Friday, January 23, 2009


The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. -- Hemingway

Though he has fallen into so much disfavor over the last 50 years, Ernest Hemingway remains the most accessible and immediately emotional author of contemporary American prose. Most of us who wander sideways into literature from journalism identify with his lean and muscular style, although our university professors hammer home his brutal sexism and defiance of more textured literary conventions. When I taught at the University of Illinois, I loved to use his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, as a brilliant example of how setting amplifies character. The protagonists share an oblique argument over abortion. For the man, anyway, it's an idea. A baby would crimp his style. For the woman, it's real and she has heard enough. They wait on a station platform, railroad tracks moving off in opposite directions. In the end, he believes he convinces her, but what he has done is kill off any remaining love she may have had for him.

In his time, Hemingway's language introduced a wide American audience to the experience of literature. There is little doubt that Hemingway became a caricature in the end, crippled from successive concussions and alcoholic depression. His suicide is deconstructed as a death wish, but anyone who feels his prose -- the rhythms of Bach beneath repetitions of sentence structures, the vivid Cezanne brush strokes in Hemingway's landscapes -- understands that he had a thirst for life. His prose ignites the Now-ness of things.

While in graduate school, I wrote about Hemingway's homage to painting and classical music. and my professor sent the paper to the New York office of the International Hemingway Society. I was invited to present the paper to the society's annual meeting in Lignano Sabbiadoro--a small beachfront resort near Venice.

I landed in Milan and took a four-hour train to the sea, speaking my poor Spanish with fellow riders, sampling Italian cheese and bread, and chocolate laced with liquor. I reached Lignano at dusk. The following morning, the convention met in a conference hall shaped like a conch shell at the end of a pier that stretched out into the Mediterranean. To each side of the pier women from northern Europe sunned topless on the strand while Italian men scurried about indelicately with cameras. In the afternoon, racing boats raised their dazzling sails against the sky.

On the afternoon I was scheduled to appear, I was terrified. I was the only graduate student selected to read a paper. All around were full professors and authors who had written critical books and biographies on Hemingway. I was certain I was a fraud. Local dignitaries filled the tables, sipping regional wines and working through plates of cold cuts and melon, city elders who wore their suit coats draped over their shoulders and pinky rings that caught the overhead lights.

I worked through the paper without much flair, but in a steady voice, looking my public in the eye. And when I was done, there was great applause and two professors I had met at my hotel spirited me off for cocktails.

We were seated at a seaside cafe in the blush of sunset, aperitif saucers piled neatly in the center of the table, and I praised the mighty gods for carrying me across the prickly seas of academe. My two table-mates, Roger and Mary Grace taught at Canisius College. Roger suggested that I consider pursuing my PhD immediately. I was beaming.

The night settled down about us and the lights came on the masts of idle boats in the harbor. We had finished the antipasto and settled on our dinner order when two critics marched up under the arc of the table lights.

"You know," one of them said rather drunkenly, "everything you talked about has already been done."

The other pointed his finger at my chest. "Been done," he said. Several critics at the conference who had written books on the subject, he said.

I looked down at the plate of olive pits. Mary Grace put her hand on mine.

Just as suddenly, the critics turned and walked arm-in-arm into the night. If there was more to say on the subject, neither I nor my dinner companions choose to bring it up.

We had four more days in Italy, traveling to Harry's Bar, where Hemingway had held forth with peach bellinis, toured the countryside in WW1 trucks courtesy of the Italian army, and I shared laughter with one of Hemingway's granddaughters at the villa where Hem had written Across the River and Into the Trees. She had his high forehead and melting smile. And I got to tell her that I loved her grandfather for other than the obvious reasons. That I heard the footfall of his sentences in my ear. That I dipped my hands into his icy rivers and threw water on my face when it felt too damn hot to walk on.

And when I flew back to Alabama, I vowed to shun literary criticism for the rest of my days.


Char said...

broken characters and characters fighting the odds. Hemingway for all of his demons wrote beautifully. Hills like White Elephants was one of my favorites too....though I'm also a Faulkner girl too...or Fitzgerald. I adore Fitzgerald.

Gabby said...

I love Faulkner,too. How could you not? Especially Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, and Sound and the Fury. I love Fitzgerald, too, especially Babylon Revisited.