Monday, April 26, 2021

Human Heart for Sale, Well Worn: Hemingway

Our erstwhile safari guide in 1954, appearing to contemplate checking out of the mortal hotel after being honoured with a Nobel Prize. (John F. Kennedy Archival Library)

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn." – Ernest Hemingway, ca. 1927.

The opening epigram pretty much perfectly sums up the essence of Ernest Hemingway’s strange magic. Ostensibly the result of a drunken wager between fellow writers about who could write the shortest story, but also based on an actual journalistic article about a tragic 1910 fire in the Spokane Press, this early example of flash fiction spookily captures some of the inherently sad ekphrasis that so saturated Hemingway’s heavy soul (even if the sodden tale might be slightly apocryphal). He was, of course, the winner of that bet, pocketing ten dollars for his effortless ease and demonstrating an uncanny skill at restrained understatement which surely must have originated in his own early jobs as a news reporter. Including for my hometown paper, The Toronto Star.

Hemingway, the subject of a three-part, six-hour PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, remained a news reporter all his life, even in his novels, and his news beat was the troubled territory of the human heart, and the often insurmountable challenges facing someone who wanted to be a good person, a truthful person, but who constantly and morbidly chafed against the limits of his own capacity to simply exist. Over the decades of a surprisingly short but intensely compressed career, he sold us his heart, worn out and wounded as it might be, in a sustained feat of literary bravery that far outdistanced those more maudlin and neurotic attempts at masculine prowess so often mistaken for strength and courage. It strikes me that only Burns and his frequent collaborator Novick would have been fully capable of undertaking this massive biopic project. They and their talented team of archivists continue to make instantly recognizable Burns documentaries: insightfully historic films with so much vim, vigor and verve that they have practically become a brand name.

Hemingway is divided in three episodes that I prefer to think of as chapters: A Writer, 1899-1929; The Avatar, 1929-1944; and The Blank Page, 1944-1961. The documentary is audaciously ambitious, breathtakingly achieved and almost unbearably sorrowful. There is, however, a fourth unscreened and ongoing chapter to his narrative arc, and that’s the one that all of us wrote in our imaginations while reading his brilliantly succinct prose, which includes his posthumous life, both in our shared cultural history and in our own private literary dreams. My own first occurred in an unusual way, prior to my actual reading of his works, via my teenaged encounter with Carlos Baker’s masterful 1969 biography Hemingway: A Life Story, which came so rapidly on the heels of the author’s almost inevitable 1961 decision, given his familial roots and existential disposition, to end the entertaining if infuriating life that he had so assiduously shared with us.

This unusual order, my exposure to a writer’s personality, character, obsessions and self-mythologizing even before absorbing the art he made, proved to be a most fruitful one. Baker became my Hemingway talisman, so to speak, further guiding my thinking about this mysterious man and artist with his follow-up 1971 book Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961. Those six hundred letters by a troubled genius, great artist, alcoholic misogynist, visionary essayist, daring war correspondent, difficult friend, impossible husband, pathological liar, egomaniac, gender dysphoric and tenderhearted monster were illuminating, to say the least. Especially since they by then followed a period of my own immersion into his actual written work. I asked myself, and him: what exactly is all this hubbub about? And it took me many years to learn for myself just exactly how modern, daring and even experimental a writer he actually was.

I resisted him at first, perhaps because I also knew about how obnoxious and theatrical he could be, how weird his macho-posturing was, how thoughtless he was towards his three wives and multitude of young mistresses, not to mention his scarred children (after all, kids growing up in the nervous shadow of the Faulkner Syndrome can never be that easy). I was also early on overly enamoured of writers who I thought (mistakenly) were riskier and more radical than he was: Joyce, Stein, Kafka, Beckett, CĂ©line, Hesse, Musil and Mann. Eventually I came to realize, and the Burns project illustrates this so effectively, that in actuality he was the more experimental, jettisoning everything that was not essential, all literary decoration, ornate icing and distracting piping. He was and is all cake, with no filling whatsoever, and baked to perfection.

The Avatar, ca. 1930.

So it is. So it goes. I’ve learned my lesson. And Burns and Novick reminded me of my early sins of assumption all over again. While watching Hemingway, I mused aloud to our two cats: how could I possibly have overlooked the true extent of the unexcelled daring of E.H.’s prose experiments? Well, most likely because he was a jerk and a creep who loved wild animals but also murdered them for fun, who loved wild women but also maligned and insulted them, also for fun. And yet he had this magic gift which, although he squandered some of it in theatrics, was still so towering a talent that it was clear he had forgotten more than most writers ever knew. He was the throbbing thread connecting Herman Melville to Norman Mailer (another favourite incendiary writer of mine, despite his many character flaws) and thus also connecting Mailer to another vastly gifted American author, the doomed David Foster Wallace, who came of age at the end of the Yankee century that both Hemingway and Mailer helped to define.

One of the best places to observe that quirky American experiment in literature that Hemingway personified is in a book by the literary critic Leslie Fiedler. Fielder’s 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel explored the selfsame subterranean themes that Burns and Novick delve into in this masterful documentary. Though many have taken Fiedler to task for his maverick and cranky applications of psychological interpretations (mostly Freudian and Jungian) to the canonical contributions of figures such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Mailer and others, and even though he could often be as truculent and contrary as his esteemed peer Harold Bloom, one can hardly fault him for finding the main creative vein coursing through the sometimes neurotic literary gold mine embodied by all these figures. Most notably: the great man, the manly man, the iconic man, the frightened man, not to mention, in Ernest, the disturbed and doomed boy his mother used to dress up as a girl while dressing his sister as a boy.

The absolute author, ca. 1946.

Hilton Als wrote with his usual alacrity in The New Yorker about precisely how these two filmmakers took a peek behind the myths about this writer, and most crucially, how their film examines what Als calls “the burden of the author’s performance of himself” and how he “learned to play the role of himself through study and persistence.” And therein lies the key to entering an accurate assessment of the author’s true nature: there may not have been a true nature. Instead, a gifted but fragile and morbidly sensitive writer managed to successfully stage a persona blitz, almost as a survival mechanism, let alone a defense mechanism, in order to withstand the slings and arrows of his outrageous literary fortunes and abysmal personal shortcomings. Indeed, the charming illustration by Aline Bureau that accompanies the wonderful Als examination also managed to sum up visually what we’re dealing with when first we try to unearth the ‘true’ Hemingway: she portrays the legendary writer as an iceberg, surrounded by actual icebergs, up to the rim of his thick turtleneck sweater in deep but placid waters, and with 95% of himself submerged and out of view.

That very inaccessibility is at the creative core of Burns and Novick’s honest yet still reverential study of the man, his work, his friends and enemies, all delivered in their usual masterful manner using almost only archival still images and occasional historical footage, and relayed in the stalwart voice of their favorite narrator, Peter Coyote. (Once again, his dry intonation and calm cadence are utterly impeccable.) Burns and Novick  circle around the fact that Hemingway was playing a role, almost pretending to be himself.

Which is why the second episode is entitled The Avatar: by the time of his relatively youthful acclaim, he was already presenting a symbolic representation of himself to the rest of the world, a stand-in, so to speak, that became more and more challenging to maintain as he himself aged not so very gracefully. Hemingway himself is performed by the actor Jeff Daniels, in highly effective readings of his letters, novels and stories. And it is when he intones a passage from a letter the author wrote to his father explaining the style he sought after that the true scale and scope of his ongoing achievements can best be calibrated. Because he did exactly what he said he wanted to do:

You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not just to depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful, you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides, three dimensions, and if possible, four, that you can write the way I want to.

One complaint that some viewers have made about this film is that it seems to (and perhaps it does) focus as much or more attention on what was going on behind the scenes in his lived life as it does on his writing life. While valid, I suppose, this observation surprises me, not least because first of all there was almost no separation between his life and how he wrote about it, even when he fictionalized some of the details; and secondly, I found that it actually shed some profound light on his actual craft as a compulsively hard-working writer. Despite all his traveling, rabblerousing, romancing, drinking, drinking and more drinking, he always seemed – until depression overtook him – to summon the sheer spiritual power to get up early and write, on something, until about noon, after which he returned to his second vocation: trying to keep up with his own mythology.

Als writes, “Hemingway is a disembodied movie about a writer who was disemboweled by depression, alcoholism, sex shame and vanity.” All of that is true, yet this lovingly constructed documentary is a cinematic masterpiece. In the same way that the fact that though the author was capable of some hair-raisingly neurotic monstrosity as a man, many of his best works, The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and an armful of gorgeous short stories (such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”), were all masterpieces of a special sort.

What sort? The sort only one person on earth could have created. The kind who, in a supreme act of artful ventriloquism, has one of his principal characters (Frederic in A Farewell to Arms) remark seemingly casually:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
The Blank Page, 1957. Yousuf Karsh, (National Gallery)

By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 (an honour he believed to be a curse), two years after releasing his last consensus masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea as a short novella rather than a longer work (ostensibly, as he admitted, to share it quickly in order to prove he had not lost his touch, and which had earned him a Pulitzer Prize,  he started his downward arc towards what the filmmakers call The Blank Page. But even that editorial decision, driven by obvious insecurity, accidentally proved to be yet further evidence of his prodigious skills at sheer linguistic economy and emotional understatement, what he himself referred to as his “iceberg theory.” By then he had also turned into what I might call a balsamic reduction of himself, distilled down to essential ingredients, compressed down to sheer personal and professional plight.

And despite being perhaps the most perfect illustration of what another American writer, John Updike, declared – “Celebrity is a mask which eats into the face”—he was still deserving, even in his spiraling descent towards what he always feared, that same depression and self-destruction that took away his own father, of another accolade laid at his feet by a British novelistic and stylistic counterpart, Graham Greene, who lauded him for producing what he called “a record more truthful than actual history.” It was a jaw-dropping record that spanned seven novels, six short-story collections, two non-fiction works, and three more posthumous novels, four more short- story collections, three more non-fiction works, and a mountain of letters to friends, lovers, enemies and editors, all delivered in a spookily journalistic vibe that abandoned the idea of the invisible narrator. For as the documentary illustrates, his narrator was always Hemingway, no matter whom he was masquerading as.

Regardless of what one thinks of his public masquerade as the ultra- macho poet of love and war, he did manage somehow single-handedly to alter the landscape of American literature, and by extension, to some degree, global literature. He was followed by other treaders of a shared literary path through the thickets of what it means to be alive in times of dread: Mailer, James Jones, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and eventually even Wallace and Kurt Vonnegut. (Vonnegut took E.H.’s iceberg theory to heart and wrote tiny; Wallace did not, preferring to be a Yankee Proust.)

On a lighter note, further evidence of his lasting impact upon the way we write, or should try to, is to be found in an actual but still somewhat surreal tech tool named after him. This is an actual promo blurb: “Hemingway Editor App makes your writing bold and clear. The app highlights lengthy, complex sentences and common errors; if you see a yellow sentence, shorten or split it. If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic — try editing this sentence to remove the red. You can utilize a shorter word in place of a purple one. Mouse over them for hints. Adverbs and weakening phrases are helpfully shown in blue. Get rid of them and pick words with force, perhaps. Phrases in green have been marked to show a passive voice.” What could ever go wrong?

Unlike some viewers, I really don’t think that Burns and Novick dwell too much on his private manias at the expense of what made him the writer that he was and remains. On the contrary, they clearly illustrate, through readings and enactments, and especially through interviews with other great writers such as Edna O’Brien, that for him there was zero division or distinction between his writing and his life. I also totally concur with Zoe Trodd, who believes that the simplicity of his prose is highly deceptive, and that he crafted his almost skeletal, cinematic, snapshot sentences in response to Henry James’s observation that World War I had used up words, but also in direct reflection upon the edgy stylings of an early supporter, Gertrude Stein. Bellow famously satirized this style as “Do you have any emotions? Strangle them.” But his authorial voice nonetheless became synonymous with what Stein called the “lost generation” (the first of several, perhaps) and competed vigorously with his one-time friend F. Scott Fitzgerald for the title of the writer who best captured the spirit of the age. In my humble opinion they were tied in that contest.

Through all his ups and downs and downs, Hemingway was always a virile, if flawed, safari guide to a clearing in the forest of feelings. The most harrowing, yet also most revealing, parts of the documentary cover the myriad of causes that may have contributed to his mental decline, writer’s block, and evident paranoia: the drinking, of course, but also high blood pressure and the lingering side effects from multiple concussions he had sustained during the course of his adventures. Medically, this condition is known, however unromantically, as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I myself, however, prefer to call it by a different name: human heart for sale, well worn.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. He is also the author of Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, which came out in 2020.  

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