Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The problem of being Ernest

Last summer, I got into a friendly tussle with a colleague over Ernest Hemingway. He likes him. I don't. Perhaps I'm jealous. Hemingway was married shortly to Martha Gellhorn, who was beautiful and brave and one hell of a war reporter and writer — better than Hemingway, in my estimation. Read her collection of magazine articles, "The Face of War."

I don't much care for Hemingway because the females in his novels tend to be either: (1) asexual, damaged, suspicious older women who are essentially castrated, jealous older men; or (2) virginal non-virgins who are so cross-eyed mushy ga-ga over the main character that they can't manage to spout anything better than pablum, generally in the form of a rhetorical question, no matter how dire the circumstances. "Does it not please you that today I will love thee even more than the sunrise loves the morning dew?" It gets tiresome.

And I don't like Hemingway because he's such a gasbag. Take, for instance, this excerpt from "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

“From it, from the palm of her hand against the palm of his, from their fingers locked together and from her wrist across his wrist something came from her hand, her fingers and her wrist to his that was as fresh as the first light air that moving toward you over the sea barely wrinkles the glassy surface of a calm, as light as a feather moved across one’s lip; or a leaf falling when there is no breeze; so light that it could be felt with the touch of their fingers alone, but that was so strengthened, so intensified, and made so urgent, so aching and so strong by the hard pressure of their fingers and the close pressed palm and wrist, that it was as though a current moved up his arm and filled his whole body with an aching hollowness of wanting.”

Peacocks on elephant hormones don't have as much plumage. This is writing for the sake of writing, imagery that invokes no images, noise hiding nothingness. This confusion of style for substance has ruined countless high school writers, and I can't figure out why it remains a staple of the literary canon when there are so many better novels.

Now, compare Hemingway to this passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night."

“Honestly, you don’t understand—I haven’t heard a thing.” Nor known, nor smelt, nor tasted, he might have added; only hot-cheeked girls in hot secret rooms. The young maidens he had known at New Haven in 1914 kissed men, saying “There!” hands at the man’s chest to push him away. Now there was this scarcely saved waif of a disaster bringing him the essence of a continent...”

"This scarcely saved waif of a disaster..."

Those seven words say more, describe more, suggest more, promise more than seven chapters of Hemingway's egomaniacal garble.