Monday, 5 May 2014

A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast (1964)

I can be a bit clueless when it comes to the history of literature besides that which generally has a picture of a spaceship on the cover, although possibly not quite so clueless as some, but more clueless than I would like. Having been drawn to the probably inaccurate idea of Hemingway as a man who wrote books and enjoyed a good healthy punch-up, I decided to start with A Moveable Feast on the grounds that I sometimes like to know something of the character of an author before I proceed further, and being an autobiographical account of our man's life in Paris in the 1920s, this seemed like a good place to start.

Being rather less clueless when it comes to the history of twentieth century art, I'm interested to find that Ernest spent a lot of time hanging around with artists whose work I know, forming opinions which tend to support that which I suspected. He likes Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, finds Aleister Crowley unsavoury, and summarises Wyndham Lewis in a way as to suggest parallels with a certain weird little fannish hard-boiled egg man presently spewing out a million internet words a day on how Terrance Dicks' Doctor Who and the Giant Robot novelisation recontextualises proto-Shakespearian misogyny as a millennial détournement of Situationist theory, which is a shame as I always liked Lewis' Vorticist work, but never mind.

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.

This passage stood out for me as a good example of Hemingway's greatest strengths, the style he developed, and because of the thematic link to the proto-Cubist painter, Paul Cézanne. Stylistically, Hemingway appeared to be reacting against the baroque excesses of Symbolist writing - if that's what I mean - with an efficient and stripped down text delivering solid blocks of meaning in straight lines without the distraction of adjectives or hyperbole. It is, I suppose, a style that has come to be identified as hard-boiled, at least by me, and might be seen as partially ancestral to the written work of Charles Bukowski, Billy Childish - albeit maybe with a dash of Louis-Ferdinand Céline - and even Philip K. Dick. Rather than presenting a dry, emotionless narrative, this technique instead offers one which might in fact be characterised as more emotionally honest - providing the components of the image, allowing the reader to perceive that which is seen along with the emotional response; or less is more; or as Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of 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 an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

To get to the point, this is essentially similar to what Cézanne and those influenced by him, most notably Picasso, were doing with painting, stripping the subject down to its most basic essence in order to expose artistic truths which had for so long been eclipsed by the artist as the most important part of the equation. In other words, this is what art, whether written or painted, used to do before shit television fooled us into believing sad scenes require tears and Murray fucking Gold sobbing into his London Philharmonic Orchestra in order to convey emotion.

Apparently he wrote better than this, but A Moveable Feast has nevertheless made for a very refreshing change.

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