Commonplace

“‘We have a lot of time to read when we are unmarried. Not as much as the merchant marine maybe. But plenty.’”
—Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees, spoken by the Colonel

“Up in Michigan” by Ernest Hemingway

Didn’t take me long in my story series to get to Hemingway, did it? Well, I won’t pretend I’m surprised. I did post about him earlier this week as well, but in fact, I re-read “Up in Michigan” (1923) because I’d been discussing with the consumption partner the Michigan stories, which he likes best. I think they are very good.

“Up in Michigan” has one of my favorite short story qualities: it is ridiculously short. In the Finca Vigía edition of Hemingway’s complete stories (which, admittedly, has sort of small print) it is not even four pages long. I love this compacting, and it is perfect for Hemingway, who effortlessly draws an entire Michigan town in half a page and a young woman’s innocent infatuation in the next half. He can tell a whole lifestyle in a few sentences:

All the time now Liz was thinking about Jim Gilmore. He didn’t seem to notice her much. He talked about the shop to D.J. Smith and about the Republican Party and about James G. Blaine. In the evenings he read The Toledo Blade and the Grand Rapids paper by the lamp in the front room or went out spearing fish in the bay with a jacklight with D.J. Smith.

Getting away from this particular story a bit, I really like that not only does Hemingway already have his authorial voice at 24 but he also had the sort of quiet wholesomeness I always think of: reading the paper; spearing fish; deer hunting; woods and sand and a bay and a lake with white caps. Characters who are “neat” and “clean” and who work.

Here, once we’ve learned about how Liz is always thinking of Jim, but Jim is never thinking of Liz, Jim goes on a deer hunting trip for a few days and Liz works herself up thinking about him every night. Alone with her imagination she reaches the dramatic climax of the story, convincing herself that “everything would be all right when he came”:

Liz hadn’t known just what would happen when Jim got back but she was sure it would be something. Nothing had happened. The men were just home, that was all.

But her infatuation is still not dashed, and she waits up for Jim, who does come to her, drunk with whiskey and scaring her a little but she knows this is what she wants. Only she’s wrong, and when Jim falls asleep and she can’t even wake him up to talk she finally is dashed.

Then she walked across the dock and up the steep sandy road to go to bed. A cold mist was coming up through the woods from the bay.

How great an ending to a four-page story is that? It crystallizes the whole thing. And the emotional trip for the reader is the same as it is for Liz, getting excited while Jim is at the deer hunt, waiting for something to happen, followed by disappointment and ultimately that cold mist.

This is pretty close to perfect for me. Short, stripped down, real, and it leaves you with such a picture in your mind of the whole thing, and a strong feeling or memory at the end.

A very moveable feast

The reason for A.E. Hotchner’s op-ed in the Times yesterday was news to me, though maybe not to you:

BOOKSTORES are getting shipments of a significantly changed edition of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, “A Moveable Feast,” first published posthumously by Scribner in 1964. This new edition, also published by Scribner, has been extensively reworked by a grandson who doesn’t like what the original said about his grandmother, Hemingway’s second wife.

The grandson has removed several sections of the book’s final chapter and replaced them with other writing of Hemingway’s that the grandson feels paints his grandma in a more sympathetic light. Ten other chapters that roused the grandson’s displeasure have been relegated to an appendix, thereby, according to the grandson, creating “a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish.”

What now? At first glance, and based on the story Hotchner tells about personal conversations with Hemingway regarding A Moveable Feast, this is pretty disturbing. And of course, it’s all about that other topic that just keeps on coming up for me, copyright and intellectual property:

As an author, I am concerned by Scribner’s involvement in this “restored edition.” With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in “A Moveable Feast” about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Madox Ford’s grandson wants to delete references to his ancestor’s body odor.

All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work. There is always the possibility that the inheritor could write his own book offering his own corrections.

Ernest was very protective of the words he wrote, words that gave the literary world a new style of writing. Surely he has the right to have these words protected against frivolous incursion, like this reworked volume that should be called “A Moveable Book.” I hope the Authors Guild is paying attention.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

As to whether this edition is really necessary, opinions vary. Charles Scribner III, whose father edited the original along with Mary, thinks not. In a letter to the New York Times, he wrote, “Both Mary and my father knew the author intimately; his grandson, the new editor, did not. I am sure that the new edition will be of passing interest to scholars and students, but there is no doubt in my mind that Hemingway would not approve of the deconstruction of his classic. As for the marital revisionism, both Mary and my father knew — and any reader of Hemingway’s letters can discover for himself — that later in life Hemingway felt closest to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and regretted leaving her. The original edition is most faithful to the author’s perspective as he approached his end.”

It’s funny that one of Mark Helprin’s main arguments in the EconTalk interview was that he should be able to pass on his copyrights to his descendants. Here, if it turns out that Scribner is the only publisher (because of copyright) and the new “restored edition” is the only one they keep printing, copyright ends up being the means by which we lose the original—and specifically because of a descendant.

Of course, the whole thing was published posthumously anyway, and that’s a big part of the point. Such fraught territory.

Santiago and la mar

I mentioned on Sunday that I had re-read The Old Man and the Sea and had a completely different reaction to it than I did years ago when I read it in high school. Then it had seemed tedious and inaccessible. Something about an old man in Cuba going fishing was just too far away from me. But I don’t feel that way at all anymore. And I also don’t feel like it’s tedious.

The Old Man and the SeaOn the contrary, one of the most striking things in my recent reading was the way the book felt like a single solid entity. Hemingway’s sentences are always solid, and here they are like bricks building up the novella with no cracks. There are no chapters or breaks between paragraphs, instead the text works inexorably toward its conclusion. And maybe it’s because I went into it knowing what would happen, but I think this really gives a sense of the structure paralleling the story and that it’s very effective.

And what of the old man and the sea? There is more here than I could possibly talk about or make sense of. What I think really comes through is Hemingway’s attachment to the sea. Is Santiago a fair proxy for his feelings? I can only assume as much. And he gives us a convenient summary:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

That’s got to be as much pure Hemingway as Santiago.

Santiago loves not only the sea but also her animals. “Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?” “…he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” “He loved green turtles and hawk-bills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid loggerheads…” And of course he loves and respects his fish. A few things he does not like, like the Portuguese men o’ war. And the sharks. But who could blame him for that?

But for all that love, Santiago is punished for going “too far out.” What a fable.