Exercises in Style

On the bus home from DC yesterday I overheard part of a long conversation between two people who hadn’t met before. They were talking about their mutual admiration of Ernest Hemingway. The first of them had recently read The Old Man and the Sea, that little sailor story from the Papa, and had liked Hemingway’s diction. Like, really enjoyed the short sentences thing.[1] The second did too; she thought that the writing revealed the arc of “well-considered” experiences and scenarios, depictions of scenes that you know he put a lot of thought into getting just so with words that all “meant something.” Our first concurred. He enjoyed seeing the subtle Seafaring Adventure from Old Man written so carefully, “where you know that he took it really seriously.” They concurred that this kind of writing was better than longer script, the “more verbose” kind.[2] Literary depictions succeed when every word goes to precise use, and when you know that, in the words of the first, for our protagonist-y author the world is full of meaning.

Somewhere along the way, they started talking about Hemingway’s suicide. They weren’t quite sure, given all of the wonderful things they knew about Hemingway, why he would want to kill himself—so soon after he won the Nobel, too, trying to understand why someone with such a full control over language who partakes of such ravenous consumption of the material of everyday life, transmogrifying lead into gold, would want to do such a thing. There was some allusion to dear Papa’s “messed-up life” but the question hung there, the same one that’s always there—why? Why that? There were a couple of beats of silence around this bit of the chat, while they tried to think of a good why, some sort of connector bit that would allow them to understand the path that moved from the stuff from the last paragraph to the stuff I’m talking about here, i.e. Hemingway the Luminary and Great Author to Hemingway the Suicidé.

But what if there’s enough information there already to make some sense of it, and you don’t need some deus ex machine “why” to figure out the link? What if the link’s inherent? In her recent pretty-good-but-with-some-complications The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking[3], Olivia Laing quotes from one of Hemingway’s letters: “Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.”[4] The booze, for Hemingway, made the bustle of modernity go away for a little bit, to ultimately disastrous ends. But maybe that tells us something about writers, and predispositions to addictions. When we’re sitting around in boxers / in bed &c reading The Old Man and the Sea it’s all well and good for us to be able to find meaning floating in every well-considered and well-chosen word. Because—and this is crucial—we don’t have to do the work of figuring those words out, and we can put the book down. Now imagine the writer. The writer, poor Ernest, is trapped in a world where he finds meaning in everything. A fishing trip can never just be a fishing trip, it has to be a meditation on Man’s Struggle with Nature or something like that—and every time that doesn’t happen, he might believe it a failure of vision, or an inability to do his job as writer. 

Who can live like that, treating every banal and minor thing that happens as full of beauty and grace? It’s impossible. That sort of approach only makes you double-and-triple-and-quadruple guess every decision you make, whether it’s a major thing like deciding what sort of job you want or a minor thing like deciding to use one word over another that are basically identical but have very slightly different shades of signification that will again very slightly impact the rhythm of the overall sentence or something. You agonize over that tiny little thing, let it eat you alive, and then you choose and the cycle starts all over again with the guilt and the regret again eating you alive because what if you fucked up and chose wrong? Every atom of your being starts to spin around helplessly and your stomach clenches and you feel like you’re going to vomit basically continuously for lack of good reasoning. When nothing can be minor, everything becomes a potential trauma. Life goes from being life to being a story in a novel, of which you’re the author, and for which you’re entirely, infinitely, endlessly responsible, even if you’re not always in control.[5] If the latter-day meganovels make any kind of point along these lines, they do give a better idea of how much material the authorial sort has to sift through to write something Clean and Compact. Significance is paralyzing. The desire to get everything right in one go almost certainly causes more damage than actual mistakes do.

The conversation drifted off to other things without a resolution of the Hemingway suicide thing beyond “yeah, that’s really weird, and it’s upsetting too.” There aren’t ever good answers to those sorts of questions, because no one in a position to make those evaluations has the needed data. That said, most of the time you don’t need some additional, external third force to make sense of things, especially things involving literature, or sometimes even writers—you just need to look at things a different way around, because everything’s there already.

[1] This was one of the remarkably few points in the conversation where this person untimely interrupted his conversant. Perhaps the spirit of Ol’ Ernest (and his misogyny) wormed his way in here, but aside from that it was a rather lovely conversation to hear. A pretty good use of the form, as far as I’m concerned.

[2] Their example for this kind of writing was Dickens, which, to be fair, is something of an appropriate criticism.

[3] The book’s a semi-biography, semi-bit of travel writing from Laing’s trip across the United States (she’s a Brit), that follows the lives of a couple of male American writers—John Cheever, Raymond Carver, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest—and their experiences with alcoholism. The narrative structure is real interesting; it goes back and forth between her own experiences when she visits some of these writers’ old haunts, some personal background on her own family’s struggle with alcoholism, & some serious archival work tracing the lives of these writers through their works and large, large numbers of personal letters. Though it didn’t really answer the question of what it is about writing that generates the common association with addiction, and though Laing lapses into slightly-too-glib AA-style reads of her subject’s psychologies at various points, it’s a compelling read and worth picking up, if only for the nifty conceit.

[4] Ernest Hemingway, personal letter, 1935, quoted in Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (New York: Picador, 2013), 88.

[5] And, in this case, one that you’d probably find pushing along one of Pynchon’s conspiracy nut side characters, but without any of the screwball comedy that introduces a bit of air into the equation.

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