01 Apr 2012

Early Hemingway

Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo

A nice little essay, in Stale of all places, by Nathan Heller on Hemingway, discussing why greater respect is generally accorded Hemingway’s earlier work, his short stories in particular being preferred to certain later works featuring a recognizable note of self parody.

Those who knew Hemingway well, especially in these early years, reported that his braggadocio was something of a cover: Far from being the swaggering, insouciant rake of lore, he was emotionally fragile, stirred into panics by women’s rejections, prone to insomnia, workaholic and perfectionist (in Paris, he’d spend all day writing and sometimes come home with a single sentence), and given to weird and compulsive record-keeping projects, like tallying exact word counts or tracking his wife’s menstrual rhythms. He was what we would now call a neurotic, and the struggle to make sense of a life suddenly coming apart gave his work the urgency and contours earlier efforts had lacked. Hemingway was at that point in the habit of composing “sketches” that doubled as diary entries, and in the course of writing up an odd and flirtatious trip to Pamplona with friends and enemies, he realized he had more than a few pages of material to work with. The result was The Sun Also Rises (1926), Hemingway’s first real novel and, he later said, the most successful book of his career.

It’s also a strikingly linear novel. Few time cuts or flashbacks appear, and its narration has the effect of plodding forward, never looking more than a few feet ahead. Yet the book seems viscerally vivid and alive, as in its description of bull-running:

    There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. … You could tell by the degree of intensity in the shout how bad a thing it was that was happening.

Every sentence here is shaped by a sequence of perception: We see the people running, then become aware of a slowing, then see the bulls pass, then see one strike a man, then see him go in the air. And on. It’s only in the final, beautifully colloquial sentence that a causal interpretation and a moral judgment—in short, a narrative frame—finally appears.

What Hemingway captured, in other words, was the familiar, personal, very un-Jamesian experience of processing the world directly in time. His work of this period connects with our animal habits of consciousness. And the struggle it brings to the foreground is the struggle to make sense of—to find a line of narrative through—this disordered experience. Hemingway’s insight was to understand that this struggle was not just a literary one. It’s a fundamental part of how people themselves perceive and try to make sense of the world.

Read the whole thing.


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