I wrote this #ThrowBackThursday post for a group blog I was once a part of and it was originally published on that site on January 29, 2014.
Of all the books I was forced to read back in high school, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was one of the most painfully dull tomes I had to suffer through. The plot? An old fisherman cursed with a long dry spell has the worst experience of his life when he tries to break his losing streak by pursuing the catch of a lifetime, struggling for days to catch it only to see it slowly stripped away as he tries to bring it to shore. (Sorry, Spoilers!)
An entire book about fishing? BLECH! DEPRESSING! (Yes, I know it was deeper than that, but I was sixteen, give me a break.)
I can see why it was his last book. I only hoped it was my last Hemingway book.
Then I watched the HBO movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn, and really enjoyed it. It may have had more to do with Hemingway being presented in the lovely Clive Owen packaging, but whatever worked. (Now I can only picture Hemingway as Clive portrayed him – not a bad thing, if you ask me.) It got me thinking that maybe I should give the old sea dog another try.
A few months after viewing the show, I was discussing it with my father and he had mentioned recently reading the book A MOVEABLE FEAST. He said it had a lot to do with his early life as a writer and was an excellent read. That kind of sold me on it more than anything else. (Sorry, Clive.)
If all else failed, I could imagine the gorgeous Clive Owen reading it to me. Right?
(Read me another story, Clive.)
Begun in the autumn of 1957 and published posthumously in 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast captures what it meant to be young and poor and writing in Paris during the 1920s. A correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921, three years after the trauma of the Great War and at the beginning of the transformation of Europe’s cultural landscape: Braque and Picasso were experimenting with cubist form; James Joyce, long living in self-imposed exile from his native Dublin, had just completed Ulysses; Gertrude Stein held court at 27 Rue de Fleurus, and deemed young Ernest a member of une generation perdue; and T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk in London. It was during these years that the as-of-yet unpublished young writer gathered the material for his first novel The Sun Also Rises, and the subsequent masterpieces that followed.
Among these small, reflective sketches are unforgettable encounters with the members of Hemingway’s slightly rag-tag circle of artists and writers, some also fated to achieve fame and glory, others to fall into obscurity. Here, too, is an evocation of the Paris that Hemingway knew as a young man – a map drawn in his distinct prose of the streets and cafes and bookshops that comprised the city in which he, as a young writer, sometimes struggling against the cold and hunger of near poverty, honed the skills of his craft.
A Moveable Feast is at once an elegy to the remarkable group for expatriates that gathered in Paris during the twenties and a testament to the risks and rewards of the writerly life. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)
Although this was an unusual piece to reintroduce myself to Hemingway since it was his last work and it was unfinished when he died, it made me curious enough to want to read some of his other works. I still have no desire to reread THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, but I would like to try THE SUN ALSO RISES, as it was the book he was writing during the time period of this book.
I did find the order of the chapters and the skipping around a little jarring at times, but when taken chapter by chapter as brief essays, they were really quite enjoyable. Overall I relished getting a feel for the period and for the writers living in Paris. I did have a strong desire to snag a time machine and zip back to Paris to surround myself with the intoxicating sights he described so well. What a fantastic time and place to be a writer! His insights on his own feelings about writing and his fellow expatriates were honest and touching and sometimes quite scathing, but above all always interesting.
Here is one my favorite sections on writing that I think every author should take to heart:
I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of the blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
Whenever you find yourself embellishing from your true writing, gut it back to the studs; your foundation of truth. Nicely put.
And that’s just one of the little gems about the craft I stumbled upon. I loved discovering them and I’m sure most other writers will as well.
One other thing Hemingway allows you to experience, to crawl into and feel deep down in your bones, was the hunger of the starving artist. The smells wafting from the open cafés made my stomach grumble as he talked of skipping meals to stretch his income and instead fed himself on viewing Cézanne paintings at the Luxembourg museum, feeding his artist’s soul. His hunger was almost a necessity to his creative process. He describes it as “good discipline”.
He talks about when he had an entire novel lost, when a bag was stolen at the Gare de Lyon. Every writer’s nightmare!
I knew it was probably a good thing that it was lost, but I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though until I could not help doing it. I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write, then it would be no choice. Let the pressure build. In the meantime I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.
How many of us just on the cusp of publishing can relate to the struggles he describes?
If I had never given Hemingway another try, I wouldn’t have discovered these insights about his writing. I look back now at his deliberately terse sentences, where he’s culled away all ornamentation, and I see the beauty in them. Of course I am looking at them through very different eyes, as a writer myself. I still don’t like THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and nothing you say can change my mind! But maybe there is something to learn from this old sea dog after all.
Have you ever given a writer a second chance? Were you surprised when you did?