Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Hemingway in the Beginning

I LAST READ The Sun Also Rises long enough ago to have forgotten all but the odd detail. But the sharpness of the details I remembered—the chestnut trees of Paris, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—was a sufficient reminder that the book had always struck me as fresh and vivid, the perfect expression of a young writer getting into his proper stride. When I first read it I was a young writer myself, and scarcely into my stride at all. I remember that the book filled me with envy.

Reading it once again, and at the end of my own career, I am less envious—clearly Hemingway’s own personality had always scared him into suicidal excess—but still enchanted by a prose style that gave us such a vivid semblance of simplicity. All too often he overdoes the repetitions in those dialogue passages where the speakers seem mainly intent on echoing each other’s phrases. Worse, when they get drunk they start echoing themselves. But even with that irritating trick, he occasionally gets it so right that you laugh. Mike, the most consistently drunk of all the book’s drunkards, is funny the second time that he says the old lady’s bags fell on him: funny because he first said it only a few seconds before, and has either forgotten he did so or is under the impression that nobody understood him. It is just the way that young, inexperienced drinkers speak when they are plastered. I used to do it myself, fifty years ago.

In the book, scarcely anybody is old enough to have a past. They live in the present moment because they are young, and have to. So they pretend to be experienced. The central figure, Jake Barnes, has the author’s past, except that Jake’s past is not a lie. He might be the author’s self-image, and not least because he lives in a state of permanent sexual frustration. Certainly Hemingway was always made nervous by women, although he was so attractive in his looks and energy that almost any woman he wanted would come to him like a mosquito to naked skin. Jake’s impotence even in the presence of the beautiful English aristocratic wildcat Lady Brett Ashley no doubt dramatizes the author’s wishes along with his troubles. (In real life, on one of his first trips to Pamplona, Hemingway, with his first wife Hadley looking on, paid attention to Lady Duff Twysden and had a fistfight with his Jewish acquaintance Harold Loeb because Loeb had been successful with her.) But Jake is more physically damaged than mentally. The physical damage—its nature is never quite specified, although later on, in real life, Hemingway spoke of an amputation—has been acquired during the war when he was flying on the southern front. As a consequence, Jake and Brett are in a condition of lusting after each other without being able to do anything about it. The possibility of Jake’s being able to do something less than complete for Brett but still significant is not canvassed, except in a single enigmatic passage in the book when the two of them seem to have attained just enough satisfaction to make them more frustrated than ever.

Today’s reader might judge that to be a failure of the author’s imagination. But there is no failure of the imagination in Hemingway’s making Jake into a war pilot. It is exactly the kind of thing that Hemingway liked to imagine, in the same way he imagined himself to be a champion boxer, even on the day when Morley Callaghan knocked him down. (Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris is another book I must read again.) Hemingway’s war service, though earthbound, was dangerous enough to get him badly wounded, but he lied even about that, dramatizing, at every retelling, the action he had seen and even the wounds he had received. Later on, in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway made the hero a warrior so damaged that the nymphlike nurse Catherine seems to be bringing him back from the dead. But already, in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway had done better than that: or, if you like, worse. Creating the self-projected character of the noble and stoically frustrated Jake, Hemingway not only gave himself extra wounds. He gave himself wings.

He was not alone in painting a picture of himself as the ace flyer. William Faulkner was prone to doing the same, until he was caught at it. Faulkner could actually fly but he never flew in combat, although he allowed people to think he had. Hemingway was forever leaving room for you to think things. During World War II, in which he let it be known that he had personally liberated Paris, he did brave deeds that those responsible for the safety of the people around him devoutly wished that he would desist from doing. Most of the warlike tasks that he set for himself were more than half-crazy, but he always left room, in the telling, for his readers and listeners to believe that his follies had been a strategically important part of the Allied war effort. You would swear that he had arm-wrestled German submarines into submission.

In real life, many writers are liars. Perhaps, when starting off, they all are: no real story is ever as neat as the writer tells it. Politicians with a tendency to self-glorifying exaggeration usually get caught early and are advised by their handlers to cut it out, so that Hillary Clinton doesn’t land more than once in Sarajevo “under sniper fire,” and Joe Biden, who once expanded his every experience into an act of heroism, eventually learns to feign veracity. But writers have to advise themselves. In World War II the poet James Dickey was the navigator of a P-61 Black Widow night fighter operating in the Pacific. You would think that such a service record would be romantic enough, but he used to improve his past by hinting that he had been in on the missions to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Unfortunately this self-serving legend—he was a man who needed more guilt than he deserved—got into his work, and even when he had a fact to convey he would pump it up so as to increase his own significance. Hemingway suffered from the same disease. Having noticed how the narrative charm of a seemingly objective style would put a gloss on reality automatically, he habitually trod on the accelerator instead of the brake. As a result, much of his later work was ruined. He overstated even the understatements. But with The Sun Also Rises he was still testing his power to enchant.

There is not much that is enchanting about his treatment of Robert Cohn, which must have sounded anti-Semitic even at the time, one would have thought. Nor is there anything enchanting about his repeated use of the word “nigger,” but that’s a problem for teachers and publishers, many of whom are African Americans but seem not to object much, as if—and this is true—Hemingway’s little novel, which is really only an extended novella, was a thing of its time. Whether it is also a thing for eternity is debatable. Certainly it continues to count in my own eternity, but that will soon come to an end. In the short time I have left for reading, however, I am very glad to have found occasion for hearing once again how Jake and Brett adored each other in that strange, mannered, yet somehow sensual dialogue, as if a phrase could be a caress. The book is a metaphorical triumph, and all while having scarcely a single metaphor in it, or even a simile. In fact only once does Hemingway say that something is like something else. In Jake’s mind, Brett’s lovely figure has the curves of a racing yacht’s hull. Our minds might tell us that a woman whose figure reminded us of a boat would be an awkward proposition, but our hearts are already captured.