Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

JC: Two coinciding events led me to Hemingway recently.

A couple of weeks ago, we posted Greg Olear’s essay for the When We Fell In Love series, in which he wrote about The Sun Also Rises. Around the same time, we posted D. R. Haney’s WWFIL about William Faulkner. Over at The Nervous Breakdown, we had quite a few comments preferring one author or the other for various reasons; I fell in behind Uncle Bill, but admittedly hadn’t read any Hemingway since high school, aside from the stray short story.

About the same time, the broadcast of the Academy Awards drove me to the local library, when, seeing that the Coen Bros. had a film that I missed this year, I followed a whim or two. Searching for more information online, I discovered that their next film is True Grit. So I went looking for Charles Portis, which was kindly shelved where it oughtto have been. Perusing the fiction section, I uncovered an old Ron Rash, and eventually found myself in front of Hemingway, TSAR in my hand. A pretty good haul.

It takes about two pages to learn two things. Hemingway is a hell of a writer and Norman Mailer owes him a fair chunk of his royalties. Or did, anyway. I’m a big Mailer fan, read all the fiction, and some of the nonfiction, and I knew that he owed Hemingway a debt, but never realized how much. The resemblance is uncanny. EH’s prose is tighter, and NM’s lewder, but it’s there.

Hemingway’s funny too. I didn’t recall that from any previous readings.  The dialogue in the Parisian section is sharp, the repartee cutting. It’s reminescent of FSF in a lot of ways. The empty-headed, self-congratulatory celebration of Jake, Brett and the gang.

As the partiers move from Paris to Pamplona, their temperature rises along with the feverish pace of the fiesta. Fueled by booze and the blood of bulls and matadors, Jake and company devolve into jealousy and violence. They are torn alternately by passion and disillusionment.

I can see why Greg wrote that he’s read it many times over the years. I like the book more after thinking about it for a week than I did immediately upon finishing it, and I liked it then. I’m reminded of EH’s Iceberg Theory on writing, which I’ve heard paraphrased often enough, but here it is as he put it:

If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that 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 movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

That fits. Hemingway leaves a lot unsaid in TSAR, which the reader interprets. That’s good, because it keeps the critics busy and out of the bars. It also leaves a lot for the rest of us to think about. How much of the treatment of Cohn is anti-semitism, how much is his inattendance at the war, and how much is because he’s a lovesick loser? How far does the postwar disillusionment extend? What’s the significance of Jake essentially pimping the matador? Lots more.

I had one problem, and it’s not Hemingway’s fault. It’s television’s fault. You see, the running of the bulls in Pamplona is an iconic scene in the novel – raw, bloody – and it ought to be meteoric and shocking. But it’s not, because every year every news channel shows 20 seconds of the running of the bulls, hoping to catch some dope being trampled or tossed on a horn, accompanied by a jackass newsreader making a joke. Of course, the only reason they cover it at all is because of Hemingway’s novel. A paradox. I can’t remember having that sensation before – that my prior knowledge of a scene made me disappointed in it.

It’s odd to say that someone as well known and read as EH might be underrated, but that might be the case, because he seems quite out of favor. I still prefer Faulkner, but I want to read something from the more mature Hemingway, so this week I’m planning to pick up a copy of either For Whom The Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms.