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The writer Malcolm Lowry—most celebrated for his
novel, Under the Volcano—wrote poetry also for much of his life. His characteristic
obsessions (with fire, firewater, water, woe) inhabit the poems as
well as the prose. At times his verses read like sketches for scenes in
novel, often verbatim, a way of trying out a phrase and deciding which
genre works best. The lyric impulse, the formal rhetoric and
pleasure in word-play: all these are vintage Lowry and survive the
shift to rhyme. Here is the final entry in his small Selected Poems: “Strange
I wrote: in the dark
cavern of our birth.
The printer had it
tavern, which seems better:
But herein lies the
subject of our mirth,
Since on the next
page death appears as dearth.
So it may be that
God’s word was distraction,
Which to our strange
type appears destruction,
Which is bitter.
For years I thought of this poem as quaint, a function of the printer’s
devil and antiquated technology: some thick-fingered
transposition of letters while the type was being set. But as anyone
who reads contemporary books or newspapers can attest the “typo” is
scarcely a thing of the past; error attends our new technologies as
often as those of the past. As Chair of the Hopwood Awards Committee
at the University of Michigan, I’ve just proofread a volume—the fifth
in a series—of lectures on “The Writing Life.” Each April a
prominent author delivers a speech to an audience of students, many
of whom have been selected as recipients of a Hopwood Award; this
“Advice to the Young Writer” is thereafter published in the Michigan
Quarterly Review. That magazine is meticulous and the lectures appear
letter-perfect, having been proofread repeatedly; once a sufficient
number of such talks have been given and printed, I collect them and call
it a book. The task of editing these pages should therefore be a simple
one: gather the offprints together, scan them, and, hey presto, a
volume appears. . . .
Except it’s not so simple and the scanning’s inexact. There’s an electronic
imp at work with as much inventiveness as Lowry’s comic
printer—who substituted “tavern” for cavern, “dearth” for death. In
the page-proofs I’ve just been correcting, for example, Robert Hass
speaks of “The Creek Tragedies” and Roger Rosenblatt of that contemporary
American classic, “The Class Menagerie.” “Cod” is routinely invoked as
our nation’s deity, and one lecture was delivered by the poet Louise Cluck.
This is, as it were, an unhappy or unglücklich
transposition of Glück, but the errata are not limited to a simple
substitution of the letter C for G. DOS Passos looks like a tip of the
typographer’s cap to Microsoft, and there’s the poet Alien Ginsberg—who
might perhaps have welcomed his new name. One writer was “bounded from
town to town,” and there are whole lines revised at seeming-random: the
machine has a will of its own.
I don’t mean to complain Luddite-like about the failure of technology
or to propose a return to the hand-set or handwritten page. But
the proofreader’s problem does give me my topic—the distinction, as
it were, between what we imagine and what we produce, the
distance between reach and grasp. This may be—consider James Joyce—a
function of the eye not ear; as our sight dims and focus grows
fuzzy we tend to respond more to sound. The letters themselves will
blur, blend. That proud Shakespearean boast, “So long as men can
breathe and eyes can see/so long lives this, and this gives life to
thee,” carries with it a hint of its own countervailing assertion: men
and see but briefly, after all. One could almost read the vaunt as
a form of carpe diem, for beauty too must end. A writer cannot by
definition predict what will outlast the act of writing or how and
what it signifies in time to come; that which we envision and that which
we accomplish lie antipodes apart.
The preceding sentence or this very one with which I now discuss it
might prove resonant to others; more probably it won’t. Yet its
author cannot be the best judge or witness; the effect we have on readers
is for readers to decide. From “distraction” to “destruction” is but a
vocalic shift, and what a writer means or moans is hard to wean from mien.
Atrocious as might seem this series of puns, it’s Lowry-like
and characteristic: or, as he put it in a letter to a friend, the sort
of cartoonish Too-loose Lowry-trek that marked his rambling progress
through the world of words.
Too, he appeared to understand how his “volcano” would erupt. After
years of poverty and failure he earned great praise for his great
book and, in “After Publication of Under the Volcano” wrote “Success
is like some horrible disaster/Worse than your house burning. . . .”
Much of what ensued were “the sounds of ruination,” and when he choked
to death in drunken sleep in a cottage in Sussex in 1957, the
coroner’s verdict was “Death by Misadventure.” One more phrase from
his Selected Poems and I’ll let Malcolm Lowry rest in peace: “When the
doomed are most eloquent in their sinking/It seems that then we are least
strong to save. . . .”
WHEN I READ the announcement of Hemingway’s death I was eighteen years
old and alone for the first time in Paris. It was the
start of July. The writer had died of a gunshot wound in Ketchum, Idaho,
and The International Herald Tribune reported the story
circumspectly: we did not know the details yet, knew only the result.
Our most important author, our laureate, our lion—in 1961 his reputation
had not dimmed and the praise was universal and the work revered.
Like many others of my generation—young men particularly—I thought “Papa”
was the father of us all. His early stories and novels, his
definition of style as “grace under pressure,” his notion that a man
of words could also be a man of action—all these were true and fine.
Nick Adams, Frederick Henry, Robert Jordan—not to mention Lady Brett
and the beautiful Catherine Barkley—set imagination’s
standard: this is the way you must hunt, drink, and court, this is
the way to behave. Since I hoped to be a writer, they also looked like
signposts: this is the pathway and this is the gate, this the spoor
to track. Later I would follow a host of other authorial leads—Lowry’s
prominent among them—but Hemingway began it; he was the heavyweight
hero, he had caught the biggest fish and married the most
wives and been the writing champ.
We knew what he looked like in photographs and sounded like in interviews;
we knew his personal history (the love of boxing and
bullfights, the various war-wounds and airplane crashes) and that he
sharpened pencils absent-mindedly at the writing desk and, because of a
bad back, worked standing up. When you lie for a living long and well enough,
the line of demarcation between fact and fancy gets crossed.
He became his own invention in the news and on the page. I never did
meet him, of course, but knew his nicknames—“Ernie,” “Tatie,”
“Hem”—and familiar to the point of intimacy was his obsession with
So it seemed merely proper, in the city of The Sun Also Rises, to drink
to the author’s memory. “Let’s have some irony and pity here,”
I told myself. “Let’s get tight.” I had been staying in a cheap hotel
on the Rue des Écoles, not far from those Left Bank cafés
Le Select, the Café Flor, the Dôme. I drank a coup of
vin ordinaire, drank two. Then out again along the Boulevard Raspail and
Luxembourg Gardens where I was, it turned out, not alone. Young men
were mourning their lost leader and bending elbows everywhere
and donning sunglasses tragically, saying “Yes, isn’t it pretty to
think so” to anyone who listened at the several bars. As though running
bulls at Pamplona, we weaved back down the Boulevard St. Germain to
the ancient church he’d written of and sat in its cool shade.
What surprises me in this old anecdote is how it did feel personal:
his death was public property, and it could be shared. The pen may
not be mightier than, but does survive, the sword. Soon enough there
would come post mortems, both of artist and career. We would
learn the wound was self-inflicted, learn of his inability to write
after electro-shock treatment and his paranoia and haunted final years.
And so the tune would change. As had been the case for Lowry, Papa Hem’s
trajectory was downwards; he drank too much and wrote
bad books he seemed unable to distinguish from his brilliant best.
What once had seemed heroic came to look like pomp and bluster; what
had been an example to imitate now became one to avoid. The macho posturing
or, as Max Eastman put it, the cult of “false literary hair
on the chest” looked more and more like “Bull in the Afternoon.” Hemingway
had peaked too early; he had lost his influence as well as
mind and nerve. He had been important once, had flourished and faded
and was an object lesson in failure, not success. . . .
TRUTH RESIDES BETWEEN. Much has been written, much made of the famous
author’s famous style. That stripped and
luminescent thing, that eighth of an iceberg and “built-in-shockproof
shit detector”—the plainspeak and colloquial diction so artfully
wrought and architected did more to change the look and sound of American
prose than any other author’s “in our time.” (His phrase too.
. . . ) And I’ve only this to add to that discussion.
Were a computer to dissect the patterns and the rhythm of Hemingway’s
language, it would, I’d guess, fail to distinguish between the early work
and late—rather the way that spellcheck can’t distinguish between two proper
English spellings, “there” and “their,” “weight” and “wait.” Whatever failed
him in the end was not the style itself.
For once he’d established his manner of expression, it more or less
held fast. The Anglo-Saxon verbal pool in which he principally
fished, the preponderance of monosyllabic if not four-letter words,
the transliterated foreign speech and carefully buttressed abstractions,
spaced repetitions and lack of ascription in dialogue, the fondness
for the present participle and paratactic use of the conjunction—all these
hold as true in his last pages as they had done for his first. Some
writers alter their style over time; think of Rainer Maria Rilke, for
example, or William Butler Yeats. Or the early Henry James growing
ever more grandiloquent and orotund, enlarging as his waistline did
to the plump and jam-packed late. . . .
But others, once they forge a mode of discourse, hone and refine and
retain it, and this is certainly the case with Hemingway—no
author I can think of was more constant, consistent in usage, less
subject to change over time. Which is one of the reasons why he’s so simple
to parody and why, in his worst work, he seems a shambling and parodic
caricature of himself. So what we’re really discussing is subject,
not style; this is the true distinction here, the matter of the manner—what
the French call fond, not forme. It’s the difference, if you will, between
the cri du coeur of Roland’s horn and the empty honking of a boy who cries
wolf, wolf. . . .
All this proves devastatingly applicable to his final maunderings, the
“novel”—we must put that word in quotes—True at First Light.
The most recent (and, we are promised, the last) of his posthumously
available books, it undermines the very structure it had been supposed
to shore up. I mean by this the structure of the writer’s published
achievement, that imposing edifice which began with Three Stories and
10 Poems. By now Hemingway has managed to produce nearly as much postmortem
as during his productive career: A Moveable Feast,
Selected Letters, Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, and True
at First Light—several thousand pages of prose have made their printed
debut since 1961. And if you add, as his publishers do, the collections
and selections—“That Dangerous Spring, That Dangerous Summer,
That Dangerous Fall, That Dangerous Winter”—the list of Hemingway’s
titles at present available includes more that appeared after death than
those he himself saw in print.
Of these books, only the nearly completed first can lay proper claim
to attention. Whatever its true genesis—of which more later—A
Moveable Feast is full of splendid language and vivid scenes and scenery,
old Hem at the top of his once youthful form. Both forward-facing and elegiac,
“the Paris stuff”—as Hemingway called it—adds to the bitter best we have
of him and rounds the portrait out. But of the others, of those hundreds
and hundreds of pages accreted since 1961, there’s scant good news to report.
Joan Didion, in a New Yorker article titled “Last Words,” makes a convincing
case that these novels are not actual Hemingway but rather objects of commerce,
leading inexorably to such things as the “Ernest Hemingway Collection”
in furniture. Such commodification of an author’s language has more to
do with revenue than art; it’s clear as clear can be that he wanted
no part of this sort of publication and did try to cover his tracks. To
the last word is one of the dreams of a life committed to letters,
and to have others decide how your finished text should read is a writer’s
nightmare brought to book.
This is a complicated issue, however, and best judged case by case.
Those who read Franz Kafka must be grateful that Max Brod, his
executor, disregarded his instruction that the work be burned. Virgil’s
Aeneid would have been unavailable, but so would a gaggle of
second-rate efforts, the halt and unfinished and lame. Malcolm Lowry’s
fine collection of short fiction, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy
Dwelling Place was published posthumously, as were those Selected Poems
with which this essay begins. But the spate of subsequent books
(October Ferry to Gabriola, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is
Laid, etc.) have done little to advance his reputation’s cause. I myself,
as John Gardner’s literary executor, supervised the publication of two
texts he left behind: one novel, Stillness, he chose not to publish but
which his heirs approved of and one, Shadows, on which he was working
at the time of his motorcycle accident. So I’m more than
glancingly familiar with the difficulties of such an enterprise: discretion
seems the better part of valor, and one must navigate the minefields
of early and discarded drafts with care.
Yet Hemingway did write Charles Scribner, in 1951, that certain parts
of a long four-part novel could be published intact after death.
In the ensuing decade he neither enjoined publication nor destroyed
these manuscripts; he could have burned them, surely; he could have
left explicit instructions that the vault stay sealed. The Old Man
and the Sea, indeed, is a self-contained part of that imagined whole; his
readership is grateful it exists. And he himself oversaw the production
of Across the River and Into the Trees, as bad a book as any that have
seen print since his death.
In 1929 Hemingway wrote, “There were many words that you could not stand
to hear and finally only the names of places had
dignity.” This passage from A Farewell to Arms poses the problem vividly:
which words retain their dignity and which are better left
unwritten or at least unread?
IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as though he and F. Scott Fitzgerald invented the
very idea of author as public figure and grist to the
media-mill. (They didn’t, of course; Ralph Waldo Emerson made his living
on the circuit, and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were
modern celebrities equally: half-artist, half-entertainer to those
who came to hear them in the lecture halls. Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay,
Carl Sandburg, Oscar Wilde—the list extends, expands. But the divide
between life and letters, between the performer and the thing
performed, appears in almost every other case more clear. Fitzgerald
at career’s end worked in near-anonymity and with great integrity; not
so the man who’d mocked him as “poor Scott.”) Dickens or Twain may
have drawn on personal history for the characters of David
Copperfield or Tom Sawyer, but no one who thronged to listen thought
of their fictions as fact. That distinction has been—in no small
part because of Hemingway—erased. When he writes about his hero’s war-service
or guerillas in the Spanish hills or hunting German
submarines, we tend to take the imagined tale—no matter how bloated
and self-serving—for the enacted deed.
This no doubt fuels the pointless argument that True at First Light
has engendered: the question of whether or not he took an African
bride. The protagonist of that novel-in-progress is offered a willing
maiden or two, and it titillates imagination to think its author was too.
Hemingway claimed to have slept with Mata Hari—a chronological impossibility—and
his rum-bred braggadocio as to Dietrich, Garbo and
the rest seems interestingly at odds with his characters’ earned reticence;
if he’s correct in his assertion that you lose it if you talk about it,
then he lost in actuality what on the page he gained. (A Pyrrhic victory,
of course, since a truism of writing is that an encounter is only as true
as it reads. “But this actually happened,” the novice asserts, of a scene
that fails to persuade. . . .)
It’s one paradox of our age of publicity that authors such as J.D. Salinger
or Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon can increase their
public’s expectation by the very refusal to appear on talk-shows or
in Dewar’s Ads; were they to show up at fashion shoots we’d be less
likely to look for the texts. It’s a ploy of publicity agents now to
keep their client under wraps and a book’s contents sealed. But this of
course requires that someone notices your absence from the limelight;
most of us don’t need to be protected from the paparazzi’s flash. For
me to refuse Oprah Winfrey’s invitation to appear on her television
program is somewhat less heroic than it would be if she asked. In this
sense the “author-tour” becomes its own contradiction; to write your
name in lights or at the bookstore table is not to be at home alone
engendering the work. What we lose in the process is that most cherished
aspect of the writer’s life, that sine qua non of productiveness:
untrammeled time to work. And Hemingway did understand this; he was,
it would seem, a binge-writer—alternating periods of privacy
with those of the fiesta (which is, as it happens, the German title
of that book of his which in England alludes to the fact of recurrence
the vanity of worldly hope: the sun also ariseth until, one day, it
sets.) His biographers’ accounting of the bleak final years attests to
writer’s conviction that the act of creation mattered, mattered greatly,
and he killed himself at least in part when he feared he could no
Here it’s useful to remember how many of his heroes are cognate-figures
for the artist: from Jake Barnes the journalist to Thomas
Hudson the painter, men of sensibility take stage center in the tales.
The great white hunter Robert Wilson, in “The Short Happy Life of
Francis Macomber,” recites Shakespeare on the subjects of bravery and
growth. Even the least literate of Hemingway’s protagonists, the
Cuban fisherman Santiago, responds to the water and sunset as though
he were composing the scene: conscious sensibility is a common
denominator throughout. This holds true for the corrida and trout stream
as well as safari. His men may be silent and stiff-upper-lipped, but
the dying Harry of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” provides the template
here: writing what he cannot write in a kind of soundless cadenza
and, in the shape of the hyena, hallucinating death.
Too, it’s startling to remember how young our author was when first
famous; most of his time was lived in the limelight, and even the
retreats—Key West, the African rambles—were open to photographers.
This writer’s life was relentlessly public, one that he lived from “first
light.” Fitzgerald wrote the editor Maxwell Perkins in 1924: “This is to
tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemingway, who lives in Paris (an
American), writes for the transatlantic review and has a brilliant future.
I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.”
At this point, let’s remember, “Hem” wasn’t twenty-five, so the apprenticeship
was at best brief. Now we’d announce “the arrival of a
major new talent” and talk of movie sales and TV interviews and blockbusting
tours. But Hemingway was ballyhooed at least as early on as, say, Bret
Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney or Tama Janowitz.
To name this more or less contemporary trio is to recognize how rapidly
today fame fleets. Well, not precisely fame as a function of
name recognition but as a result of earned artistic laurels; there
will be a hundred now who know that these people are writers for anyone
who plans to read their books. Unmediated judgment attaches largely
to an anonymous manuscript; from then on out it’s a matter of
gossip-columns and sales. I mean by this that the first reader of the
first submission must trust to his or her own educated guess as to a
manuscript’s worth. Thereafter other issues factor in. The commercial
stakes have been raised; the tolerance for failure or a break-even
book decreases, it would seem, each season. So the decision as to whether
to publish the new Ellis, McInerney or Janowitz, whether to
review or read, has more to do with previous sales records than the
intrinsic value of the text at hand. And I pick these three at
near-random; for a whole raft of reasons it’s hard to extend a career.
“Young writers if they are to mature” as Cyril Connolly averred,
“require a period of between three and seven years in which to live
down their promise.”
And that is my true topic here: how to live up to one’s promise or,
per contra, live it down. The phrase comes from a work I love:
Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly. It was given to me by a bloody-minded
uncle forty years ago, when I first dreamed of writing, and it’s a sustained
analysis of the pitfalls that await young authors and the pratfalls they’re
likely to take. How does one navigate the shoals between departure and
arrival; how stick at the last to one’s last? Let me quote at greater length
from Enemies of Promise:
. . . In authors who have dried up, who have put their hobby before
their vocation, who now are doing well in the
city or who collect first editions or old dust-wrappers, who run chicken-farms
or set and solve Greek cross-word puzzles,
who write detective stories or who have transferred their sensibility to
cheese and old claret, there is one fact in common.
They have all been promising.
Promise! Fatal word, half-bribe and half-threat, round whose exact meaning
centered many tearful childhood
interviews. “But you promised you wouldn’t,” “but that wasn’t a promise,”
till the meaning expands and the burden of
the oath under which we grew up becomes the burden of expectation which
we can never fulfill. “Blossom and blossom
and promise of blossom, but never a fruit”—the cry first heard in the nursery
is taken up by the schoolmaster, the friendly
aunt, the doting grandmother, the inverted bachelor uncle. Dons with long
reproachful faces will utter it and the friends
of dons; the shapes and simulacrums which our parents have taken, the father-substitutes
and mother-types which we have
projected will accuse us and all await our ritual suicide. Whom the gods
wish to destroy they first call promising.
Of all the second acts in American literary life, there’s none more
sad than Hemingway’s, and it helps to be reminded of his brilliantly
accomplished first. When Fitzgerald called himself “an indifferent
caretaker . . . of talent,” Hemingway was savage, saying of The Crack-Up
that it was dirty laundry and should not be washed in public. But True
at First Light paints a far grimmer picture—grim because involuntary as
well as self-deluded—of an author gone bankrupt or at least into receivership.
Even Ralph Ellison—whose posthumous publication was the other major event
and major disappointment of this last publishing season—kept his decline
to himself; when Ellison appeared in public it was with unmatched dignity.
None of the attitudinizing bluster or, as Connolly describes it, “sensibility
to cheese and old claret” the falling-off in Hemingway’s case makes “glist’ring
Phaeton’s” seem positively leisurely, a measured collapse and banked fall.
These are issues of what I’m tempted to call “career management” and
a spur to speculation on that problematic thing, lastingness. The
ancients imagined Proteus as a shape-shifter, an old man of the sea
who had to be grappled with firmly while he assumed the forms of
water, fire, air. Caught, he would prophesy. But consider our author’s
old man of the sea—now an animated feature, by the way, at your
better local cinemax—and you’ll see the way a shape can shift, the
Protean use in our present age to which such talent is put. For even in
his wildest dreams the boy in Oak Park at the turn of the century could
not have predicted that, by the millennium, there would be
furniture marketed in his name and in four individually tailored themes:
Ketchum, Key West, Havana and Kenya. There are Hemingway
look-alike contests, Hemingway write-alike contests, the bearded face
licensed to T-shirts and soon enough, no doubt, to gin. What does all
this have to do with writing, one may ask?
There’s a celebrated anecdote about the early work and how it came to
be lost. Though penniless and at penury’s edge, Hemingway
and his first wife Hadley always seemed somehow to fetch up on the
Riviera or in Spain, and during one such winter—1922—he went
ahead to Austria. Hadley joined him there. He had asked her, it would
seem, to bring along his work-in-progress from the flat in Paris, and
she packed it dutifully, taking all the drafts and carbons in a separate
valise. Carlos Baker, in his Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, reports on
He had been urging Hadley to
fly down whenever she felt “travelly.” The prospect of dodging among the
mountains was not very tempting and she took the train instead. But
the journey was made under conditions so harrowing for her and so horrible
for Ernest that neither of them was ever able to forget it . . . During
the very brief time when the bags were out of her sight, the valise with
the manuscripts was stolen. . . .
Hadley was inconsolable; he too. Some work was salvaged because
elsewhere; the short story “Up in Michigan,” for instance, had been
offered on submission, and there were scattered drafts of “Fathers
and Sons.” Soon enough he would produce that groundbreaking series of
dispatches, In Our Time, and we cannot know for certain how much he
did retain, how much of the lost suitcase found its way into those
tales. His memory would have been accurate, his hand still steady and
eye clear; he could have reconstructed what was worth the saving and
scrapped what were anyhow scraps.
Nor can we know, almost by definition, if these were apprentice pages
or the precocious master craftsman’s—if, in truth, imperishable
language was on that occasion lost. Or if, as he later wrote of a passage
in A Farewell to Arms, “it sounds very much like the sort of thing one
tries to remove in going over the manuscript.” But in any case the
loss became an emblem for what proved irretrievable: his hopeful youth,
his marriage, his sense of possibility, his early close wrangling with
words. Years and decades later he “could not bear to speak of it,” as
though Eden were ransacked that day and he himself expelled.
Some of the great short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” is powered
by a similar regret and self-negating strategy.
You could dictate that, but
you could not dictate the Place Contrescarpe where the flower sellers dyed
their flowers in the street and the dye ran over the paving where the autobus
started and the old men and the women, always drunk on wine and bad marc;
and the children with their noses running in the cold; the smell of dirty
sweat and poverty and drunkenness at the Café des Amateurs and the
whores at the Bal Musette they lived above.
Yet that’s a way of eating cake and having it, of saying what cannot
be said and in the very act of description describing silence also;
guess what, dear reader, you’ve just read about the Place Contrescarpe
although it can’t be written; we say it can’t be done then do it nevertheless.
So I have my suspicions. Perhaps he found the pages later and knew that
they weren’t any good. There’s a story, probably apocryphal,
that an obliging bartender kept a briefcase at the hotel bar and said
to Papa later: Hey, Hem, isn’t this yours? If history can be revised, and
if it belongs to the victors, why could he not revise the suitcase-stories
and call them a memoir? In this scenario some passages would have
been remembered and thereafter recycled; it’s possible—even, to my
mind, likely—that A Moveable Feast, with its romantic evocation of
first love in Paris, derived from those early sketches; we tend to
repeat our good lines. There’s a noticeable divide in that final book
between the sun-shot and nostalgia-splashed description of the early
career and its bitter aftertaste. Those who helped him—Gertrude Stein,
Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest—are dismissed with
retrospective savagery; it’s as though the fierce old man rewrote the charming
boy. Or, in a kind of time-lapse photography, as though the one face had
been superimposed on the other.
For an author who proved unable, when asked, to compose a single line
for John F. Kennedy’s inaugural to have produced so many
such marvelous pages as those of A Moveable Feast beggars credulity;
it must have been previous prose. Each fond dream of redemption ends
with “What was lost is found.” No doubt the suitcase did disappear
but the container yielded up the thing contained. There were old
notebooks, perhaps, discarded drafts, the “Paris stuff” stuffed into
mattresses or returned as a bundle of letters or extracted from a cardboard
box left mouldering under the eaves. . . .
WHAT COMPELS ME, as should by now be evident, is this image of an elder
author confronting the work of his youth. Let’s assume
for a moment that Hemingway’s own first effort was, in effect, a found
object as well as a lost suitcase. In Robert Frost’s phrase, “the gift
outright,” we find a mortgage nonetheless entailed; what happens when
we squander such a gift or prove indifferent caretakers of talent or
simply run out of steam? For an entertainer or athlete this prospect
arrives quite early on; a creative artist can pretend that maturity provides
wisdom, efficiency replaces energy, and so on. Yet the examples of great
achievement in old age are few and far between—far fewer, I would venture,
than of greatly ambitious first.
For there does come a point, of course, when one knows the best work
is over and a bill if not a final reckoning comes due. We may
be lucky enough to acknowledge this and withdraw from the arena and
thereby avoid embarrassment or, worse, public compassion,
condescension; we may, if we are fortunate, retain—even gain—perspective
and refuse a supernumerary curtain call. I don’t mean that the singer or
the violinist should cease their private music or writers must fall on
their pens. To the degree that this essay is personal,
confessional, the hope is self-reflexive: may I recognize, in years
to come, what’s worth the preserving, what not.
Ernest Hemingway, it seems to me, saved less of himself than do most
other authors, living—as he once put it—“with a quicker ratio
to the passage of time” than do most of us at the millennium, in spite
of palm pilots and supersonic planes. He was “half in love with easeful
death”; he held nearly nothing back. So there’s a bitter irony in the
industry of exhumation, these slim graveyard pickings and very brittle
old bones. Because whether he used or abused it, whether he squandered
or worked to conserve it, that talent of his was a bright shining light,
and when it went out it went out.
There’s a novella at my most recent book’s center—a novella not coincidentally
titled The Lost Suitcase—which is a kind of
premonitory variation on our theme. I mean by this that I tried to
imagine alternate Hemingways, alternate ways of responding to change:
scenes in which his wife jettisons the manuscripts in anger, for example,
or scenes in which it doesn’t matter that she misplaced his early
work or they decide to save it against a future rainy day and together
concoct the story of theft in the Gare de Lyon. . . .
My fiction goes on for a hundred pages and nearly that many scenarios;
I’ll conclude here with the last. Our Hemingway-figure is called
Edward, Hadley’s AnnaLise, and by this time he’s ill and ancient and
abandoned by his Muse. Here’s what I made of our “strange type” and
my own version of endurance: one final Old Man of the Sea:
For what is a suitcase, what sort of gift? What has she left him
with, leaving him that? The memory, perhaps, of what he once produced;
the receptacle of all his early effusiveness—the proof in dog-eared black
and white that once he was a young man and an enthusiastic and energetic
beginner poised above his work-desk, rapt. Who had believed the suitcase
stolen, the language in it long since lost, but he has always been a lucky
man and she a large part of his luck. Imagine for a moment, reader, that
you too are young again, the world before you like a path of gold, the
first kiss or million dollars or the perfect game awaiting your first toss
towards home plate. Imagine that it’s Eden still, this overgrown garden
we have decided not to prune or weed or hoe. With wandering footsteps and
slow. Or that the night is sleepless since you do not choose to sleep and
that you could at will and readily drift off. What was possible remains
a plausibility and what was lost is found. Imagine that your AnnaLise returns
in all her original beauty, her unblemished innocence, and that age has
neither withered nor custom staled her infinite consistency, that she is
the dream you first dreamed. These paragraphs are yours, were mine;
they have been waiting in this suitcase for longer than we care
to count, and now have been by your conceiving—great word of art and life—restored.
I picture it this way.
She gets off the train.
AnnaLise gets off the train.
One final time our girl gazes about and construes her own shadow
and stares down the length of the snow-sprinkled platform. At mountains,
conductor, a dog.
She represents, of course, the Muse; in whatever way such visitations
happen and for whatever reason (his quick grin, his insouciance, his nine
inch cock?) she finds herself compelled by Edward. She has watched him
for some time, watched over him for years. Perhaps already in his crib,
perhaps in grade
school or junior high or during the period of his apprenticeship
to the school yearbook and the newspaper, more probably one morning in
the bathtub at the age of six when he found himself, with no discernible
prompting, able to remember whatever he had heard that day or read the
night before and able to
rhyme and recite it—when he woke, I say, to the glad awareness of
language this repeated glad awareness in and of itself appeared involuntary
and not in the strict sense rational, as though he were a tuning fork and
some composer struck a note, as though he were the subject of this sentence
and not object or as though the two were—awful word—conflated or—slightly
But whatever the reason, having elected him as vessel, AnnaLise
has poured herself unstintingly within.
And although our hero is an egotist, he is neither wholly unaware
of nor ungrateful for the honor. In the watches of the night or bent above
his writing desk he does feel singled out. He thinks of writing as a trade,
a craft, a discipline, and has apprenticed himself to it gladly; his pleasure
in the work of words
is real. He suspects himself to be muse-blessed and understands
that he is fortunate but perhaps not-quite deserving. From time to time
when drinking gin or in the fleeting interval between night-wakefulness
and sleep Edward hears, or tells himself he does, the beating of great
Above, about him raised.
Upon the perfumed air.
For for all her corporeal splendor, what she is is his idea . .
And therefore bit by bit and almost imperceptibly over time our
hero—once so severe, so constant of purpose and disciplined in habit—permits
to take her not so much for granted as for something of less value
than had been the case to start with: a currency debased. Soon what has
begun as attitude becomes a routine condescension, a familiarity that serves
him as first-cousin to contempt. A diminution of his capacity for wonder,
a sense there’s nothing
singular in being singled out like this and that she be but footnote
to his text.
Till one fine morning he wakes up and, as always, stretches and
as always shifts the pillow and thrusts back the blanket and gets out of
bed, gingerly testing his right leg, his hip, the stiffness in his joints,
the muscles of his back, his throat engorged, his mouth still tasting like
the bottom of a birdcage, and
shuffles to the bathroom where he runs the tap and spits and rinses
off his teeth, blinking, pissing, hawking phlegm, and turns on the overhead
light and switches on his own electric kettle for the first cup of hot
water with lemon, since he does not want to bother the night-nurse or,
more precisely, to be bothered by her, cannot bear to share the fuss and
ruckus of conversation at this hour but instead surveys the landscape (sea-grape,
sea-fog, the rising sun and fading moon and could that be the Southern
Cross?) and throws back the green wooden shutter and latches it, as always,
to the black hook in the stuccoed wall and sits to his work-desk, as always,
positioning the cane-backed chair, sharpening his pencils and smoothing
out the foolscap and reading what he wrote before,
the verbiage accumulated yesterday and also the day before that,
sucking maybe on a gumball, staring at the palm-tree and the cactus back
beyond the pool, sitting poised as though expectant of, attendant on her
visit, her seductive tactile presence on the naked yellow unlined sheet,
for he has worked this way for months, for years, for decades, every morning
in this fashion at this hour and no matter what has gone before, how hard
the night or troubled the sleep, how many words he wasted on and with how
many incidental players, undone, unstrung, half-comatose, so that it is
merely accurate and neither boastful nor self-serving to report the yield
was real, the harvest abundant, the language available to Edward—witness
the books on the shelf, the placards
and awards on walls, the shelves in the library bulking—and so it
takes him longer than it should have, possibly, to sense how something
else obtains this day, some alien vacuity enters the room, or how the light
comes slanting in without illumination.
The palm-trees do not frame his view, and what he has for company
is absence and not presence.
The habit broken, the pattern no longer ingrained.
The song he taught himself to hear is silence now, not with him
now, not this fine morning at his desk and, although he does not wish to
consciously consider this he knows it already, irrevocably, once
gone it is gone and will not return to him ever, nor come to him again.
As once in May.