You know how this ends. Because youâve been here beforeâmaybe not this particular table or this bar, but one just like it. You glance at the glowing blue clock on the wall and think, Time to go, and when another song follows seamlessly the one before, think again: Yes, definitely time. But when the crucial moment arrives you order another whiskey-soda and settle in as the big fellow with the scarred forehead sitting across from you, who is definitely much drunker than you are, who could drink you under this table with both arms tied behind his back (he tells you) and still manage to stagger to his writing desk tomorrow morning at 5 a.m., rheumy eyes ablaze with genius, yes! genius!âas this fellow goes on talking at you, telling you the score: on women, on writing and writers (Faulkner: hysterical drunk; Tolstoy: goddamn great but wrecked himself in the end with all that God nonsense), on war, and above all and alwaysâalwaysâdeath.
You smile, you nod.
Youâve been smiling and nodding all night, it seems, and every time you do, another quarter drops silently into the slot: itâs all encouragement for the fellow sitting across from you. You know this, and yet you canât help yourself. Itâs not just the whiskey or your tendency toward politeness, itâs not just this habit you have of allowing strangers to tell you their crazy, often baroquely complicated stories, a habit youâve long cultivated (and was that such a good idea? youâre asking yourself now: was it, really?). No, mostly itâs because this fellow with the scar on his forehead (2 a.m. accident with a skylight, Paris: youâve seen the picture taken afterward with Sylvia Beach outside Shakespeare and Company, the thick white bandage, the sheepish, aw hell grin) isâor was, onceâsomething of an idol to you. He was the writer whose short stories opened to you an entirely new world, even as they cast a shadow across that world. âA Soldierâs Home,â âHills Like White Elephants,â âA Clean, Well-Lighted Placeââstories which, when you first read them, struck the thick brass rim of whatever soul you have inside you with such a clean clear beautiful sound, such resonance, that for years afterward whenever you sat down and wrote you had that same soundâthose stories with their clipped, lovely, lugubrious cadencesâringing through you, for better or worse. Youâve ordered another drink when really you should have called it a night and headed home (because you, too, have to get up tomorrow morning and write, you too have work to do), and with that drink now sitting on the bar in front of you, weeping its little shining ring of water onto the wood, youâve no choice but to sit here and listen to this endless disquisition on love and war and death, even if it kills you.
Recently I watched and for a few hours fell under the spell of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allenâs loving but slyly wary reminder of the allure and danger of nostalgia, particularly when that nostalgia is for an era youâve never yourself actually experiencedâin this case, Paris in the 1920s with its dazzling, dizzying cast of modernist giants: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Cole Porter, and of course the irreplaceable, all-too-imitable Ernest Hemingway (in this case, Corey Stollâs hilariously pugnacious, self-parodying Hemingway). Itâs a funny, very sweet film, in my opinion one of Allenâs better films lately, and I certainly enjoyed the ride, so much so that in its warm afterglow I plucked from my library my well-thumbed edition of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (the Finca VigĂa edition named for Hemingwayâs âLookout Farmâ home in Cuba), a book that collects not only those stories for which Hemingway is still deservedly anthologized (I first encountered âSoldierâs Homeâ in an introductory literature course as a freshman in college), but the stories Hemingway wrote in what well should have been his artistic primeâthat is, in his forties and fiftiesâwith all that rich experience, all those bullfights and big fish, not to mention several wars, behind him.
And yes, there they were, my old friends: âIn Another Country,â âThe Killers,â âNow I Lay Me,â âA Clean, Well-Lighted Place,â and of course the technically masterful âThe Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,â and perhaps my favorite of all Hemingwayâs stories, âThe Snows of Kilimanjaro,â a story which for years seemed to me to perfectly sum up the plight of every writer: too many stories to tell, too little time. But amply scattered among these gems were a good manyâa great many, I realized sadlyâreal stinkers. By this I donât mean Hemingwayâs early work; after all, a writer has to build from something, and even in his earliest published fiction (âUp In Michigan,â for example) you could see Hemingway finding his way, becoming, in no small sense, temperamentally, stylistically, the Hemingway he would become. With these stories he was learning how to write, how he wanted to write, and even if I now found much of the writing itself rather labored and dull (when did that happen?), I wasnât particularly troubled. No, what bothered (or perhaps perplexed me; thatâs the better word: perplexed) me were the stories (and Iâm quoting the book itself here) âPublished in Books or Magazines Subsequent to âThe First Forty-Nine.ââ That is, the stories few of us rarely if ever read today, unless you are, or were, like me, rather wide-eyed in your admiration. âThe Butterfly and the Tank,â âNight Before Battle,â âGet a Seeing-Eye Dog,â to name just a few.
John Updike once famously warned of celebrity being the mask that eventually eats into your face, and here, in these stories, I saw that warning come to its awful fruition: every second story seems to be told by a famous writer of a certain age wearily dragging himself from battlefield to bar, dispensing as he does his wide-ranging opinions on violence, death, sex, wine, and the utter futility of it all. The flowering one might have reasonably hoped for, reading âThe Short Happy Life of Francis Macomberâ (written when Hemingway was only in his mid-thirties), has within a decade withered away. What the hell happened? I found myself wondering, when I damn well knew, I suppose. (After all, Iâd read the biographies, all of them, years ago.) Itâs very much as if the self-quoting Hemingway Corey Stoll created in Midnight in Paris has, with the appropriate middle-age padding added and considerably less hair, stepped back in front of the camera and continued to hold forth, glass in one hand, pen in the other.
And of course itâs not as if Hemingway hadnât show signs in his early work (and even in his best work, to be honest) of certain tics that would, in time, wreck his writing. Glimmers here and there: a certain woodenly over-masculine, clumsily maudlin tendency which, were it to appear in a character in a short story by, say, Chekhov or Mavis Gallant or Saul Bellow, would almost certainly be punctured by the time the curtain fell. But no, Hemingway meant this. This isnât parody, this is the real thing, folks. Life is terrifying and ultimately tragic, death lurks around every corner, ready to clobber you over the head at any second, just as youâre skipping happily along, and there isnât a goddamn thing you can do about it except sip your brandy and wait, and watch the shadows the streetlamp makes through the leaves.
Well, I thought.
Which isnât to say Hemingwayâand I mean the Ernest Hemingway who actually wrote those marvelous but ultimately not always so blindingly marvelous storiesâwasnât a wonderful writer. He was. I can still read that exquisite opening of âIn Another Countryâ and feel that ineffable lift, that clear, almost musical ringing, just as I can reread A Farewell to Armsâin my opinion Hemingwayâs best novel, his only truly âgreatâ novel, whatever that meansâwithout ever wondering what all the fuss was about. But he is, one inevitably discovers, largely a young writerâs writer, and youâve been sitting here too long to pretend that the big fellow with the scarred forehead is even listening to himself anymore.
Links & Resources
- Read more from our “Under the Influence” archives.
- Feeling some warm nostalgia for Papa Bear? Hemingway’s 1938 masterpiece “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Pour yourself a double and print that baby out.