What doomed Ernest Hemingway?

It is believed that the writer had consciously worked out an original prose style but he couldn't get out of it when it had given him everything there was.

 |  6-minute read |   21-07-2018
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Born today, 119 years ago, Ernest Hemingway's understated prose style became legendary in his own lifetime. And it was this very style, which eventually caused his downfall.

"What does a man care about? Staying healthy. Working good. Eating and drinking with his friends. Enjoying himself in bed. I haven't got any of them, Hotch. Do you understand, goddamit? None of them…," ailing Ernest Miller Hemingway told his close friend AE Hotchner in the spring of 1961. Three months later, on July 2, 1961 at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway took out his favourite gun - a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun — from the rack in the basement of his house, held its gun-barrel to his mouth and blasted his life away. As you can imagine, hardly anything remained of his head.

This was the man who had lived a life larger than any writer of his era — the press followed him everywhere, he was adored for his rugged looks, worshipped for his He-man personality, and everyone in literary circles looked up to him as one looks at the Heavyweight Champion of the world. Magazines used to carry pictures of him fishing and hunting; he wrote a great deal about bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and big-game safaris, interviewed the militia during Spanish Civil War, covered wars, and of course wrote fiction marvellously.

He had had an early success with novels like The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), which established his reputation. But then, he threw it all away. Whenever a friend of his enquired about his upcoming book, he would give his famous fist-on-the-face grin and would proudly say, "I am going to retain my title." But, he was failing at it.

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He resurrected his image somewhat with For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and then established his greatness once again with his one true masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which, to me, is his best work. If he ever wrote something philosophical, it was this book which he had modelled around one of his early stories The Undefeated (1927) minus the bullfighting. The tale of an old Cuban fisherman's indomitable spirit and his never-say-die determination earned him the Pulitzer Prize and later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954.

"He is one of those who, honestly and undauntedly, reproduces the genuine features of the hard countenance of the age," cited the Nobel Prize committee.

After this successful phase, Hemingway was pleased with his life, he drank a lot as usual but wrote very little. In the early 1950s' he was quite comfortable with his macho and jovial image portrayed by the press. But then came a phase which ruined him — he couldn't write anymore, his sinewy image dwindled, resounding courage diminished, his tricks became repetitive, and syntax boring. All of which left him grim and haggard.

Constantly attacked by critics; haunted and chased by phantoms of failure, the writer who had propagated courage in a world of crisis all his life, committed suicide. After his death, many attributed Hemingway's suicide, partly to his awareness that he could no longer write or in his favourite term: he was no longer "the champion".

In 1938, English critic Cyril Connolly wrote in Enemies of Promise: "Hemingway's tragedy as an artist is that he has not had the versatility to run away fast enough from his imitators… A Picasso would have done something different, Hemingway could only indulge in invective against his critics." It is believed that Hemingway, with the aid of Gertrude Stein, had consciously worked out an original prose style but he couldn't get out of it when it had given him everything there was. According to Connolly, Hemingway couldn't invent anything else and got trapped in his style.

Stein, however, had a different opinion about Hemingway's nemesis. In Paris, after the World War I, the expatriates including Hemingway, used to gather around her as if she was a sibyl. Stein felt that Hemingway - like many other American writers - faltered due to obsessively writing about brutality, sex and violent death, and that he was "good until after A Farewell".

In an interview with author John Hyde Preston, she said; "He was not good after 1925. In his early stories he had what I have been trying to describe to you. Then - Hemingway did not lose it, he threw it away. I told him then: 'Hemingway, you have a small income; you will not starve, you can work without worry and you can grow and keep this thing and it will grow with you.' But he did not wish to grow that way; he wished to grow violently."

Hemingway was, without a doubt, the most paratactical writer of his time but he had a very limited vocabulary, which must be the smallest among his contemporaries. He did, however, claim to know great many "ten-dollar words" but he used them seldomly; never frequently in his fiction at least. And he was successful largely due the simplicity of his language, crisp dialogues and understated emotions and above all, his ability to describe the atmosphere and feel of places adroitly.

Hemingway's writing never employed verbose, which is quite evident from some of his early stories like Hills Like White Elephants (1927) and Soldier's Home (1925) — the tale of a disillusioned young man, who returns home to his family from World War I.

What sets Hemingway apart from the other American writers of his age is that he was a better stylistic innovator. There is that distinct mannerism in his writing and a sincere voice that never goes astray, storytelling pace: always in control; something which is particularly quite evident in A Farewell to Arms which is considered his best novel.

The novel has that quality about it, that certain parts of it remain etched on the reader's memory. For instance, the wounding of Lieutenant Henry, the shooting scene involving battle police and the lieutenant colonel, the escape of Henry and Catherine to Switzerland in a boat at night from Italy and Catherine's demise in childbirth and the deathbed scene are all remarkably executed.

Hemingway is considered a better short-story writer than a novelist. Some of his brilliant short stories such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936) and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (1936) are a testimony to his penchant for writing short fiction as opposed to novels.

There is a popular theory in literary circles that English poet John Keats died due to a bad review. Hemingway himself gives an admonition regarding what critics can do a writer in Green Hills of Africa (1935). Talking about American writers in general, Hemingway observes in the non-fiction book: "At present, we have two good writers who cannot write because they have lost confidence through reading critics… The masterpieces the critics said they wrote. They weren't masterpieces, of course. They were just quite good books. So now they cannot write at all. The critics have made them impotent."

When things went wayward for Hemingway and carping critics began to get the better of him, rather than letting his pen do the talking, Hemingway could only let out abuses and insults against them."Prose," Hemingway once wrote, "is architecture, not interior decoration". In the light of this statement, it can be said that Hemingway built simply — bereft of fancy designs — but soundly, very soundly indeed. He had only one style, which doomed him though. But when that style was at its zenith, he did write some of the best fiction works ever written in literary history.

Also read: Why Rahul Gandhi was right in cornering Modi government over employment figures

Writer

M Saad

Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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