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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Hemingway’s Gossip

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 05/12/05 at 07:36 AM

I just read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and I’m feeling a bit nauseous.

I’m generally of the pro-Hemingway camp; his style is original, and many of his stories do stay in one’s head. His famously clipped sentences are readily parodied, to be sure, but they do produce a sense of drama if you are willing to go along. Unfortunately, the sentences work much less well in this memoir of writerly Paris in the 1920s, partly because most of the episodes in the book lack the strong sense of tension or anxiety Hemingway was able to achieve in his best fiction. A Moveable Feast is therefore best read for the Paris gossip, though it does have some moments of stylistic ambition.

Gertrude Stein fans and critics have a special hostility to A Moveable Feast because Hemingway says some mean-spirited things about Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. Those were the sections I read in graduate school, in too much of a hurry to get a Gertrude Stein seminar paper together to actually read the rest of Hemingway’s little book. It was enough for me at the time to note the hypocrisy in Hemingway’s emulation of Stein’s radical sentence design, in light of his ungracious dismissal of her as a person.

There’s a good deal of other interesting gossip to look for: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce, Picasso, and Sylvia Beach. Scott Fitzgerald comes across as nuts, but likeable in some measure. Ezra Pound is, improbably, a “saint.” Wyndham Lewis is grotesque (Hemingway quotes Stein as referring to Lewis as “a measuring worm”: he measures the great art he sees, and copies it badly). Ford comes across as a snob, and a liar. Joyce, Picasso, and Sylvia Beach come across as basically harmless, benevolent presences.

There is one section of the book, “Hunger was good discipline,” which exemplifies Hemingway at his writerly best and worst. Here is what I think of as the best:

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 Cezanne 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.

Perhaps he goes a little off the rails into uninteresting idiosyncrasy with the bit about Cezanne forgetting to eat, as opposed to being just flat-out broke and hungry. But the rest seems true. Hemingway is into intense mental states, in which one becomes other to oneself, but not in an ephemeral or feverish way. If anything, the difference is quantum (physics metaphor!); the altered state may be temporary, but it is static and describable.  (Altered states are also especially important in For Whom The Bell Tolls, I think).

That for me is Hemingway at his best, at least as far as the rather slim pickings of A Moveable Feast go. He’s at his worst at the end of the same section I quoted from above, when he poses the following sentence as a stand-alone paragraph:

All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head and until morning when I would start to work again.

Can anyone rescue this sentence, with its disparate and incompatible verb tenses? Can it be anything other than ugly and kind of ridiculous? Somehow it seems much worse than Hemingway’s general use of parataxis, which can create a kind of rhythm, or the omission of punctuation, which creates immediacy. Both of those are evident in the first paragraph I quoted (see for instance the first sentence), and they do no harm. 


Early medieval romance has a Hemingwayesque quality (no subordination)”

<a>"Handsome he was, and courtly and tall and well made in his legs and his feet and his body and his arms."</a> Aucassin et Nicolete

The only English translation I’ve seen loses the effect, producing generically quaint faux medievalism: “Fair he was and pleasant to look upon, tall and shapely of body in every whit of him”.

Auerbach (Mimesis) cites similiar very early vernacular from chronicles.

By John Emerson on 05/12/05 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m feeling a bit nauseous

Better stay away from people, then: you wouldn’t want them to start throwing up.

By Kieran on 05/12/05 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment



By Amardeep on 05/12/05 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, sorry. Just another losing front in the language wars. You were nauseated, not nauseous—for much the same reason that, had you swallowed a bottle of bleach instead of read Hemingway, you would have been poisoned, not poisonous. But I think the use of ‘nauseous’ to mean ‘being affected by nausea’ rather than ‘causing nausea’ has become dominant in the U.S. in the last 20 years. So I was just being pickeous.

By Kieran on 05/12/05 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Memoir is rarely a flattering genre for a fiction writer in decline, even if the publishing industry prefers it above all others. The proper comparison point for A Movable Feast is something like The Garden of Eden rather than his best short stories.

By Ray Davis on 05/12/05 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aha. That’s precisely the kind of distinction my brain seems wired not to catch. I was amused by the way Dictionary.com handles the usage problem.

By Amardeep on 05/12/05 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When I was teaching in Taiwan my students never could figure out “interested” vs. “interesting” and comparable pairs. 

“I am very interesting in philosophy”, etc.

By John Emerson on 05/12/05 at 05:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right to title this Heminingway’s Gossip, because, of course, that’s exactly what it is. What’s so interesting and provocative about this book is that it’s gossip that comes out long after there’s anyone left to contradict him. This is Hemingway trying to get the last word--Fitzgerald, who is portrayed here as an impotent lightweight who can’t hold his liquor and is so insecure about his masculine endowment that he allegedly has to ask Hemingway for reassurance, is long dead, as is Stein, who as you point out, doesn’t get a very good reading here (not only is there the infamous “No Pussy, NO” scene, there’s the one where she gravely explains the difference between male and female homosexuals, while Hemingway, that old boxcar-riding, knife-wielding detector of predatory homosexual hobos, pretends to learn something). I think it’s about payback: Fitzgerald did the Keatsian die early bit, and is the beloved lost boy of American letters, while in Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Stein claims that she is pretty much solely responsible for Hemingway’s writing style. Or maybe it’s just catty opportunism and a last deperate attempt to not be washed up--he finished it in 1960, about eight years after Sylvia Beach’s memoirs were a huge hit. Didn’t Janet Flanner’s Paris Was Yesterday come out about that time? He’s cashing in on the modernist memoir trend. Except he doesn’t really cash in on it, on account of killing himself the next year and all . . .

But you can’t read it as you would The Sun Also Rises, or whatever Hemingway you love. You gotta love it as the flawed, odd thing that it is. Here is the artist as aging, fearful icon. I’m still not sure what to do with something so perhaps unwittingly self-revelatory.

What I most love about the book is its tone of deep regret. So much of it is about his marriage to Hadley and how badly he bumbled it. Here’s the legendary womanizer saying “I let the real love of my life go.” Do I believe him? Not really, but I’m interested in him wanting me to believe this version of himself. I like that it’s a willfully romanticized rewriting of his past, with some great bits of caricature thrown in. My favorite gossipy part is his description of Ford Madox Ford as a spectacularly unwashed mouth breather. Hemingway notes that he always held his breath when he had to get close to him. How great is that?

By on 05/12/05 at 06:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m pretty low-brow when it comes to literature, so I don’t get into the theory and all that jazz.  I’m mentioning this because I don’t know if my opinion then counts, but this is the only Hemingway book I liked and I’ve read quite a bit.

By on 05/12/05 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks for that—it adds nice background to the post. I also don’t buy for a minute the business about his regretting leaving Hadley. By the way, I liked your article in Victorian Poetry some years ago, on Amy Lowell’s theatrical persona (Project Muse link; subscription required). It’s very nicely written and paints a very provocative picture of Lowell. Have you thought about Lowell vs. Edna St. Vincent Millay?

And Anthony, of course your opinion counts. This book does have its charms, though I personally prefer the early Hemingway. What do you like about it that goes beyond the gossip? Is there a passage that comes to mind?

By Amardeep on 05/12/05 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m surprised you didn’t call attention to his appreciation of Wyndham Lewis’s eyes.

By Jonathan on 05/12/05 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow. Thank you. I actually tried to get someone (anyone!) to write on Lowell and Millay when I was putting together my collection of critical essays on Lowell (shameless plug: Amy Lowell, American Modern, Rutgers 2004) and no one would bite. Lowell described Millay as having “the ambition to be a minor poet” and was burning mad when she got the first poetry Pulitzer in 1924. (Lowell got it in 1926, but had been dead a year by then.) But I guess this isn’t really the place for Lowell talk. As the self-proclaimed expert on all things Amy Lowell, I have an investment in not liking Ford (he called her a “disagreeably moneyed, disagreeably intelligent coward") so Hemingway’s portrait always cheers me.

By on 05/12/05 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me second Amardeep’s emotion and also say that this mostly certainly is the place for Amy Lowell talk--though we don’t want to make anyone want to scratch their eyes out.

By Jonathan on 05/12/05 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, the Hadley stuff.  I wrote a paper about it being an attempt at retroactive fidelity.  It was probably bunk, but I was in Paris and you know what they say about being in Rome.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 05/12/05 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Margo, darling, how lovely to find you in our morbid, airless den of self-satisfaction.

By on 05/12/05 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh yeah. Busted, big time.  Let’s call this my big Valve learning curve day. Seriously, after responding to Conscientious Objector’s post, I spent the WHOLE day here and while I still find a lot of the writing off-putting because it is precisely *not* an invitation to discussion, more like an unnecessarily opaque lecture without any concessions to readerliness, a lot of it is engaging and well-written. I found Amardeep’s column particularly interesting 1) because it seemed like an opening gesture to a real conversation and 2)because, finally, something I could recognize and respond to. (The hypocrisy of it all! what could be more grad student-in-a-seminar-ish than to jump on the one thing you know.)

I apologize. My comments over at Conscientious Objector were over-the-top, not to mention a little cowardly, since I ranted using my blog name, and wrote here using my own. That wasn’t calculated, certainly: I’ve never used my real name on a blog before today, but a day spent following the debate over at C.O. and reading around here suggested that contributing to a discussion might be more productive than playing superior and shooting out an anonymous, facile dismissal.

By on 05/12/05 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’m glad you’re here, Melissa.  I thought those were great comments about Feast.  I agree with Amardeep, too, it’s the worst, easiest to dislike of Hemingway and yeah the desperate bid to cash in/hold on/pay back when it’s all over.  But I never really considered the performance of regret before. 

But you know, I just reread _In Our Time_ recently.  He’s still easy to dislike, but it’s pretty awesome what he does with that book.

By on 05/12/05 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Amardeep, too, it’s the worst, easiest to dislike of Hemingway


1.  Green Hills of Africa
2.  Death in the Afternoon
3.  To Have and Have Not
4.  For Whom the Bell Tolls
5.  The Old Man and the Sea

All of these are much easier to dislike than A Moveable Feast.  Bitchy, self-pitying Hemingway is far preferable to stupid he-man Heminway.

By on 05/13/05 at 02:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, Blah, but de gustibus.  I’ll take machismo and sentimentality over score settling with the dead.

By on 05/13/05 at 07:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some of us are more skilled at disliking Hemingway than others. Except for the short stories, I never got into Hemingway.

The thing I remember from “The Sun Also Rises” is when the main man punches out a guy because “he was just so awful.” The guy was Jewish, but it wasn’t really an anti-Semitism thing so much as the idea that you can prove that you’re right by punching someone out (the code of honor thing). I’m not completely helpless, but ultimately I’ve always been in the punchee class.

By John Emerson on 05/13/05 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, John, you’ve got it interestingly backwards--the puncher is Robert Cohn, the punchees are the toreador (Romero) and the protag, Jake.  The honor actually has to do with the willingness to take a punch and the dishonor is being able to throw them with too much technical proficiency and emotional desperation. Alas, this has everything to do with antisemitism, I think.

By on 05/13/05 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hm. So I guess I like Hemingway after all. Except for the anti-Semitism, I guess.

I’m actually making a collection of literary figures who are portrayed as being awful without much evidence. I never understood what was wrong with Charles Bovary, for example. (That probably accounts for my failed marriage, I suppose.)

By John Emerson on 05/13/05 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh my god, John Emerson, you just committed the Charles Bovary heresy. You’re not the first…

But, yes, any woman bound for marriage should have her fiance read MB and answer the question “what’s so bad about Charles?” If he can’t or won’t answer, kick him to the curb…

From the first pages of the novel, the strange opening that’s not about Madame but Mistah Bovary - a section I like to call “The Nouveau Broken By the Genre”:

Le soir, à l’Etude, il tira ses bouts de manches de son pupitre, mit en ordre ses petites affaires, régla soigneusement son papier. Nous le vîmes qui travaillait en conscience, cherchant tous les mots dans le dictionnaire et se donnant beaucoup de mal. Grâce, sans doute, à cette bonne volonté dont il fit preuve, il dut de ne pas descendre dans la classe inférieure; car, s’il savait passablement ses règles, il n’avait guère d’élégance dans les tournures.

Oy yoy yoy. Poor Emma…

(And by the way - how about this “nous” that’s speaking here. Wild! Where does it disappear to?)

(And furthermore, I’d rather see Emma in your book. She took quite a beating as an avatar of consumerist desire during the pomo epoch...)

By cultrev on 05/13/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Incidentally, I’m not much like Charles. I just thought he seemed like a sort of OK guy. That’s where I went wrong.

There’s also an awful person who offers an iron ring to Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson. I just have this feeling of brotherhood for klutzes, I think.

By John Emerson on 05/13/05 at 01:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t he the one who *doesn’t* kill himself at the end? I think I remember him staring out the window that he was supposed to have just jumped out of, looking at all his classmates bodies.

My favorite bum-rap villain is Uriah Heep. I think his anger is pretty well-directed. When I teach Copperfield I always end up trying to rally the students to his cause.

By on 05/13/05 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nauseous vs. nauseated: the Compact OED gives ‘affected by nausea’ as the first entry, then followed by ‘causing nausea’ ; moreover, what would you do with ‘bilious’? Causes bile in others?
I subscribe to the Charles Bovary heresy. Someone who ‘n’a guere d’elegance dans ses tournures’ (no accent-keyboard, sorry) yet was still devoted to his wife, not very interesting, granted, but.. well.. seriously, isn’t she a whole lot worse?

By on 05/14/05 at 06:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Ladies. Stay clear of Uri too.

It’s nice to have a just little elegance, sometimes, right? Just a little.

And here, on behalf of my beloved Emma. She’s talking here to Felicite, the maid.

Elle restait brisée, haletante, inerte, sanglotant à voix basse et avec des larmes qui coulaient.

- Pourquoi ne point le dire à Monsieur? lui demandait la domestique, lorsqu’elle entrait pendant ces crises.

- Ce sont les nerfs, répondait Emma; ne lui en parle pas, tu l’affligerais.

- Ah! oui, reprenait Félicité, vous êtes justement comme la Guérine, la fille au père Guérin, le pêcheur du Pollet, que j’ai connue à Dieppe, avant de venir chez vous. Elle était si triste, si triste, qu’à la voir debout sur le seuil de sa maison, elle vous faisait l’effet d’un drap d’enterrement tendu devant la porte. Son mal, à ce qu’il paraît, était une manière de brouillard qu’elle avait dans la tête, et les médecins n’y pouvaient rien, ni le curé non plus. Quand ça la prenait trop fort, elle s’en allait toute seule sur le bord de la mer, si bien que le lieutenant de la douane, en faisant sa tournée, souvent la trouvait étendue à plat ventre et pleurant sur les galets. Puis, après son mariage, ça lui a passé, dit-on.

- Mais, moi, reprenait Emma, c’est après le mariage que ça m’est venu.

Anti-hysteria, in other words. C’est moi, indeed. How friggin great is Flaubert?

By cultrev on 05/15/05 at 02:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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