The Earth Moved
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I have had an affair. For six months now, I have been unfaithful to my first true love.
I was introduced to Jay Gatsby at the tender age of sixteen and fell immediately and irrevocably in love. I devoured F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical stories and even a hefty biography. I imagined myself flapping from Paris to Biarritz, sipping Gin Rickey with the lost generation.
Somewhere in my reading I developed an antipathy towards Ernest Hemingway. He and Fitzgerald were fellow ex-pats in France. They were friends but also rivals. It was Fitzgerald’s publication of The Great Gatsby that spurred Hemingway’s completion of A Farewell to Arms.
Reading Hemingway would be somehow akin to dating my boyfriend’s best friend. Hemingway, as far as I knew, wrote about guns and bulls and booze, which hardly appealed but I was wary that I might find something to like. Ignoring the (male) friends who continued to recommend Hemingway’s books, I nursed my fidelity to Fitzgerald.
They say the right book will find you.
In the past few months three of Hemingway’s novels have been placed in my hands through no intent or effort of my own. My husband, who I have always felt has a look of Fitzgerald about him, put this beauty in my Christmas stocking with a note saying, ‘everyone should read at least one.’
My sister sent me a Blind Date With a Book, all the way from Australia, for my birthday.
I laughed out loud when I opened it.
I was at a charity bazaar just as the book stall was closing. I handed the nice lady a fiver and she flung ten random books into my bag. The Old Man sneaked in.
And so was I led to infidelity, guiltily submerging myself in Hemingway.
Each of those novels, in turn, I declared to be the saddest book I have ever read.
Hemingway’s approach to writing was to pour his pain onto the page. It shows.
‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
Hemingway strove to write simply.
‘My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.’
The refinement of his style through these three books is fascinating. Plot is pared back, time span is reduced and the language becomes ever simpler.
A Farewell to Arms (published in 1929) is divided into five books, spans more than a year of the First World War and travels from the Italian Dolomites to Milan and Switzerland. For Whom the Bell Tolls (published in 1940) is set over three days and three nights on a Spanish hillside. By 1952, when The Old Man and the Sea was published, Hemingway had perfected what he termed the iceberg theory.
‘If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing he may omit things he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water’
The book, notable for its brevity, is the story of one day in the life of one man.
Hemingway’s message is constant from the outset:
Life is tough.
‘If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these things you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.’
There are worse things than death.
‘And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will live a good life.’
You can live a good life if you are brave enough and never give up hope.
‘It’s silly not to hope.’
Hemingway drew from his own experience; as an ambulance driver in W.W.1, as a reporter on the Spanish Civil War, and as a passionate deep sea fisherman. All three books have a strong feeling of autobiography. The protagonist matures and the writer perfects his craft.
I was bowled over by Hemingway’s linguistic skill. Robert Jordan, the American hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, thinks in English. However, in conversation with his band of Spanish guerrillas he speaks in English that reads as Spanish. I’ve never seen foreign language dialogue so deftly managed.
I was floored by the depth of emotion conveyed in simple words. There’s a scene, again in For Whom the Bell Tolls, where the band of rebels has had a narrow escape. They express their relief by talking over the incident.
‘He felt the need to talk that, with him, was the sign that there had been much danger. He could always tell how bad it had been by the strength of the desire to talk that came after.’
And you think; that’s exactly right. That’s what you do when you’ve had a fright. You know exactly the feeling he’s describing. You know it. You feel it. His genius is to capture the full gamut of human emotion in words of fewer than two syllables.
I’m inclined to think that Hemingway might be like whiskey, a taste one acquires with age. The more life has beaten you up, the more sense Hemingway will make. If you’ve lost a friend or lost a baby or lost yourself in a bottle a couple of times, this guy knows what you’re feeling. He will gift you the words for it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald sets scenes of ardent infatuation on a stage set with glittering society. Hemingway is coarse, brutal and dirty. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the seduction scene amounts to; ‘Get in, we’ll talk later.’ Fitzgerald’s words are heart-rending, Hemingway’s are gut-wrenching. If Fitzgerald claims the young and the beautiful, it is Hemingway who owns the damned and the truth.
I still don’t like Ernest Hemingway. I can’t imagine I ever would have pinned up his picture in my college bedsit as I did Fitzgerald’s. Hemingway is not a writer to fall in love with. Such raw honesty leaves no room for romance.
I’ve had my fling. It has left me feeling exhausted and sad. But glad, too, to have felt the earth move.