Sunday, 24 May 2015

"All things truly wicked start from an innocence"

' ... all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be' (Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (1964)

Gertrude Stein, literary pioneer and grande dame of Paris's literary landscape in the 1920s, once told a young Ernest Hemingway, 'All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation'.  Another writer would be inspired, moved even; and for a short time, Hemingway stops by a statue of the French hero Marshal Ney and thinks about his friendship with Stein. But Hemingway being Hemingway, the hint of sentimentality dissipates quickly. Resolving to do his best by his friend, he tells himself: 'But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the the dirty, easy labels.' He returns home to his wife and son and tells Hadley, 'You know, Gertrude is nice, anyway', but then adds 'But she does talk a lot of rot sometimes.'

I have yet to make up my mind about Hemingway. I find his writing can be tedious; the relentless dedication to demonstrating his machismo, the monotony of him recounting the size of marlin caught and game hunted. The dreariness of his first success, A Farewell to Arms, is personified by Catherine Barkley, the one-dimensional nurse who is Frederic Henry's love interest. Her dialogue is so leaden and so clichéd that my joy at her eventual demise was personally disturbing. As a reader, only the literary deaths of Gatsby and Anna Karenina have matched such levels of relief.

And yet Hemingway can delight. When he puts his mind to it, when he is exposed to the desolation and indignation of obsession, he can deliver a knock-out blow. In Fiesta, or The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway creates an unsettling world of absolute passion. Jake's fixation with Brett is palpable, and any reader who has loved and lost cannot fail to experience again in Fiesta's pages the wounded heart and the punch in the stomach that is miscarried love:    
I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn't keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and the rest of it went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry. Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep.       
This was Brett that I felt like crying about. Then I thought of her walking up the street and stepping into the car, as I had last seen her, and of course in a little while I felt like hell again. It was awfully easy to be hardboiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.

Frederic Henry never feels this intensely about Catherine, even as she lies on her deathbed. The end, when it comes, is quick as if the author was hurrying to finish the novel:

It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn't stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time and it did not take her very long to die. 
But after  I ... shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. 
And that is how Hemingway concludes what is allegedly one of the greatest love stories of the 20th Century, with a snivel rather than a sob.

In 1964, three years after Hemingway stood on the front porch of his Ketchum home and shot himself with a 12-gauge Boss shotgun, Scribners in the US and Jonathan Cape in the UK collated and published a small book of sketches of his life in Paris in the 1920s. This story - of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Shakespeare & Co., and The Café des Amateurs - is well known. Hemingway is renowned for embellishing the story of his life. Michael Reynolds's magnificent biographies document the fibs and the fables, and Hemingway's relentless effort to create his own legend. The book is A Moveable Feast, a recreation rather than a recollection since Hemingway was writing about his life forty years previously. Yet it stands the test of time and remains a stunning portrait of Paris at its most vibrant.

We encounter Hemingway's radiance immediately in the opening sentence:

 Then there was the bad weather. 

Few literary openings can compete with this. With these six words we are spirited into not only a moveable feast, but also a moveable narrative, and we arrive in the middle of a conversation, as if the author is entertaining a bar full of strangers in Havana or Florida with stories from his youth. This first sketch, 'A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel' serves as mood-setter and as a glimpse into Hemingway's work routine. When he is facing a morning without words, he gazes over the Paris rooftops and tells himself:

'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence ...
And of course Hemingway had written one true sentence. It is the sentence which begins the book: 'Then there was the bad weather'.

The bad weather is a constant theme. While Gene Kelly danced through Paris sunshine, Audrey Hepburn posed in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and Ella Fitzgerald told us how she loves Paris in the springtime, Hemingway reminds us that Paris could also be brutal: 'All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rain of winter'. The alliteration reinforces the harshness. Hemingway uses the weather to complete his portrait of Paris; the rain and darkness when he struggles, the Spring sunshine when things are going well. It marks the passage of time. Soon the misery of Winter's onset gives way to its beauty, and the city adapts.  Paris is transformed by the changing weather: 'When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter'. Hemingway is obsessed with the rapid changes in the weather, the suddenness that defines the city's mood. Take this haunting passage:

With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad i the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees ... But you knew there would always be spring ... When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
        In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed. 
And these sentiments are captured in the title of the next sketch: The False Spring. Hemingway's mood lifts:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself. 
Hemingway and Hadley wander through the Paris night landscape and recall their best friend, Chink, and they command each other to 'live in this time now and have every minute of it.
     We looked and there it all was: our river and our city and the island of our city.'

But his mood does not remain constant, and by the end of the sketch he can't sleep.

Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring and heard the pipes of the man with his herd of goats and gone out and bought the racing paper.
              But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.
Hemingway feels hunger even when he has eaten a feast, but this is not a physical hunger. The author is hungry for the bohemian lifestyle, the simplicity of the poor, and describes feeling 'an emptiness' when he stops gambling. 'But then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped.' In 'Hunger was Good Discipline' Hemingway plots his route through Paris to avoid the sight and smell of food. Hunger, both literal and metaphorical, is a dominant theme of the book. Even its title evokes food, with Paris a 'feast' in all senses of the word.

The final sketch in the collection is the beautifully-titled 'There is Never Any End to Paris' - a cliché     perhaps, but it does encapsulate the nostalgia that dominates how we think about the City of Lights in the 1920s. Obsessed with the seasons again to mark both the passage of time and mood, Hemingway describes how a 'happy and innocent winter' was followed by 'a nightmare winter disguised as the greatest fun of all'. Be careful what you wish for. Hemingway laments fleeting happiness and fleeting satisfaction, and reminds us that the fulfilment of Hedonism is temporary. Hemingway returns to this using more vivid imagery when he describes 'those who attract people by their happiness and their performance':

They do not always learn about the good, the attractive, the charming, the soon-beloved, the generous, the understanding rich who have no bad qualities and who give each day the quality of festival and who, when they have passed and taken the nourishment their needed, leave everything deader than the roots of any grass Attila's horses' hooves have ever scoured.
Living for today is dangerous; there is always a new tomorrow to plan. As Hemingway looks back, he confesses that he too was seduced: 'That every day should be a fiesta seemed to me a marvellous discovery'; and this leads Hemingway to infidelity, to the loss of innocence.

So you live day by day and enjoy what you have and do not worry. You lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is more dangerous, but you live day to day as in a war. 

Hemingway wants to love only his wife, but fails. Full of regret and remorse, he wishes he 'had died before I loved anyone but her'. 'I loved her,' he tells us, 'and I loved no one else', but yet when he finds himself back in Paris 'the other thing', the affair, 'started again.' The regret and the remorse strikes the reader as insincere; it is as if Hemingway is accusing Paris and not himself as the agent of indiscretion (doesn't Rick tell Ilsa in Casablanca, 'We'll always have Paris'?). This is unmistakable when Hemingway tells us how, when he returned to France from New York, he should have taken the first train to his wife in Austria: 'But the girl I was in love with was in Paris then, and I did not take the first train, or the second or the third.' So in these final pages of A Moveable Feast, this extraordinary small collection of memories, Hemingway shifts back and forth between vulnerability and culpability.  But he knows that 'Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed' (again referencing seasons and the weather). He ends with a simple statement:

But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.  

This is Hemingway's own self-created mythology, but also the mythology that we have created around Paris in the 1920s, as the beacon for bohemian and aspiring writers and artists who congregated in the bars and salons; at Gertrude Stein's; and of course at the epitome of that special time in the city's history, the bookshop Shakespeare and Co. A Moveable Feast remains the idol of cultural America's enchantment with Paris. It is Hemingway at his best, and it gives me reason to forgive the dullness of A Farewell to Arms, the feigned machismo in The Green Hills of Africa and the crude bullfighting scenes in Fiesta. For in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway gave us perfection in one sentence:

Then there was the bad weather.