POINTS 18 was published in the winter of 1953/54. The new cover layout that appeared on POINTS 17 was retained and would continue to be used for the duration of the journal. Sindbad Vail’s introductory comments, usually brief and apologetic, are forth-right and provide a glimpse of the trials Vail endured in bringing POINTS to life.
Commentary © James A. Harrod, COPYRIGHT PROTECTED; ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
(inside front cover)
(inside back cover)
NOTES BY THE EDITOR – Sindbad Vail
SHORT STORY – R. W. Stallman
LOVE – Austryn Wainhouse
SCARE CROW – Alan Riddell
4 POEMS – Patrick Brangwyn
THE GENTLEMAN AND HIS COMPANION – Arlette Anneville
UNDER THE BRIDGE AT NEEDLES – Ridgley Cummings
2 POEMS – Burns Singer
ANATOMY LESSON – Catherine Terry
DINGY – Herbert Kimmel
A BAD DAY – Georges P. Elliott
WAR YEAR – Judson Crews
ERNEST HEMINGWAY – Richard Seaver
OPERATION WASTE – Philippe de Pirey
MABILLION – Carlo Spero
REVIEW – William Redding
Once again, lamentably, this issue of POINTS did not have a page devoted to short biographical information on the contributors. It appears that R. W. Stallman (Robert Wooster Stallman) became a noted authority on the writings of Stephan Crane. Austryn Wainhouse had appeared in POINTS previously in issue 11/12. A Google search will retrieve numerous entries regarding Wainhouse’s literary activities. Alan Riddell (Riddel) had poems published previously in POINTS 15 & 17. Patrick Brangwyn also had poems published in POINTS 17. The southern California setting of UNDER THE BRIDGE AT NEEDLES would seem to tie the author, Ridgley Cummings, to a newspaperman of the same name who is mentioned in Lionel Rolfe’s LITERARY L.A. (Chronicle Books, 1981). Herbert Kimmel’s short story, UNION SQUARE, was published in POINTS 16. Kimmel worked for the Los Angeles civil court system before taking a position as a guard at the Sheriff’s Honor Farm, the background of his story in this issue, DINGY. While in Los Angeles working on his doctorate in Experimental Psychology at USC he founded Outpost Productions and Jazz:West Records releasing seminal albums by Jack Sheldon, Art Pepper and Kenny Drew among others. Richard Seaver’s years in Paris form the basis of the first half of his posthumous memoir, THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012). He shared his critical piece on Ernest Hemingway with the author’s son, Patrick, who encouraged Seaver to send a copy to his father in Cuba, giving Seaver Hemingway’s address there. In Seaver’s own words:
“After reading the piece, which I had called “Ernest Hemingway: The Inner Good Feeling” – the subtitle taken from his definition “what is moral is what you feel good after” – Pat handed it back to me and said he thought it a damn good job, though he disagreed with my assessment of For Whom The Bell Tolls, my least favorite of the opus. “You should send it to my father,” he said. “I’m sure he’d like it.”
“Pat gave me Papa’s address in Cuba, with the request I not give it out in turn. I promised I wouldn’t. Back in Paris in the fall, I reread what I’d written, found I liked it far less than I remembered, and never sent it on. I probably should have, for at one-and-twenty I had a boundless, probably excessive, admiration for the man and his razor-lean prose, but I have always found communication with famous people difficult. My problem. Oddly, several years later, when my new Paris friend George Plimpton, another Papa fan, read a shortened version in Sindbad Vail’s POINTS, his first reaction was “You should send this to Papa.” Later, George interviewed Hemingway for The Paris Review, and the two became friends. In another life, I’ll put such reluctance behind me and steam boldly forward, as George did instinctively, as if it were his birthright – which it doubtless was.”
Sindbad Vail departed from his “short story” fiction only publication credo by including Philippe de Pirey’s Operation Waste in POINTS 18. Pirey was a young French paratrooper and recounts his experience in Indo-China and the campaign against the civilian population. A second segment of Operation Waste would be published in POINTS 19.
The “literary” life: reflections in the first person
By SINDBAD VAIL
Five yearsago when I first started POINTS I never thought that today I‘d be where I am. I thought that magazine,or that I’d not be editing anything at all, either I’d be very famous editing a large well known magazine and yet it isby no means dead. I often wonder now why anyone ever starts a little literary magazine in the first place. There are vague ideas running around that they are created to publish writing that never has a chance in the commercial press, “new” writing, “experimental” writing, “avant–garde” writing and even “good“ writing”, etc. All that may be partly true, but I think the real reason new little magazines are started is to give the editor or editors and his pals an outlet for their own work plus an egotistical desire to acquire “fame” or “notoriety”, which in other circles or metiers are achieved by eating goldfish in public, jumping off buildings, undressing in cafes and generally exhibiting oneself. No doubt other editors will claim that those views are purely my own and vehemently deny such feelings for themselves.
It was in the summer of 1948 that I first thought about starting a magazine. I was in Venice on a holiday, a holiday from God knows what as I was not doing anything anyway, and I was thinking that here I was already 25 years old, and doing nothing. I vaguely thought about opening an art gallery in Paris, but I knew even less about art than literature and anyway other members of my family were well involved in that little world and I was duly discouraged. What else to do than turn to literature?
When I got back to Paris I set about literature in a fervent manner. How does one go about starting a magazine? Very simple. I put an ad in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined “Attention Young Writers“. The ad naively stated that a new literary magazine was being conceived and that it welcomed young writers and ideas. I gave my telephone number. The ad wassupposed to run for three days. I cancelled the last two ads very quickly as I was innundated with phone calls. People came to see me with ideas, manuscripts and advice, none of them much good. Some wanted jobs as editors or secretaries, all for big salaries. I must have given the impression that I was starting something really big. I had to get rid of all that and start another way. In the meantime a young “business” man had got hold of me who was going to manage the whole technical side for me and just leave me to do the literary part. That seemed fine. We even got a name for the magazine, to be in French and English, “Fleas and Peas” and the name was duly inscribed with the proper authorities. The young business man made the mistake however of drawing up a contract to bind us and I had the foresight to show it to lawyer. The lawyer told me that contract was one big gyp and that I’d be left holding the bag if I signed it. That was the end of that business man. That was one of the few sensible things I did at the start.
Then by pure chance Cyril Connolly, a friend of my stepmother, hearing of my project put me in touch with a young Frenchman, Marcel Bisiaux, already the editor of a little magazine called “84“, who was anxious spread his intellectual wings. Bisiaux and I hit it off and we agreed to start POINTS, which made sense in both languages. The magazine was to be by-monthly (six a year) and half in French and half in English. Each of us would edit his section and to hell with integration. Of course Bisiaux had a big advantage over me as he knew writers and he already had a magazine. I did not see any point in those days of wasting time getting together something really special for a first issue. I thought first get a number out and then the stuff will just come pouring in. In the autumn of 1948 I‘d been invited to attend “writers sessions“ by a young American who knew what I wanted to do. So I went every Friday night after dinner for a month or so and listened to a bunch of self-conscious Americans reading to each other their work. We were supposed to “criticize“ what was read, but I discovered that if one did one was very badly viewed, one was really supposed to find the best and praise that hard. I once read one of my own stories which I thought was very good, but it was received in stony silence. Well I did not think much of all that but I had to get my half of POINTS started so I took the least bad of some of these stories (though I admit now that then I thought they were pretty good) and got myself an office at the “Editions de Minuit” through Bisiaux who had connections with the house, at the angle of the boulevards St. Michel and St. Germain, right in the heart of the Latin quarter. It was a very nice office, an excellent view of the “carrefour”, three large windows, three tables, chairs, filing cabinet and a telephone. I hired a pretty secretary and even gave Bisiaux a salary. I seemed to have money to burn then. Then all we had to do was to print the magazine. I knew a printer who was the father in law of an army friend of mine, to whom I used to sell black market gasoline in more carefree days. He had a stack of diplomas for good printing jobs, but coming to think of it they were very old diplomas but he was and still is a very decent man, and I‘m still with him and wouldn’t dream of leaving him.
The first issue of POINTS appeared in February 1949. It had a simple cover, just the title printed in red on a yellow cover with a “1” below. That‘s all, no explanation. The contents consisted of 96 pages of short stories, alternatively French and English. At the end Bisiaux wrote a little article on his writers praising them, and I wrote a little article too, but by then I realised that perhaps my selection was not so good so I did not exactly lavish praise. I don‘t think that anything in that issue had much connection with anything else. I do affirm however that I did have one good short story, which “Horizon“ reprinted a few weeks later. I know that Cyril Connolly kindly said POINTS was very bold, as the first line of the first page, which was in French, referred to a character who had had his rectum split at the tender age of thirteen.
In our innocence we printed 5,000 copies of POINTS No. l, and we feared that might not be enough. We had no advance publicity, no agent and no means of distribution in France or America. Just then a young girl came to the office and offered her services as general manager, agent, trouble shooter, etc. She was called Catherine and was no doubt very well meaning but quite mad, but we must have been too as she was accepted on the spot. She offered to work either on salary or commission basis, and in my simplicity 1 gave her a salary, as I thought I’d sell so many POINTS that if she had a commission I’d make less money. Finally 5,000 POINTS were delivered to the office and we gloated for a while. Then we started to get rid of them. Naturally we sent copies to everyone we knew, but after three or four hundred that gave out. Then Catherine got a list of every book shop in France, regardless of its specific nature (religious books, school books, technical books, etc) and sent off packages of ten to each. Needless to say 99% of these packages came back unwanted and Catherine immediately sent them off to another book store, she must have sent off 7,000 copies that way. I‘m still getting an occasional package back of ten POINTS No. l from such odd places as Bayonne or Carcassonne. Then Catherine and I filled my car with POINTS and spent days driving all over Paris trying to dump POINTS on unwary kiosks and bookstores. Most or them took the magazine the first time, but never again. I remember one sad case at a kiosk near the Alma where the vendor had managed to sell one copy of POINTS, only to have the client come back and complain bitterly that she thought she was buying a knitting magazine and that she desired a refund. Needless to say she did not get it.
At the same time as POINTS came out another magazine called ZERO appeared. This one had a few “names” in it and definitely looked more professional. I remember being very scornful of ZERO as it printed what I thought were very bad piecesby Richard Wright and Christopher Isherwood. I talked grandly about the “prostitution” of literature etc., but ZERO was more interesting than POINTS and better received by the critics. Our first issue did not make much of a splash. The literary supplement of the New York Sunday Times called us “juvenile” and “worse than collegiate” among other things, and the Times man in Paris invited me to his house and preceded to chew me out right royally for daring to tread the tight literary path. He suggested I merge with Zero, give them my money and let them do the work. I asked him if we ought to call the magazine ZOINTS or PERO. He did not think that funny.
Well that‘s how it all started, five years ago. Its all rather funny now. Of course we kept on, some manuscripts did come in. I got lots of posters printed intending to splash Paris with them, but in the end I only had the courage to have them stuck up in a few bars and cafes where I was known.
The next 2 issues however did come out exactly on time, two months apart. I paid the authors 3000 francs for a story regardless of length and I’ve always done that.
We were chasing fame. There was a little article in “Liberation” about us, plus two three minute talks on the French radio. We were getting somewhere. The great day came when the Meekers interviewed me for “Mostly About People“ and the article actually came out at the same time as POINTS No. 3 in the European Edition of the Herald Tribune. Actually that article was responsible for the sale of nearly 100 copies of POINTS at the Deux Maggots kiosk. By this time we were only printing 3,000 copies of POINTS, but the office was still piling up with unsold copies. I had to sell a lot as old paper so asto be able to get into the office.
Of course the point of the magazine was and still is to “encourage and publish the works of young an unknown writers”. I guess though that a few well know names would have helped everyone a lot, but I refused to “sell” myself. I still do in a way but if I do get something good by a known writer I’ll be glad to print it, but I feel I have alienated a few by now.
That spring in the 3rd POINTS we announced that we were going to offer a prize of 10.000 francs for the best short story in French and English to be sent in to us over a period of 3 months. We sent the information to all the papers and most of them printed the fact and as a matter of fact short stories did come pouring in. The French section must have received over 500 hundred and the English section got 202 which was quite encouraging. We had Philippe Soupault on the English Jury and he was very helpful and also became very excited. We took a long summer holiday that year to contemplate our stories and by October we had decided. The jury was split over the English stories, so we printed two prize stories. One I still think is excellent, one of our best,but the other I’d rather forget. The best thing about it was that Ihad enough good stories from the also rans for the next issue of POINTS. We gave our prizes and had a little party in the office and a few French papers announced the winners. We were established as the “Prix Points”. At the party Philippe Soupault went out into the street and picked up a passerby and dragged him in, introducing him as the “unknown reader of Points”. We tried the prize stunt again next year, but only received 18 stories so we finished our short competition there and then.
By then we were running into too many expenses. We cut down our six issues a year to five, we had only printed five actually, let our secretary go and relied on voluntary help. Catherine had already left after a fight, three months earlier. We made the voluntary help “Associate Editors” and that lasted quite a while too but not alwaysvery satisfactorily as there alwaysseemed to be some sort of payment to make anyway. Then we cut down POINTS to quarterly where it still is, though sometimes I admit we only seemed to have three issuesa year. We cheated once and had a double issue.
Then we had a poetry editor for a while. D Jon Grossman had the job for almost two years. He knew a lot about poetry and I liked him a lot and still do. He wrote some very funny but very dogmatic articles for POINTS, ranging from E E Cummings, French Literature (covered completely) and Evelyn Waugh. I liked his articles and still think they are good. I still think that the first work of his I published in POINTS 3, a parody on modern poetsand poetry, is one of the best things I have ever published. After a while however we disagreed and he resigned as Poetry Editor. Since then I’ve had no more editors, poetry or associate, I’ve taken plenty of advice but accept full responsibility for everything.
After a few issues we cut down the French section from half to roughly a third. We discovered that we hardly had any French readers at all. Then with No. 16 the French went out altogether, which in a way was a shame but necessary. It was thus only after 16 issues and four years that I had the sole responsibility for the entire magazine.
During all thistime other little magazines appeared and disappeared in Paris. I was sorry to see that ZERO did not last more than 4 issues. The final one was printed in Tangiers. A poetry magazine called JANUS appeared in early summer 1949, half French and half English. I remember it had a stirring manifesto. Then another called ID made its showing. I was very amused by that one as the first number contained about six stories that I had rejected for POINTS. Of course the stories actually by two authors were all under pseudonyms. Needless to say the editors were the authors, which goes to show again that often magazines are started for writers to print their own work. ID did not last long and curiously enough the last numbers of JANUS and ID appeared under the same cover, each magazine using one of the covers as title page, so that in other words there was no “back“ to the magazine just two fronts.
Later on around 1950 came a more serious magazine, NEW STORY, devoted entirely to the short story, appeared as a monthly. Aslong as David Burnett was one of the editors I thought they published good stories, but when he left they slipped and finally died out.
We had lotsof fun and some trouble especially with our printers. Our regular printer actually is only a linotypist, once the print isset up he transports the lead to an actual printer who rolls out the finished magazine. My linotypist was always changing printers, as some of those little enterprises often went broke. I remember that POINTS No. 10 was a beautiful red, but unfortunately the colour came off on the hands of the readers. That did not help much. We were alwayschanging the cover too. I think that the present one is the best and we will stick to it for a while anyway. We finally cut down our production to 1,000, and with an agent in England and America, plus our sales here we manage to get rid of most of them. One probably could sell more but it would be an awful sweat. I am lucky not to be obliged to take advertising. In the first place I do not think that we would get much for advertisements in a small circulation magazine. Also I‘m damned if I’m going to advertise perfumes, night clubs and other trivia in a literary magazine. I exchange advertisments with other magazines and give them to book stores who help us. I have often exchanged ads with little magazines that have folded before my ad could appear, and one magazine I exchanged ads with cancelled mine in order to insert a paid one, which I considered
Much too often POINTS has had too many mistakes. It appears that one can have five proofs and still have mistakes. Even once the cover was all messed up, which is inexcusable. I fear we have often been guilty of over sloppiness.
We used to have quite a big book section but now its been practically suspended. Publishers are very reluctant to send review copies to little magazines, especially as we usually panned the books to our outmost. It’s so much easier to criticize than to praise, and there again is perhaps another mistake we all make. In our little world we always like to look for the worst than the best. For a while too I had a “letters to the editor” section. That was very interesting and fun and made us feel we were not always publishing in a vacuum. The trouble was we did not get enough letters and in the end I “wrote” some myself under invented names. That was really amusing but how long can one go on writing letters to oneself?
For a long time, for more than the first three years anyway, I think the magazine languished in the doldrums. We were not getting much better and most people did not seem to care much. For long periods POINTS would not appear. I‘d take long holidays and spend most of the day drinking or playing billiards, ping-pong and worst of all pin ball. The “Continental Daily Mail“, the English paper printed in Paris gave us the most encouragement. Their managing editor was interested in ventures like ours and we had two decent write ups in a year, but unfortunately the Mail too folded up. We always seem to have been appreciated more by the English than the Americans. I think that the advent in Paris of two new magazines gave me a needed shot in the arm. In the past year two new magazines MERLIN and PARIS REVIEW appeared. To comment on them separately; MERLIN appeared first in the summer of 1952. When I first read it I did not really understand it and I don‘t think I do today. It was very well produced, even though it had little money. The editorswere and still are I’msure dead serious and frankly speaking, above me. For me its a hard magazine to analyze, I suggest that one should buy it and read it and make up one’s own mind. I have always been on the most cordial terms with the MERLIN editors and they have been very helpful to me. I have published excellent stories which they passed on to me, not because they thought they were not good, but because they were not in their style. I have published poems and articles from MERLIN contributors, and Alexander Trocchi their chief editor gave me one of the best short stories I have ever published. Incidentally I think that Trocchi is one of the best young writers around today. The reason we get on so well, to the surprise of some people, is that we have no point of conflict. We are each trying to do something else. I am primarily interested in the short story as a form of writing and MERLIN devotes much less space to that medium. Also I am not always dead serious and I‘m sure they are.
When PARIS REVIEW first came out I know that I for one quite honestly felt very uneasy. I did not know what they were up to. I think it is safe and honest to say that PARIS REVIEW aimed higher or to a different public than we do. Its a slicker magazine, full of art, important advertisments and name writers. It has a much larger circulation and is perhaps less interested in experimentation, at least in the literary field. I’m not qualified to criticize their art department. I think PARIS REVIEW will grow in sales and stature and good luck to them, but I can’t classify them as a “little magazine”. I don’t think that was ever their intention in the first place.
All that brings us down to the present. I’m more confident than before. The other magazines in Paris stimulate me to work harder and seek better material. I feel POINTS is improving, the quantity of our incoming manuscripts is not very large, but the quality definitely is improving. Writers seem more eager to be published by us now than a while back. The sales are slowly rising in England and America, but I never expect them to get very high. In fact if they get very high, which isextremely doubtful, I’ll get a little suspicious of my quality. The only reason I’d like to see sales go up would be so that my contributors can get better known and sell their work to magazines that can afford to pay. I wish I could pay the writers more; the token fee of 3000 francs per story is ridiculously low, and yet POINTS is the only magazine in Paris (in English) that regularly pays every contributor.
Now that I’ve been going five years my pet project is to publish an anthology of the best work we’ve printed over that period. I had hoped to get it out for the fifth anniversary, but I started my subscription campaign too late. I’ve never tried to raise money before and it certainly is much harder than I imagined. If we are lucky the anthology will come out in mid-1954. Needless to say all contributions are more than welcome.
After all this, or in spite of it, I can’t ever forget that POINTS and many like it, are small puddles in the literary world, which itself is not a very big puddle. Little magazines have their functions of course but they must not be over-rated. I think that most editors of little magazines publish, not because they feel they have to, but because they want to. No doubt I shall be accused by others of just speaking for myself.
For the first time since his arrest he had a chance to sit down and think about things. All through the trial and the time in between that and the sentencing, dead time they called it in the tank, when the judge said he couldn’t let a convicted criminal of hiskind remain free even though he could make bond, he had been unable to find a corner somewhere to be alone in. Now, it was all over; the appeal was denied, the time counted now. Somehow, he felt, the dayswere longer now that they were part of the real sentence. Now he had time to think.
He sat on the edge of his bed and tried to put the pieces together in his mind. One year in the County Jail, Good Time if earned. For what? For giving in after how many endless weeks of watching her suffer, hearing her cries of pain hour after hour, begging him to get her something to stop the aching, the burning she called it? Honey, he had told her, the doctor says he can’t give you too many prescriptions, it’s no good for you to take too much.
But she was in pain and he knew it. So what if the doctor said it was only in her mind, what’sthe difference where it comes from, she’s still in pain isn’t she? He had tried to comfort her, knowing that her constant pleading was wearing his resistance down, knowing that he couldn’t stand it much longer. It was so easy to write the slip out just like the doctor did and sign his name to it. The druggist just took it and went behind the glass partition to make the prescription without even looking up at him. He knew, after that first time, that he would get into trouble; he told that to them, in the courtroom even after his lawyer had told him not to. He knew it was against the law when he did it. “”Why did you do it?” that’s what they asked him; and he just laughed. Why? She’smy wife, my wife. How can I let it hurt her so much? But they didn’t understand. Forging prescriptions for narcotic drugs they called it; one year in the County Jail, Good Time if earned.
He wondered if he was going crazy. After he laughed when they asked why he did it knowing that it was against the law they took him before the psychiatric board, that’s what they called it. They said he wasn’t crazy; that was before they sentenced him. The guys in the tank said he could’ve beat it, gone to Camarillo maybe for a few months, if the board said he was dingy. That’swhat they nick–named him in the cell-block, dingy. He was glad they had sent him out to the farm because now these new guys would call him by his right name, unless someone came out from.the county who knew him.He looked at the facesof the men in the barracksfor a familiar one, but found none. He hoped that when the work crews came in from the fields there would be no one.
He got up and went into the washroom to see if it wasbetter than the one in the tank. Those didn’t have any seats on the toilets. He came back out and stretched out on his bed. He wasworried about the toilets; they didn’t have any seats here either. Just the cold porcelain bowl to siton. He wondered if thiswas a sign that there would be somebody in the work crews who would know him and everybody would call him dingy again instead of his real name. Maybe he was going crazy. He tried to sleep.
Someone pushed him and said are you sleeping? He said no, what do you want?
—I’m the landlady in this barracks; the man told me to tell you if you want a pillow to come outside he’ll take you to get one.
It was a Mexican guy; he was smiling. Steve got up and went outside the barracks to find the officer. He saw him near the gate, talking to another prisoner, so he just waited on the front porch of the barracks until the officer got finished and came over.
—You the fish they brought up this afternoon?—
Steve said yes.
—What’s your name?—
He told him Ballinger, 276369.
—I don’t need your number, just the name. You need a pillow
for your bed don’t you?—
He said he supposed. He didn’t want to tell him that when he was at home he didn’t use a pillow because it made his neck hurt when he got up in the morning.
While they were walking over to the other barracks to get a pillow he asked the officer why was he put here?
—Are you kidding or do you really want to know why you’re in jail?—
Steve smiled at him and said he only meant why did he have to be put in jail when he wasn’t criminal? He didn’t know who wasbehind them putting him here, but he could guess.
—Look buddy, I don’t know what you were busted for or how much time you got. But I do know that your name is on my fish-list and while you’re here you’ll have a job to do. If you don’t know what you’re doing here, then you sure waited too long to ask.
Steve was smiling and whistling softly while the officer spoke to him. The officer gave him a pillow and told him to ask the landlady what his duties would be. But he didn’t get mad at him like some of the officers at the county had when he smiled at them. Not even when he whistled. Hie thing that bothered him was not being sure he was really supposed to be here, because what had he done that he should be in jail for? He put the pillow on his bed and told the Mexican guy that the officer told him to ask what he was supposed to do. The landlady said he’d tell him later, after chow. So he got back in bed and tried to sleep again.
When he woke up he was the only one in the barracks. An officer was standing down by the door calling him. It was a different one than before. He got up and went to the door and saw everyone standing outside all lined up to go somewhere, chow he guessed because it was getting dark outside.
—When that chow–bell rings it means you too, understand?—
He told him he was sleeping so he didn’t hear it. The guys were all snickering at him.
—Make this the last time. From now on arrange your naps so you’ll be awake when the bell rings. Okay, get in line, you’re holding up the whole compound.—
He said thanks and went to the end of the line. Someone in front called him dingy but he couldn’t see who. Now everybody would call him that again, just like in the county, just like he knew they would when he saw the bowl with no seat on it. They marched out the gate over to the mess hall. The food was better than the county, at least this one meal anyway. He wondered if it would be that way all the time. He looked around for the officer who had given him the pillow. Not around. Off duty he guessed, it’s night now. Then they said okay, first row, and everybody near him got up to leave so he did too because he was finished eating. They went back to the barracks. The landlady told him he was supposed to sweep up half of the barracks and in the morning sweep it again and then mop it up and make sure all the beds were straight and all the boxes neat. He swept the floor and saw some guys who were in the same tank as him in the county. He wondered which one had called him dingy so he could tell him he shouldn’t have done that because now everyone will call him that. They were all looking at him but he couldn’t tell which one had said it.
Later that night he was sitting on his bed reading a copy of the Christian Science Journal he had found lying on the floor of the barracks. He was Presbyterian but it was nice to read any good Christian stuff even though those people who used to live next door went and let their old mother die without even calling the doctor because they didn’t believe in them. There was an article about how the Bible proved all you had to do was pray and live a good life and sickness would never torment your body but he didn’t have a Bible so he couldn’t check to see if it really said that. There was a lot of noise down at the other end of the barracks where some men were playing cardsbut he got used to it after a while. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. He looked up and saw two officers had come into the barracks. One of them was a sergeant. They came right over to his bed. He jumped up and stood alongside, smiling at them.
—Let’s see what you got in your pockets Ballinger.—
He emptied his pockets of a comb, thirty–five cents, a letter from his wife, and his property envelope. The officer pulled the blankets off his bed and threw them on the floor. Then he looked underneath the mattress but there was nothing there. He wondered what they were looking for, but he didn’t ask.
—I just heard that you might be planning to kill yourself and I want you to know that you won’t succeed any better here than you did at the county jail. We’re going to keep an eye on you so don’t try anything.—
The sergeant was trying to sound friendly but Steve knew it was just a trick to get him to admit he was crazy. He didn’t really try to kill himself at the county, all he did was pick up his bed and drop it on his head and all that did was give him a headache. He was disgusted with himself then because he had let her down by getting arrested and who would hear her when she cried now that she was alone? But then she came to visit him and she was getting better and the burning didn’t come anymore so he wasn’t disgusted as much. If she had only come to see him again, but she didn’t.
—He’s clean sarge, I guess the tip was a phoney.—
—Okay Ballinger, we didn’t find anything on you this time. Just remember that we’ll be watching you to make sure you don‘t do yourself any harm while you’re here. After you get released you can chop your head off for all we care, but not while we‘re responsible for yon. Got it?—
He got it. Now why did they have to mess up my bed like that? All they had to do was ask me if I was hiding anything and I could have told them no. He re-made the bed according to the chart on the wall, hospital style it said. Then it was time to put out the lights but everybody kept talking and laughing at him and they didn’t let him go to sleep. He wasn‘t sleepy anyway. An officer came into the barracks and said anyone caught talking after lights out would be rolled up to maximum, wherever that was. The noise stopped, and after a long while, he thought he was the only one awake in the barracks. He wondered what time it was.
After a long time he got out of bed and got dressed. While he wasgetting dressed someone got up to go to the washroom so he got back in bed and made believe he was sleeping until the guy finished and returned to bed. Then he got up and tip–toed to the door of the barracks. He saw an officer sitting in the gate–house, the same one who palled the blankets off his bed.
It’s wrong for me to be here, because what man wouldn’t do the same for his wife that I did for mine? One year in the county jail, good time if earned. How could he do a year in jail with her on the outside and sick, even though she said she was feeling better since he got arrested and looked better too? No, it was too much to expect. What did he owe them that he should have to be locked up for a year just because they said he broke the law? Who made the law? Was it supposed to hurt people or help them?
He started repeating to himself, there is only one law, there is only one law. God oh God, there is only one law. You can see me and You know I’m doing what’s right He went down to the other end of the barracks and looked out the door. No one was there. He went back to his bed and got out his writing pad from his box. He wrote a note to the officer who gave him the pillow saying he was sorry he couldn’t stay and work for him but his wife needed him to take care of her. Then he fixed his bed so it looked like someone was sleeping in it and he put the note on his box. He went to the front door to see if the officer was still in the gate–house. Then he went back to the other door and went out.He ran to the fence and climbed over the barbed wire. It cut him on the hands and thighs but it was easier that he thought it would be. He wasn’t sure which way the highway was but he figured it must be downhill so he walked along the road that way. There is only one law, watch me God, I am in your hands, don’t let them catch me before I get to see her. It was getting cold but he kept moving so he wouldn’t notice it.Then the road grew bright with auto lights and he jumped into the bushes on one side. It was a truck with two officers in it but they didn‘t see him. Thanks God, I knew You would understand. If only they would follow Your laws instead of the ones that say you can’t help your wife when she’s in such terrible pain. He saw the highway in the distance, the lights of trucks and busses trailing in both directions like thin white lines. Los Angeles is on the left, he knew that for awe because he just came up on the fish–bus that way.
Two rabbits frightened him. They were eating grass in front of a long building he supposed was where the officers slept. He really surprised the rabbits more than they did him. He cut across an orchard and got his feet all wet in an irrigation ditch but he didn‘t stop because he was getting near the road now. He detoured down into the river–bed to avoid being seen by some men working on a brightly lighted oil rig. Then he jumped over the small fence onto the highway. He walked down to the intersection and stood out in the road so he could get a ride into town. He didn’t care about the words Honor Farm stamped on his dungarees because it was pretty dark where he was standing. He wondered if she would be tired enough not to notice the burning. Oh my dear I’m coming home to you. Don’t cry sweet I’ll be there soon to watch over you. They couldn‘t keep me away from you with their laws and judges. We who live by God‘s law can’t be locked up by that kind, not for long. He felt very warm and excited now.
A trailer-truck picked hinup. The driver said he would take him into Los Angeles. Isn’t God taking care of me now; wasn’t I right in leaving? He sat in the warm truck and whistled to himself but then he stopped because the driver looked at him kind of funny and he was afraid he might ask him to get out.
—I usually make a coffee stop up ahead but I’m a little late tonight.—
He didn’t answer, not because he wanted to be impolite but because the driver just told him that and didn‘t expect an answer because it was histruck and he could do whatever he wanted with it. They stopped for a signal in San Fernando and the street lamp shone on his pants where they were stamped. But the truckdriver didn’t look down. A policeman was sitting in a cafe having,coffee or something and talking to the waitress. Oh, wait up for me tonight,I’m coming home to you. He was getting nervous because there were too many stop–lights as they came into the city. He waited until they had gone through Burbank before he asked the driver to stop on the next corner please because he didn’t want to have to get off in the middle of town in all the lights. He was impatient but he didn’t want to be seen with the stamped dungarees on before he could get home to change into his own clothes. His shoes had dried but his feet were getting cold again as he hurriedly walked along the dark side streets. Getting closer, getting closer to her with every step. I’m home, I’m home love, I’ve come back to you. He was talking aloud even though there were still four houses to pass before he reached his own. Then, he was home.
There were no lights on in the house and he didn’t have any key because they had taken all his personal property from him at the county when he was booked. He rang the doorbell. “Where is she, where can she be in the middle of the night? No one came to the door. He walked around to the back and tried it but it was locked. He couldn’t figure out where she could be. He forced the back window open and climbed in. He put on all the lights but she wasn’t in any of the rooms. Where are you,I’m home, where are you? Maybe she’s somewhere else because she doesn’t want to stay alone? But where? He was worried because she didn’t tell him anything about not staying at home when she visited him that once. He went back into the bedroom and got undressed. He put the county clothes in a neat pile in the closet and got out some of his pajamas. Then he got into the bed to wait; he thought she still might come home. If only he knew where she was so he could let her know he was home, back to stay with her for good. All the lights in the house were on.
He fell asleep but woke up a moment later. She was still gone. It seemed like he had been home a long time and she wasn’t coming back. He went to the telephone and asked the operator for the police. Whenthey answered he said this is Steve Ballinger and I came home from the Honor Farm tonight if you want to come and get me I‘m home in bed; all in one breath. Then he hung up.
Since his debut on the stage of contemporary literature thirty years ago, Ernest Hemingway has managed to survive the eclipses that often overtake artists to whom fame and fortune come early. Several years ago the “Saturday Review of Literature” published, in its twentieth anniversary issue, the results of a poll it had taken to name the leading American novelist during the period of the magazine’s existence. Hemingway was chosen “hands down, receiving twice as many votes as… the runner–up”. More recently, just prior to the 1953 Nobel Prize awards, Hemingway’s name was mentioned as one of the two leading candidates for the distinction. Doubtless his failure to receive the prize this year was merely a postponement.
The prize, when it is awarded, will crown a lifetime of achievement. The body of the author’s work will be taken into consideration. Hemingway’s “collected works” to date include some fifty-odd short stories, six longer books generally termed novels, one as yet unstaged play, and two books HOTS categoric,the first on the bull fight, the second on the hunt. That makes a rather impressive total of approximately ten books, an achievement worthy of any jury’s consideration.
While I believe that Hemingway’s greatest contribution to fiction has been in the realm of the short story, his reputation of course is based especially on the novels. Prior to 1950 Hemingway had published no new novel since For Whom the Bell Tolls, ten years before. Because of that prolonged silence, many people thought that his book on the Spanish Civil War would be his last word. Hemingway has now exploded that myth by publishing two fiction works in the past four years and by announcing that there are more to come. In the light of these last two books, I would like to re–examine his “collected work” in an effort to follow his evolution as a writer and determine whether his ability to survive the vicissitudes of a changing world has been justified by the continued high calibre ofhis work, or whether, as some suggest, he has been living on a very inflated reputation during the past fifteen or twenty years.
The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, is a good novel. For a first novel it is quite exceptional. Not only is the style fresh and vigorous, the whole novel is clean, without any blurred edges. As a picture of the post-war expatriates, it is probably closer to the truth than most people realize even today. The book is not mere reporting, to be sure, but the author’s journalistic experience is manifest throughout. Both the impotent Jake and the insatiable Brett are vividly portrayed characters. Their tragedy, though masked by a hard-boiled exterior, by their clipped, laconic phrases, by their apparent cynicism, is powerful. Understatement is the order of the day, and Hemingway’s use of it is skilful.
This was one of those books in which the author caught the pose of a whole generation, or at least one of that generation’s most colorful aspects, and fixed it as on a photographer’s plate. It was a book which revealed the group to itself, and to thousands who would like to have been what Hemingway described. As a result, Hemingway became more than a new author: he became an attitude of the 20’s.
One feels that Hemingway was very much a part of the world he describes in The Sun Also Rises. The point is important, for it explains, at least in part, the failure, or incompleteness of his more recent novels.
In A Farewell to Arms, the author moved back in time from the post-war Paris generation—Gertrude Stein’s now legendary “lost generation”— to his experiences on the Italian front during the first world war. Once again the book rings true: this is the description of experiences lived through and deeply felt. Or rather, it is more the creation, by the willful absence of such descriptions, of these feelings, “pity”, “terror”, “futility”, in us. The retreat at Caporetto is one of the most moving and vivid pieces of writing in contemporary literature. Frederick Henry is no coward, but the utter hopelessness, the utter confusion of the waste land through which he tramps in defeat, finally cause him to desert. Futility is probably the key word to the novel, for the futility of the battle is later supplanted by the even more poignant futility of Catherine Barkley’s death.
The familiar leitmotivs of all Hemingway’s future fiction are generally present in the first two novels: the love of drinking well and eating well; the constant search for a kind of special satisfaction that can come from comradeship in battle, the big game hunt,or, vicariously, from the ordered ritual of death in the bull ring; the love affair, doomed to end tragically; the tormented, slightly bewildered hero groping to find exactly “what it is all about”, or rather, “how to live in it.” “Perhaps as you went along,” thinks Jake Barnes, “you did learn something. I did not care what itwas all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was about.”
Most of Hemingway’s heroes are persons to whom “they” have done something, “they” being those antagonistic forces that would blind or kill a man, or take away from him those good things in life he has had the audacity or foolishness to cherish. Jake has been shot up, and come out of it, having given “more than his life”, impotent. Frederick Henry has Catherine taken away from him. Harry Morgan, strong and pure in his own brute way, especially beside the pallid specimens of society Hemingway has, not very subtly, collected as foils for his Key West boatman, is forced into a business they‘ll shoot him for. Robert Jordan finds Maria, and a few days later loses her. Here the situation is slightly different, for it is with a conscious gesture of renunciation that Robert Jordan acts, and not merely the invisible forces acting on him. But the result is much the same. The difference indicates an evolution in the author’s attitude that we shall have occasion to return to, the shift from Frederick Henry’s desertion to Robert Jordan’s sacrifice of himself to a cause just as hopeless as Caporetto. But with the truculent Colonel Cantwell we’re back again to the impersonal “they”: his one fatal slip in the Ardennes campaign, and his body’s betrayal are to blame. And the sharks who strip the Old Man’s fish are doubtless symbolic in the same sense.
These forces of life, that “catch you off base” are as unfeeling and unrelenting as nature itself. So the only way to “live in it” was to adopt the same cold, apparently cynical attitude. Feeling is the vice, one of those things you avoid, and, especially, don’t talk about. There’s something shameful about sentiment or the expression of sentiment; it goes “bad” unless you control it, keep it to yourself. Whence the tight-lipped speech of so many Hemingway characters. If ever it becomes a question of sentiment, you can only perceive it peeking out from behind the mask twisted into a sneer or a cynical grin. But nevertheless it does show from time to time, for Jake and Frederick are, despite their masks, sensitive men. “It isawfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime,” says Jake, “but at night it is another thing.”
It is at night, or when you are alone, that it is the worst. Then you have time to think too much, you can feel the nada pressing in, and life becomes a burning log of ants scurrying to and fro, with the “Messiah” beside the fire too lazy or unconcerned to move the log away from the flame.
This reduction of the human sphere to the futile scurrying of ants on a log, the special interest in violence and so-called low types, is not, I believe, to be dismissed as merely “a snail’s eye view of life”. Hemingway has long, from his early days in the Michigan woods to the big game hunts in Africa, been very close to, and observed with extreme care, the casual brutality of natural processes at work. It was the shock of this revelation on a very sensitive mind that first gave birth to an ideology of despair. A recent film, come from Hungary I believe, and called in French, Les Grands Etangs, reminded me of Hemingway. It is a fiercely savage documentary on animal life, from the lowest water creatures to the snakes and fowl and foxes of the swamps, describing the endless struggle of species against species: there life is a game where each slip is really payable by death. Of course everyone is aware of the existence of life on that level, but most would except human life from the ugly cycle, preferring to turn their backs on the unpleasant reality.
It is not so much that Hemingway wishes to reduce life to a purely brute level, but he has consistently refused to turn his back on the “problem of death”, and to face the constant threat and eventual certainty of death squarely is to face life squarely, life stripped of all the sham that human sentimentality has weaved as a sort of wicker protection around the bare glass.
The problem of death is a constantly recurring theme in all Hemingway’s work. One could perhaps accuse him of having done little during the past twenty five yearsexcept follow it, get close to it on the plains of Africa, on the Gulf Stream, the bullrings and battlefields of Spain. In the opening paragraphs of Death in the Afternoon, he says that “The only place you could see life and death, now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring, and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it.” Why study it? Because “I had read many books in which, when the author tried to convey it, he only produced a blur, and I decided that this was because the author has never seen it clearly, or that at the moment of it, he had physically or mentally shut his eyes.” His disgust for the common attitude towards death—something of the “let‘spretend it doesn’t exist and maybe it will go away”—is evident in a passage of the same book where he discusses the Castillian manner of looking on death; “Because they (the Castillians) have pride they do not mind killing, feeling that they are worthy to give the gift. As they have common sense, they are interested in death and do not spend their lives avoiding the thought of it and hoping it does not exist only to discover it when the time comes to die.”
An uncommon preoccupation with death can of course lead not only to despair, but to an uncommon morbidity. In his strange little essay, contained in The First Forty-Nine Stories, and called. “A Natural History of the Dead”, that morbidity is especially marked: “The first thing you found out about the dead was that, hit badly enough, they died like animals. Some quickly from a little wound you would not think would kill a rabbit… Others would die like cats… that crawl into the coal bin with a bullet in the brain and will not die until you cut their heads off.”
Despite this statement, Hemingway’s attitude towards death is not quite so despairingly simple as his words here would leave one to believe. He seems to distinguish between the clean and the unclean death, the dying like an animal or the dying, more nobly, like a human being. In every death there are two forces; the active. Death; the passive, man. Even though man is the passive element, it is up to him to assure himself a clean death. That is why Hemingway makes a clear distinction, for example, between death in war and death in the hunt, or in the bull ring.
War, or death in war, is often “a very barbarous, messy, though exciting business, …a long way from the formal ritual of the bull fight.” He symbolizes the sloppiness by the profusion of paper strewn round the dead, those “group postcardsof village girls by village photographers, the
occasional picture of children, and the letters, letters, letters. There was always much paper around the dead…”
Death in war is unfair in a sense, for there it is very often not a man’s own slip, or decision, that determines the way he will die, but rather the decisions of various other links (in the chain of command or circumstance, concerning which he is helpless.
Speaking of the problem in another situation, with man this time the aggressive element, and the hunted animal the object, Hemingway insists again on this point: “Since I still loved to hunt,” he says in The Green Hills of Africa, telling of the time he had been seriously injured and so come to feel a certain kinship with the animals he stalked, “I resolved that I would shoot only as long as I could kill cleanly and as soon as I lost that ability I would stop.”
Lucidity concerning death, the correct attitude towards it during life and when it comes, seem possible, are necessary if one is to surpass the stage of dying like a rabbit or a cat. Many of Hemingway’s characters do rise above the common level: Catherine Barkley, Ole Anderson, Manuel in “The Undefeated”, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. “Dying is only bad when it takes a long time and hurts so much that it humiliates you. That is where you have all the luck, see? You don’t have any of that,” thinks Robert Jordan, as he waits for the enemy troops to appear. This special preoccupation with death, this attempt “to see it more clearly” and adjust one’s life to cope with it and meet it, is a theme that recurs time and again in Hemingway’s work. In the> space of a few days, or even a few minutes, one can redeem a lifetime of cowardice, or uselessness of futility. Robert Jordan lives as fully “in seventy hours” as he might have in seventy years; Francis Macomber’s “Short Happy Life”, following his act of courage, lasts for the space of a few minutes. For them, Hemingway wants to say, death has no sting.
All thisis very well and good. But Hemingway’s extreme concern with death is really the veil for an adolescent romanticism he has never managed to grow out of. It may be true that the Castillians are worthy to give the “gift” of death. But who isworthy to receive it? War, or death in war may be a very “exciting business” to Hemingway, but most people will agree, I think, that such an attitude, is reminiscent of the boy scout code, an attitude much more prevalent, to be sure, during the patriotic, flag-waving, “war to end all wars” than during the second world war. It is also a very American attitude, for most Americans who came to France in 1918 considered it the “time of their lives”. Any Frenchman or German who happened to come out of Verdun alive would surely have a very different, and less romantic opinion on the matter.
Hemingway has always had a predilection for the bulging biceps, and a disdain that has become more and more apparent, till it reached its climax in Across the River and into the Trees, for all those who have not combated on the front. And he, who once declared that morals are what you feel good after, may find a good round of organized slaughter exhilarating, ergo moral, but I doubt that many would concede him the point today.
This study of death, and the desire to follow it and get close to it might well have enabled some one else—some one with a little more humility than Hemingway has—to evolve a valid and perhaps previously unstated philosophy of life, but it seems only to have increased Hemingway’s arrogance and accentuated the ultra romantic side of his character. In fact, this romantic and dangerous nonsense is probably what is wrong with Hemingway’swork and life view.
With two novels behind him, and a collection of some of the finest sketches and stories in the English language, Hemingway found himself, at the age of thirty, already one of the most significant writers of his generation. Twenty five years have since passed. An economic collapse, resulting in a very changed society, the rise of fascism and communism, a second world war, the rise of a new generation, have marked these years.
During the thirties the accent on what is generally termed “social consciousness” became more and more pronounced. The expatriate world faded into the past. An attitude of lonely despair, a philosophy of the nada no longer seemed tenable in a society of depression, unemployment, strikes, bread lines.
Three years after A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway published a third novel. To Have and Have Not. “It wasthe first apparently conscious attempt of Mr. Hemingway to reconcile ideology and sensibility,” says Ray B. West, Jr, “…with the principal character affirming a kind of lukewarm socialism in place ofthe nihilism of Frederick Henry.”
It is an unsuccessful novel: poorly organized, grossly moralizing, badly written. Vestiges of the old familiar style are still present, but behind the hard-boiled exterior nothing of the lurking sensitivity visible in his earlier works is there to justify the mask. As foils for Harry Morgan, Hemingway chose a group of flat, stereotyped, bloodless specimens whose unsubtle presence detracts from the point he is trying, not very convincingly, to make. Hemingway had tried to make other points in his earlier works, for he has a penchant, despite the coldly photographic nature of much of his work, to moralize. But before he had succeeded in making his points unobtrusively, through a series of striking images. The point of To Have and Have Not is made by Harry Morgan as he lies dying in his drifting boat:
“One man alone ain’t got. No man alone now. He stopped. No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.”
One of the chief virtues of his preceding novels was the conscious, sincere struggle of “one man alone”, a man sensitive to the forces against which he struggled, a man honestly trying to fathom “what it is all about”. And while the idea here, that one man alone ain’t got no bloody chance, is valid enough in itself, Hemingway doesn’t bring it off. One feels that he was not quite convinced of what he was saying himself, or what Harry Morgan was saying for him. Unlike Scott-Fitzgerald, who had the courage to write a completely personal novel in an age which
demanded social consciousness as the prime requisite for success, Hemingway, it would seem, betrayed himself to the prevailing currents of the period.
After this failure, Hemingway did not bring out another novel for almost ten years. He wrote two books meanwhile, one on the bull fight, the other on the hunt. If you are interested in bull fighting. Death in the Afternoonis probably the best book on the subject ever written by a non-Spaniard. But it neither adds anything to nor detracts anything from Hemingway’s literary reputation. It is a book apart, as is Green Hills of Africa. What, of literary merit, resulted from the African expedition is not this latter book, but two, longer than usual short stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, and “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, both of which showed that when he was dealing with a subject matter within the range of his experience and capacity, he could still write fine fiction.
When at last the “great new novel” appeared—”nearly twice as long as A Farewell to Arms—“ the editor’s blurb says proudly, it was generally hailed as Hemingway’s masterpiece. At least part of the editor’s commentary on the fly leaf is no exaggeration: the book is nearly twice as long as the earlier novel. But the commentary reminds me of Gershwin’s father timing his son’s compositions, and equating, automatically, length and greatness. In fact, one of the troubles with the novel of the Spanish war is its undue length. One feels that here Hemingway was consciously trying to write a masterpiece, and that to do so he had decided that a longer work was necessary. One also feels that he again betrayed his own sensitivity in an attempt to embrace a positive philosophy which, empirically, he could not completely vouch for. If it is a rejection of his earlier defeatism, For Whom the Bell Tolls is also a rejection of the Marxist doctrine that was one of the driving forces in the Spanish struggle against totalitarianism. If he has bound himself to that doctrine, it is merely for the sake of expendiency, the choice of the lesser evil:
“He was under Communist discipline for the duration of the war. Here in Spain the Communists offered the best discipline and the soundest and sanest for the prosecution of the war. He accepted their discipline for the duration of the war because, in the conduct of the war, they were the only party whose program and discipline he could accept.”
The idea of “one man alone”, so gropingly voiced in To Have and Have Not is here further developed, resumed in the John Donne quotation from which the title is taken: “No man is an Hand, intire of it selfe…” Harry Morgan was alone, and that was no good. Robert Jordan, in three days (“That makes not quite three days and three nights. Keep it accurate, he said.”) becomes part of a closely knit group, a little knot of individuals united in purpose, symbolizing the Republic of Spain, which in turn symbolizes democracy in its larger sense. Wounded, he stays behind, giving his life to assure the group’s safety. An about face from Caporetto.
“ I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for… You‘ve had as good a life as anyone because of these last days… Christ, I was learning fast there at the end.”
The world of despair has given way to a world which is “a good place to live in”. The bewildering senselessness of “one man alone” has found meaning through self–sacrifice, the total giving of oneself to a cause—not a doctrine—in which one believes. And what does he believe? “You’re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
A rather vague credo, reminiscent of the orator’s platform. And as one critic has pointed out, a sharp contrast to the images in which he cloaked hisearlier confessions of belief or disbelief. There is a certain amount of embarrassment in this profession of faith: Hemingway wants to have Robert Jordan believe, and express that belief convincingly, but he is still embarrassed by oratory and abstract words like “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain…”, and apparently lent such terms as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to his hero half heartedly.
Someone, Mr. Kazin I believe, has very justly termed Hemingway’s earlier work a fusion of “a major art with a minor vision of life”. Hemingway’s effort to make his vision of life a major one, i.e., by endorsing a philosophy of affirmation, did not succeed in For Whom the Bell Tolls. And I do not think the faults of style, the unsuccessful attempt to catch the flavor of the Spanish idiom, the rhetorical cross examinations, the interminable, rather stilted interior monologues suffice to explain the book’s failure. The failure lies rather in the fact that the story itself is, in the final analysis, unconvincing. Unlike the first two novels, it was not an experience lived through. To be sure, Hemingway was in Spain during the Civil War, was on the side of the Republicans, but he was there especially as an observer. He was there, you might even say, as a writer in search of a novel. The difference becomes all the more apparent if one compares Mr. Hemingway’s novel with a book like Andre Malraux’s L’Espoir. Perhaps it is not always necessary for a writer to partake fully in the experiences he describes, but I am inclined to think For Whom the Bell Tolls would have been an entirely different book if Hemingway, like Malraux, had been a squadron leader and not a man with a typewriter constantly before him.
Following this second experience to contradict his earlier nihilism, Hemingway published nothing for ten years. It was known that he was at work on another, very ambitious novel. Then, suddenly, in 1950 the disconcerting Across the River and into the Trees appeared. According to reports, Hemingway wrote it in 1949, believing that he was going to die as a result of an eye infection sustained in a hunting accident near Venice. For this reason he turned aside from the long novel and rushed to complete this shorter piece. It is a pity he did. The book is less a novel than a diatribe, a long-winded monologue (whether the Colonel talks to his Countess‘ portrait or to the young lady in person makes no difference: she is merely a robot, asking questions about war and battle and strategy, to keep the old soldier’s tongue wagging) filled with all that is most petty and bumptious and irrelevant in Hemingway.
The Colonel is bitter, against the Army brass for having demoted him from Brigadier to Colonel, against his battered body for betraying him, against life in general for threatening to kill him just as he hasfound the only girl who has ever “broken his heart”. “She had… a profile that could break your, or anyone else’s, heart,” Hemingway describes her at one point. Is this what his attempt to get that “fourth or fifth dimension in prose” he once spoke of, has come to?
The Colonel is rough, flippantly obscene, grossly disdainful. Leclerc is “a high born jerk”. So is the Colonel’s chauffeur. So is D’Annunzio, so is Paciardi, the Italian Minister of Defense. Bradley is “a schoolmaster”; the British cannot “fight their way out of a wet tissue towel”; we are governed by “unsuccessful haberdashers”, “by what you find in the bottom of dead beer glasses that whores have dunked their cigarettes in”. He knows all the languages, all the best wines, all the finest dishes of Europe, and has a clear disdain for all Americans who don’t.
And so it goes. I do not suppose Hemingway consciously tried to produce one of the least sympathetic characters in fiction, but he came close to doing so. Nor does it save the day to have the spewing Colonel criticize himself (“The unjust bitter criticizer who speaks badly of everyone,” he identifies himself at one point). Undoubtedly Hemingway was furious at the thought that he was condemned to die. Perhaps the irony of the situation struck him, for he had more than once, and notably in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, described the grotesque stupidity of death’s methods, the innocuous seeming infection that should not be enough to kill a rabbit or a cat, much the same sort, it would appear, as the infection that risked to cause his own death.
What is perhaps most disconcerting about the book is its revelation of how Hemingway, after all his talk about facing death squarely, reacted to it when he really found himself confronted with it.
It is a shame that, once having gotten all this off his chest, he did not have the foresight to burn it, or at least bury it in the bottom of some desk drawer.
One thing, and one thing only intrigues me about this book: I wonder if Hemingway chose the rank of Colonel for his hero as symbolic of his own status as a writer. If the long book he was working on should by chance be a masterpiece, that his impending death would have left unfinished, that would explain a great deal. But it would still not justify Across the River and Into the Trees.
His most recent book.The Old Man and the Sea, is hardly more than a long short story. It is a strange, quietly effective little piece, with defects and merits intermingled. There is some idle blather about the Indians of Cleveland and the Yankees of New York, but once the Old Man is alone with the sea, the situation improves. Whether or not the interminably slow rhythm, doubtless intended to describe the OldMan’s struggle in such minute detail that the impression would be forcefully conveyed, is justified, is a matter of opinion. If it were the experiment of a younger writer still groping for a style, perhaps one would judge it less severely, and wait for the following book. But Hemingway’s partial or complete failure during the past twenty five years to repeat anything as fine as A Farewell to Arms tends to make one less and less lenieat with each new effort.
Not that The Old Man and the Sea is a failure in the same sense as were some of the preceding works. It is merely a very minor piece of writing, a book among hundreds. In fact, without Hemingway’s name on the cover, one wonders whether it would ever have been published.
So many Hemingway critics have, during the past two decades, ended their commentaries by a “we are glad this book is not Hemingway’s last word” or something similar, that one begins to feel like a member of the audience at Limelight, or at some play where the public is straining to help an old actor, once good, to struggle through his lines.
I think the critics in general, and the public who read and appreciated his earlier works, are all straining to be sympathetic each time he publishes something new. Remembering the past, they are only waiting to be shown. Such an attitude tends, however, to deform one’s critical optic. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, at least a dozen of the stories can be compared, and compared favorably with much of the major fiction of this century. But his later books cannot. In the absence of that comparison, they have more and more to be set against the preceding works alone.
This is especially true for The Old Man and the Sea. Compared to Across the River and into the Trees, it might be considered an improvement. But compare it to any major novel of the century, and it pales to what it really is: a very minor work, no matter how much symbolism one may try to read into it.
Nobody will begrudge Hemingway a Nobel Prize if he receives one. On the strength of his stories and his first two novels alone he probably deserves the award. Why he has failed to sustain his early pace and calibre is a question no one can really answer. There have been numerous other cases in literature of a similar sort, that nobody has been able to explain. And since Hemingway himself confides that he is still far from finished saying what he has to say, perhaps he will produce something else of value. But I do not really believe that. It was Mallarme who once remarked that there are no more than three or four books in any man. And Hemingway has already written those.
© The Estate of Richard Seaver
© The Estate of Richard Seaver
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