Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Quote of the Day (Alvah Bessie, on Meeting Hemingway in Spain)

“Hemingway was eager as a child, and I smiled remembering the first time I had seen him, at a Writers' Congress in New York. He was making his maiden public speech, and when it didn't read right, he got mad at it, repeating the sentences he had fumbled, with exceptional vehemence. Now he was like a big kid, and you liked him. He asked questions like a kid: ‘What then? What happened then? And what did you do? And what did he say? And then what did you do?’…. ‘What's your name?’ said Hemingway; I told him. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I'm awful glad to see you; I've read your stuff.’ I knew he was glad to see me; it made me feel good, and I felt sorry about the times I had lambasted him in print; I hoped he had forgotten them, or never read them. ‘Here,’ he said, reaching in his pocket. ‘I've got more.’ He handed me a full pack of Lucky Strikes.”— Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle: A Story of Americans in Spain (1939)

Ernest Hemingway’s (on the right in the image, in a photo taken in WWII) entrance to the world was announced at 8 in the morning on this date in 1899, with a blast from a cornet by his proud father, an obstetrician in Oak Park, Ill. It may have been the last time that anyone beat him to the punch in blowing a horn on his behalf.

You sense, from this account by Alvah Bessie (who, incidentally, died on what would have been Hemingway’s 86th birthday) of their encounter in the Spanish Civil War, about why so many were drawn, initially, to the Nobel laureate: It was hard not to get caught up in all that exuberance. That child-like penchant for questions led to a career first as a foreign correspondent, then to a writer of fiction. Like a kid he was ready to share his goods and his activities—what mattered most to him—not just cigarettes and drink, but also hunting, fishing, and bullfighting expeditions.

In fact, there are only two hints of the darker Hemingway that many associates would get to see after a while, and that the wider reading public would come to know in the 54 years after his death by suicide. The first comes in that speech, delivered “with exceptional vehemence”—directed at himself this time, but at others—wives, children, friends, even to the point of fisticuffs—on other occasions. The second hint is Bessie’s hope that Hemingway had forgotten or never read his criticisms. 

And well this member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (and future blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter) might wish that. Hemingway was not the type to turn the other cheek, or to take criticisms gently. In fact, the only people who endured worse at his hands than those who criticized him may have been were people who did him good turns when he was young, when they had some measure of fame or fortune but he didn’t: Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, Sinclair Lewis, and Scott Fitzgerald.

And yet…It’s impossible to eradicate completely that image of generosity. Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012) is a melancholy chronicle of the novelist’s psychic and creative deterioration, but even as his star fell, from its height when Bessie knew him, to his 1961 death, Hemingway was still capable of astonishing acts of unselfishness and helpfulness: to writers in need of a hand, to others down on their luck, to a friend’s dying son.

Ultimately, Hemingway’s greatest gift to others might have been the example of his own fiction—at its best, a purification of language. One unlikely author attesting to that influence is the Irish novelist/short-story novelist Edna O’Brien, who, in her consideration of people’s most intimate relations, is as far removed from Hemingway as an writer I know. And yet, in an interview with The Paris Review, O’Brien recalled her feelings of astonishment over the unexpectedly powerful opening of A Farewell to Arms:

“[Critic Arthur] Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write.”

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