Book Me…

…Book Blog by Dolly Delightly

Tag: Edmund Wilson

Ernest Hemingway: The self-righteous, no good and bastardly monarch of American literature

Ernest Hemingway was a sovereign of stalwart, muscular fiction whose “gentleness and understanding and probity was never far away from his most appalling behaviour”. And Hemingway could certainly be appalling, so much so that most of his life reads like a cautionary tale. Except every word in Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, Hemingway’s Boat, is based on archived documents from the JFK Presidential Library, the testimony of Hemingway’s family and friends, his corpus of work and studious ratiocination on behalf of the biographer. And yet there are gaps in Hemingway’s apocryphal legacy, which Hendrickson fills with caution on the side of temerity. There have been many books about Hemingway throughout the years, which helped compound the myth of his success as a turn of luck. Hendrickson dispels this popular notion early on by saying there’s no truth in the fact that Hemingway “sprung full-blown into the American consciousness as a serious writer” overnight. “What is true,” writes Hendrickson, “is that, for nearly his whole life, Hemingway had a genius, among his many geniuses, for gathering knowledge inside of him with astonishing… The statement can apply as much to the intricacies of big-game fishing as to the art of shaking daiquiris as to the craft of writing fiction: he simply found out, and lodged it inside him very fast. In so many instances, he seemed to mutate from eager novice to acknowledged expert with barely any larval stage in between.” This was also true of Hemingway when it came to sailing and angling, a penchant for which he developed as early as a “five-year-old-nightcrawler-fisherman” in Horton Bay, Michigan, and later resurrected with the purchase of Pilar, the boat which became a permanent fixture in the turbulent seas of his life.

Hemingway was notoriously mercurial. He reviled his “chickenshit critics,” whom he execrated with vituperative epistles and his “turncoat” friends (Max Eastman, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Charles Scribner) for failing to bend to his will. Eventually, he earned himself a reputation as an antagonistic cockalorum, whose talent had gone to “malice and nonsense and self-praise” as the bite of fame chomped down on his ego. In a poem about his former friend Archibald MacLeish seconded this notion, saying: “What became of him? Fame became of him.” Few could keep up with Hemingway; fewer still could endure his boorishness or withstand his competitive sportsmanship, which cost him handsomely both in friendships and in reputation particularly after the publication of The Green Hills of Africa, which was universally panned. The critics were merciless. One of them, John Chamberlain, who was writing for the New York Times at the time, said the book was “divided between big game lore and salon controversy”.  Chamberlain went on: “Mr Hemingway has so simplified his method that all his characters talk the lingo perfected in The Sun Also Rises, whether these characters are British, Austrian, Arabian, Ethiopian or Kikuyu…Can it be that Hemingway has been writing pidgin English from the start?…to offer Green Hills of Africa as a profound philosophical experience is something else again. It is simply an overextended book about hunting, with a few incidental felicities and a number of literary wisecracks thrown in.” According to Hemingway, however, the book was misunderstood by reviewers, who failed to see his calling as a man of nature, an explorer in the throes of a daring adventure.

Hendrickson aims to succeed where Hemingway failed by depicting his subject first and foremost as an adventurer “catching 420 blue marlins” and sailing to foreign lands rather than a “monarch of American literature” famed for his “imagistic economical stroke”. And to a certain extent the biographer prospers, as reading the book one gets a distinct impression of Hemingway’s preternatural inclination for the outdoors. Hendrickson is also keen to outline his subject’s virtues saying “when it was good with Papa – the writing, the fishing, the drinking, the eating, the talking, the palling around” was in fact so good it made “few things seem better.” But his picture of Hemingway also aims to be a balanced one as he scrupulously documents Hemingway’s frequent bouts of anger, embarrassing public outbursts and pointed cruelty, especially toward his successive spouses. At one point Hendrickson posits that Hemingway “was always making things up from what he knew,” and this was no different when it came to his wives, who always made it into his books in one “unflattering way or another”. Not only that, Hendrickson suggests that Hemingway felt guilty for the break-up of his first marriage and in part could never fully devote himself to his subsequent wives. Certainly, they seemed to be secondary to his sporting life and to Pilar, for it was there that that he dreamed up new books and taught his sons “how to reel in something that feels like Moby Dick,” that he accidentally shot himself in both legs, fell drunk from the flying bridge, wrote “achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters,” propositioned women, hunted German subs and saved guests and family members from shark attacks. Pilar was “intimately his, and he hers, for twenty-seven-years which were his final twenty-seven-years. She’d lasted through three wives, the Nobel Prize, and all his ruin.” Unfortunately, she may have also contributed to it.

Yet, as Hendrickson notes, it was mainly Hemingway that ruined himself as he continued to self-destruct and alienate people by “telling terrific lies about real people” in his work, which he believed “was somehow more truer than it had actually happened”.  Writing about Hemingway in his book, The True Gen, Denis Brian describes him as a “charming bully and artful sadist who sought to get you drunk in a bar and then take you out into the dark and sucker punch you.” Occasionally, Hemingway shared this opinion of himself once saying to a friend he was “self-righteous, no good and bastardly”. The “son of an old Oak Park doctor and a socially pretentious mother” from a “faith-heavy Midwestern family” got his tempter from his father “who had a propensity to erupt into red rage”. Hemingway’s own anger got worse with time. When his reputation was dwindling he hoped to ingratiate himself with the critics again with the publication of Across the Trees and into the River, a book he thought his best. “I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices,” he wrote, “ and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time”. But the press almost unanimously deemed it “embarrassing” and “held together by blind rage”.  Hemingway took out his anger on his fourth wife, Mary, periodically subjecting her to verbal abuse (“whore, bitch, liar, moron”), countless public infidelities and increasingly manic behaviour.  “At table his favourite and frequent means of protesting any word, glance, gesture or food he doesn’t like,” she wrote to his publisher, “is to put his full, freshly served plate on the floor.” By this point, Hemingway was in his early 50s and “not a well man”.  He suffered with “ringing ears, migraines, hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems, depression, and paranoia – and all these ailments, and others, were not only ageing him at what seemed a far faster rate than his chronological age, but each was prone to balloon up wildly and almost virally before subsiding again.” Years of hard living, as well as physical and cerebral exertion, left Hemingway a shell of a man he once was and he could no longer find solace in anything except Pilar, his wondrous “fishing machine” for which his love only deepened with age.

“I envy you like hell,” wrote Fitzgerald to Hemingway toward the end of his life without realising the irony of his words, for by this point the “twentieth century Byron,” as Hemingway was once described, was no longer the brilliant “voyager in literary modernism” but rather a bitter and ailing scrivener responsible for “egregiously bad” copy. Among the many snapshots of Hemingway offered by posterity, and an array of biographical paraphernalia, the most prevailing one remains that of him as a writer of perhaps fleeting but profound talent. Hendrickson’s work certainly provides another dimension to his legacy, but one which neither adds nor detracts from the place Hemingway had previously occupied. The book offers a cornucopia of information about Hemingway’s sporting passions, which defined most of his life and in a somewhat nebulous way gives a more complete picture of the writer who to a certain extent has been a casualty of his own popularity. But the last word lies with Hemingway, who after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1954 penned a letter to the Swedish Academy, saying: “Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.” And forgotten he will certainly never be.

William Somerset Maugham: A writer with an extraordinary insight into the human psyche

William Somerset Maugham is remembered by most as a superannuated curmudgeon, famously described by the critic Edmund Wilson as a man of “peevish and insistent grumbling”. He was nevertheless loved by those in his immediate circles and greatly admired by a cortege of prominent literati. His reputation and prodigious body of work catapulted him to the echelons of English literature thereby making him one of the most important, if undervalued, writers of his generation. Cuttingly self-critical, predominantly due to his latent homosexuality and his difficulties in dealing with it, Maugham expressed his self-deprecation most cogently in The Summing Up, saying: “My sympathies are limited…I can only be myself, and partly by nature, partly by the circumstances of my life, it is a partial self…And so, never having felt some of the fundamental emotions of normal men, it is impossible that my work should have the intimacy, the broad human touch and animal serenity which the greatest writers alone can give.” Maugham had a stammer; a penchant for Raymond Chandler; a neurotic fear of blindness which he said would mean “the end of life”; a preternatural ear for the metronomic beat of the human heart; and a deep admiration for Paul Gauguin, whose stained-glass painting entitled Woman with Fruit Maugham bought on his visit to Tahiti and had built into the ceiling of his garret study. The latter is important in so far as it demonstrates Maugham’s panoptic interest in his subject – Gauguin – about whom he wrote a book.

The Moon and Sixpence is based loosely on the painter’s life as a stockbroker who forsakes everything – family, home, reputation – to pursue his burgeoning artistic inclinations. Upon first meeting Charles Strickland (Gauguin) the anonymous 23 year-old narrator, who is also a writer, thinks him unremarkable in every particular but a rather “good, dull, honest, plain man” with a docile “pleasant, hospitable” wife of 17 years and two “nice-looking” children. After the meeting, he surmises the Stricklands by saying: “They would grow old sensibly; they would see their son and daughter come to years of reason, marry in due course – the one a pretty girl, future mother of healthy children; the other a handsome, manly fellow, obviously a soldier; and at last, prosperous in their dignified retirement, beloved by their descendants, after a happy, not un-useful life, in the fullness of their age they would sink into the grave.” No prediction could have been further from the truth. Shortly after meeting the couple, the narrator becomes unwittingly entangled in the tortuous plexus of their lives when Strickland suddenly abandons his wife. Distraught she enlists the stranger to seek out her husband in Paris, where he is purported to have fled. Amy Strickland bids the narrator farewell, saying: “Tell him that our home cries out for him. Everything is just the same, and yet everything is different. I can’t live without him. I’d sooner kill myself. Talk to him about the past, and all we’ve gone through together. What am I to say to the children when they ask for him? His room is exactly as it was when he left it. It’s waiting for him. We’re all waiting for him.” 

The narrator finds Strickland holed up in the “poorer quarters of Paris” in Hotel des Belgesa place full of characters “who might have stepped out of the pages of Honore de Balzac.” The young man confronts Strickland and is immediately disarmed by his “cordial agreement” with all the charges against him, perplexed the narrator says: “I was prepared to be persuasive, touching, and hortatory, admonitory and expostulating, if need be vituperative even, indignant and sarcastic; but what the devil does a mentor do when the sinner makes no bones about confessing his sin? I had no experience, since my own practice has always been to deny everything.” Questioned about the motives behind his desertion, and subsequent refusal to return home, Strickland simply replies: “I want to paint…I can’t help myself.  When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown,” which leads the narrator to accuse the aspiring artist of “cold cruelty” and “extraordinary callousness” and conclude him an “unmitigated cad.”

Five years lapse before the two men meet again when after “growing stale in London” the narrator returns to Paris. He finds Strickland living in a squalid attic “entirely indifferent to his surroundings”, he recalls: “His body was cadaverous. He wore the same suit that I had seen him in five years before; it was torn and stained, threadbare, and it hung upon him loosely, as though it had been made for someone else. I noticed his hands, dirty, with long nails; they were merely bone and sinew…. He gave me an extraordinary impression as he sat there… an impression of great strength; and I could not understand why it was that his emaciation somehow made it more striking.” The point Maugham makes throughout the book is that true happiness depends upon ourselves, and for Strickland that means fulfilling the “disturbing vision in his soul” whatever the cost. In his case it means manumitting himself from the impositions of polite society and adopting a taoistic lifestyle in order to find an artistic and spiritual homeostasis. The narrator observes: “Here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him; he was like a wrestler whose body is oiled; you could not get a grip on him; it gave him a freedom which was an outrage.” Growing increasingly eremitic Strickland renounces everything both materialistic and carnal, including love. He says: “I don’t want love. I haven’t time for it.  It’s weakness. I am a man, and sometimes I want a woman. When I’ve satisfied my passion I’m ready for other things.  I can’t overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work…I know lust. That’s normal and healthy. Love is a disease.” Ironically, the passion that holds Strickland in bondage is not “less tyrannical than love” nor less consuming.

Despite denying himself the title Maugham has exactly that which “greatest writers alone can give”, namely an extraordinary insight into the human psyche and an aesthetic sensibility to transliterate it with great intelligibilityLove and all its bittersweet accoutrements is a reoccurring, if not the driving, theme of Maugham’s work and I am yet to encounter an English writer who knows the doctrines of human relationships more perspicaciously than the one at hand. Writing on the subject in The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham says: “Love is absorbing; it takes the lover out of himself; the most clear-sighted, though he may know, cannot realise that his love will cease; it gives body to what he knows is illusion, and, knowing it is nothing else, he loves it better than reality. It makes a man a little more than himself, and at the same time a little less.  He ceases to be himself.  He is no longer an individual, but a thing, an instrument to some purpose foreign to his ego.” This is not exactly the case with Strickland who seems at “once too great and too small for love” in a romantic sense, but it is certainly true of him in regard to his artistic ambitions which subsume all else, including the self. Thinking about Strickland in retrospect and along these lines, the narrator says: “He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder. He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful.  He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to.  He had no such temptation. It never entered his head that compromise was possible. He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in the deserts of Thebes.  He asked nothing his fellows except that they should leave him alone.  He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others.  He had a vision.”

Indeed, he did. And that vision eventually took him to Tahiti, where he spent the last and happiest three years of his life. The narrator retraces Strickland’s steps to the “small green island” where he meets a number of people that help piece together the latter years of the painter’s life. There he learns that Strickland married a local girl (albeit reluctantly), had two children and lived in a simple “bungalow of unpainted wood, consisting of two small rooms” with no “furniture except the mats they used as beds, and a rocking-chair, which stood on the veranda”. While at first genuinely horrified by Strickland’s obsessively singular-minded dedication to his artistic calling the young narrator comes to understand it upon seeing the painter’s last works on the walls of his hut, which view like a “hymn to the beauty of the human form, male and female, and the praise of Nature, sublime, indifferent, lovely and cruel.” Compelled to chronicle Strickland’s life following his death and posthumous success, the young writer learns a great deal about him but also about something more expansive in reach and import, which encapsulates the moral of The Moon and Sixpence. Deep in thought about Strickland, the narrator says: “In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss. I do not think he was any gentler here, less selfish or less brutal, but the circumstances were more favourable. If he had spent his life amid these surroundings he might have passed for no worse a man than another. He received here what he neither expected nor wanted among his own people – sympathy.” To a certain extent it is as though Maugham was talking about himself in relation to his own peers and what may have been had he found himself elsewhere. The narrator of this fascinating, puzzling and edifying tale concludes his thoughts on the painter by saying: “Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.” Most would probably say the same about Maugham but I personally think there’s only veracity in the latter.

Randall Jarrell: A very tender and gracious terror

I never realised what a treasure trove an Oxfam bookshelf can be until I snagged myself a brand new copy of Randall Jarrell’s Letters for the exiguous sum of £4. The letters, thoughtfully selected, edited and annotated by Jarrell’s second wife Mary, span three decades and chronicle the life of a man whose “work-and-amusement” revolved around literature. In writing to Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and other contemporaries Jarrell speaks habitually of the vertiginous peaks and dells of professional life, most often through a sustained colloquial effulgence that allowed his imagination to roam discursively not only over matters of literary interest but also on issues of social and historical importance.

The general consensus about Jarrell is that he was a better, more emphatic and puissant, critic than poet. I am inclined to agree and although his academic brilliance, intellectual dexterity and critical acumen were largely unmatched, his poetry has often been described as “derivative” and “technically lacking”. Admittedly, his verse does not appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities (perhaps with one or two exceptions), but this cannot be said of his collective missives, studded and spiced with humorous musings, clever cogitations and spiffy apophthegms, often vacillating in tone and resulting in a quaint mixture of swagger, reticence, irreverence, coyness and superiority. If there is one aspect that defines Jarrell’s epistolary prose, however, it is his tendency to dash-off quick philippic sentences that strike the reader like a riding-crop. While this device repeatedly buoys the witty, jokey and affectionate argot of his letters, it also comes to the fore in his professional undertakings – most notably his critiques which saw him soar as an important, if formidable, arbitrator of American cultural climate from the 1930s onwards.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Jarrell was feared among a smattering of garreteers, who ducked like frightened mergansers each time he poised his fountain-pen, much like a rifle, in their direction, since his astringently veracious outbursts went some way to making-and-unmaking reputations. I think it is important to point out, however, that this critic did not discriminate in favour of his friends, nor mind their lepidopterous egos, accosting them in print whenever he felt necessary. Ironically, he did not enjoy this vital sideline, once quoting George Bernard Shaw’s remark about the critic’s fate in reference to himself: “His hand is against every man and every man’s hand is against him.” Endowed with infallible taste and a daunting acuity, he often quipped about his subjects but avowed that he would never sacrifice a poet for the sake of a witticism (while the word “never” may not be entirely accurate, the statement is essentially true). “It would be a hard heart,” Jarrell once said “and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe.” Yet condemn he did, quite frequently if without much pleasure, and thereby earned himself a reputation as a “terror”.

The letters give us the man behind the polemic, behind the poems and the public-face which he himself at times detested. As such they are a priceless offering providing an extraordinary plenitude of biographical, archival and personal information which plays a vital part in revealing the polarity between Jarrell’s private and professional persona. And so it seems that Lowell, who once described Jarrell as “very tender and gracious” but also as someone whose “frankness” was often thought “more unsettling than the drunken exploits of some divine enfant terrible, such as Dylan Thomas,” was right because in the end, irrespective of how you look at it, the truth is always the same: “People ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.

%d bloggers like this: