is growing into himself. ‘We have a bunch of dandy fellows in our unit,’ he writes in May 1918, ‘and are going to have a wonderful time.’ There has never been a more self-conscious ‘soldier’ in the history of literature. From New York:

It was funny yesterday when we donned our uniforms. We put them on yest aft and went to supper and then in the evening walked up 5th Avenue to Broadway and then over. We thought at first it would be fun because all privates and non commissioned officers have to salute us. But by the time we had returned about 200 salutes it had lost all its fun.

Before his troop ship had even left dock:

We paraded 85 blocks down 5th ave today and were reviewed by President Wilson. About 75,000 were in line and we were ye star attraction. I was made a sergeant in ye squadron and led the 2nd Platoon out in the middle of the avenue all by myself and saluted Ye Great Woodrow. I felt lonesome.

It was a Red Cross march but Hemingway scarcely mentions that, having got to where he wanted: the uniform, other men snapping a salute, the loneliness.

He almost had something to write about. (You can hear him speaking to himself between the lines of his letters.) Give me weather. Give me landscape. And once he’s in Italy you can see how the Old Brute, as he liked to be called in his youth, the novelist who would become the most famous of combat scribes, is always boyish when confronted by the real costs and tragedies of war. A postcard to a friend at the Kansas City Star in June 1918:

Having a wonderful time!!! Had my baptism of fire my first day here, when an entire munition plant exploded. We carried them in like at the General Hospital, Kansas City. I go to the front tomorrow. Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.

I bet they did. Thirty-five people were killed when the Sutter and Thevenot plant blew up, a dozen miles from Milan, and the resulting carnage was apparently less Boy’s Own than Hell’s Backyard. Yet for ‘Hem’ it earns three exclamation marks and he had a ‘wonderful time’; years later, in Death in the Afternoon, the wonder would have turned into a memory of slaughter.

It’s when he is first in Italy that the young Hemingway is caught in a dugout when a mortar lands, injuring his legs. He repairs to a hospital to recover, falls in love with his nurse, prepares a list of drinks, and embarks on the mental perambulations that would result in A Farewell to Arms. He now finds in style what he fears he lacks himself, discipline, control, experience and tact. He got a silver medal for valour in the conflict and later the Nobel Prize. The bridge between the two was Paris, and these letters show what Paris did to make him a modernist.[2] But it was during that early stage in Italy that he got what mattered most:

Well I can now hold up my hand and say I’ve been shelled by high explosive, shrapnel and gas. Shot at by trench mortars, snipers and machine guns. And as an added attraction an aeroplane machine gunning the lines. I’ve never had a hand grenade thrown at me, but a rifle grenade struck rather close. Maybe I’ll get a hand grenade later.

He could never laugh at the young man he had been. He laughed instead at the writers the young man had read and who were kind to him. The epigraph to The Torrents of Spring is from Fielding: ‘The only source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me) is affectation.’ Yet the affectations Hemingway satirises in the book are never his own. They are those of Sherwood Anderson, who influenced his style and sent him to Paris with a pocketful of introductions. Or Fitzgerald, who would get it in the neck in A Moveable Feast for being worried about the size of his cock. Or Faulkner, who would be castigated in Death in the Afternoon for writing too much and being unedited. Joseph Fruscione’s Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry shows the two writers dancing round each other for several decades, making much of their differences and generally vying for supremacy.[3] But these American modernists, Fitzgerald too, perhaps missed the thing that bound them all together: mobilisation anxiety, and a desperate wish to be seen to have a code of courage and a degree of honesty to match the monumental character of the prose.

Fruscione compares Hemingway’s biographer Michael Reynolds’s story of Ernie returning in 1919 to his high school in Oak Park to show off his blood-stained uniform to the children, with a ‘similar act of masculine self-aggrandisement’ on Faulkner’s part. This was steep, even by Hemingway standards of myth-making: Faulkner ‘claimed to be an officer and lied about his wartime life, often affecting a limp in the mid-1920s when in Oxford, New Orleans and New York. Having passed himself off to the RAF as a Briton in the late 1910s, Faulkner returned from his air force training in full military regalia and with convincing war fictions.’ One of his pleasures was ‘taking the salute of other soldiers’. According to the entry for Faulkner in John Sutherland’s brilliantly entertaining Lives of the Novelists, Faulkner probably never took to the air.[4] ‘What comes to mind,’ Sutherland writes, ‘is the raving George IV on his deathbed, convinced he had fought gallantly at the Battle of Waterloo … In 1943, sending a good-luck charm to a young relative who was training with the RAF, Faulkner said he would have liked to have sent his dog tags: “but I lost them in Europe in Germany … I never found them again after my crack-up in ’18.”’

Who can blame them? They were what they were: fiction-makers. Hemingway liked to consider himself above the mental fatigue of reputation-building and social mountaineering. But he tied himself into both at a very young age and never got over it. He wanted to be the big man in town, the big man in every town, and, eventually, he knew, such men are made for solitude: that was the fantasy of personal integrity he sold to the world. His letters prove that he would have failed his own test at the first post. Yet he had in abundance the quality novelists must have if they are to be any good at all: the determination to see it as only they can. Martha Gellhorn was famous for several things, among them being married to ‘E’ and never talking about it, but once, in my presence, she pointed at a candle and said: ‘If E was here he would say there were two candles. He’d insist. Even though we can all see there is one candle on the table, E would say “two” and he would argue his case and never give up until he believed it himself and we all believed it, too.’

Yet feet apart, shoulders square, cigar snug in the corner of the mouth, eyes sparkling with experience, Hemingway is the bullshit-detector of modern literature: every verb earned by toil, every noun inhabited, every adjective deleted, they say, the better to tell you how it was. (He was always a ‘gauge of morale’, Edmund Wilson wrote, ‘a barometer of his times’.) But like many simple writers, Hemingway grew to be ideological and defensive. The world wasn’t big enough for his style and Fitzgerald’s: one of them had to be a faker, and it was never going to be the one who had run with the bulls in Pamplona, as opposed to running with the bullshit in Hollywood. Hemingway grew to dislike other writers not because he feared they might be better than he was, but because he felt their way of writing might serve above all to question his own. Fitzgerald was half in love with delusion, and so was the America that loved him and forgot him, before discovering him again. But Hemingway couldn’t buy that: he needed reality to be a series of reliable turmoils that only good prose could entertain, using light and perspective, much in the manner of his hero Cézanne. But the wonderful fact that emerges from his letters is that Hemingway was the greatest faker of them all. He may have prided himself on never being dazzled by diamonds as big as the Ritz, but in the dark he knew he was maimed by his own need to shine. The letters quickly lead us to his famous sojourn in Paris, his wife Hadley, his best teachers, and a habit of nouns.

Our room likes [sic] like a fine Grog shop – Rhum, Asti Spumante and Cinzano Vermouth fill one shelf. I brew a rum punch that’d gaol you.

Living is very cheap. Hotel room is 12 francs and there are 12.61 to the paper one. A meal for two hits a male about 12-14 francs – about 50 cents apiece. Wine is 60 centimes. Good Pinard.

People who want to know an imaginative writer – especially a novelist known for his exploits in the real world – should look at his reference books. The major part of Hemingway’s library, which included volumes from childhood on, was kept at the Finca Vigía in Cuba, and is now held at the JFK Library in Boston. Hiding among all the works by his rivals are volumes on guns, fishing, wars, flowers, the French language, birds, submarines, ballet, the male hormone, drama, crime, the Civil War, interior decoration, Nazis, baseball, painting, rocks, boxing, bullfighters, the wild west, Chinese cooking, skiing, the sea, cats and the weather. And among these, A Dictionary of Military Terms by Edward Samuel Farrow (New York, 1918); The First World War, 1914-18: Personal Experiences of Lieut-Col. C. à Court Repington (London, 1920); Wine and the Wine Lands of the World, With Some Account of Places Visited by Frank Hedges Butler (New York, 1926). His biographers seem to have missed an accompanying volume, a sort of coda: Hope and Help for the Alcoholic by Harold Lovell, published in New York in 1952.

[1] Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-61 (Bodley Head, 534 pp., £20, January, 978 1 84792 193 2) gives an excellent account of that part of Hemingway’s life.

[2] We have to wait until Vol. II for a real sense of what Paris life would do for him. In the present volume we have him meeting Gertrude Stein earlier than previously advertised, and Ezra Pound showing him round.

[3] Ohio, 304 pp., $49.95, January, 978 0 8142 1174 8.

[4] Profile, 818 pp., £30, October 2011, 978 1 84668 157 8.