14 March 2012

Hemingway Jazzes the Mirror Neurons

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:26 am

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enters into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.

– Ernest Hemingway, “On Writing in the First Person,” in A Moveable Feast



  1. Thank you for the quote, i had never really thought of writing in the first person to be looked at in that way before


    Comment by alirthome — 14 March 2012 @ 11:19 am

  2. “There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enters into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. ”

    That’s the best thing in the quote for me, but I think it applies equally to writing in the first or third persons. But it’s not exactly what I think either. For me, what must be is something the reader didn’t think of himself, but this seems a little high-flown, I don’t remember ever thinking that about H. I think I remember when we were talking about the first DeLillo things we discussed around Xmas and just after, I said something about a writer that makes you think ‘I don’t know how (s)he knew to do that’, and it then does become a part of your thinking and experience because you can’t resist it. But this: “If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too” seems to be pushing it in reality, I don’t take it literally, but it does make me remember ‘A Moveable Feast’ when I first read it, and the strange tone that prevails throughout. His extreme disgust at Miss Stein and Ms. Toklas was, he seemed to think, something everyone would understand and agree with so well. But, while many of us don’t exactly idolize Gertrude Stein’s loveliness, it seems so quaint that he thought a little Lesbian hysteria was so shocking even then, since it was Paris. His own provincialism in this case. There was a long time when I hadn’t read anything of Hemingway except ‘Moveable Feast’ and ‘Old Man and the Sea’, and a few years ago corrected this with the famous ones ‘Farewell to Arms’, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, and not so long ago, finally ‘The Sun Also Rises’. I adored all three, but the last one had an influence on my own writing style. And yet the style in ‘Sun Also Rises’ didn’t seem so much uncanny and ‘how did he do it?’ the way some of the Pynchon or DeLillo did, but rather something to fall into naturally sometimes, it’s beautiful. Now that I think back 35 or so years to reading ‘Feast’, it’s not so different when he wrote that kind of romantic non-fiction from what he did in ‘Bell Tolls’–there was a lot of sensuous detail that was similar in both, the long soliloquy of Pilar about her holiday in Valencia is glorious, goes on for pages. It has ‘all the earth in it’, as they say. In simpler ways, he’d talk about the Bohemian life in Paris in the 20s. Not that I don’t like ‘Moveable Feast’. I read it sometime after living the year in Paris, and I thought he had really caught something about the incredible fortune of getting to live in Paris when you’re young, and how you do ‘take it with you’. That year in Paris when I was 20 is by far the single most important influence in my long turn toward my ‘Step II’, no question. Norman Mailer wrote that, of all regrets of things missed, he would have wished most to have been able to live in Paris when young. When Didion won the Prix de Paris, she had a choice of a year in Paris or a job in New York at Vogue, or it may have just been a long trip to Paris–in any case, something to do with Paris that was less practical and she had a choice. That was the ‘sensible’ choice, of course, but the problem with that is only that most people would think that wasn’t just her sensible choice, but should be everyone’s.

    Here she is on Hemingway, I just found an interview, and he’s well-known to have influenced her greatly, but I hadn’t seen this:

    What fiction did you like?

    Joan Didion: I liked Hemingway. Those sentences just knocked me out. In fact, I taught myself to type by typing out the beginning of Farewell to Arms and a couple of short stories. I was just trying to learn how to type, but you get those rhythms in your head.
    That’s from this 2006 interview, which is the most lucid thing I’ve heard from her since the deaths occurred. But take a look at it, and she’s got something about writing in 1st and 3rd persons in ‘Play It As It Lays’ in there. That book I read a few times, and only an image here and there sticks, although it was hard and jabbing. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/printmember/did0int-1


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 14 March 2012 @ 11:20 am

  3. On first person, I can imagine that reading I,I,I throughout a text might get the reader identifying with the narrator. I would expect it to be more effective if the 1st-person narrator was more an observer than a central actor, which would leave more psychological space for the reader to step into the narrator’s shoes. On the other hand, the traditional third-person narrator is usually only an observer, perhaps making it even easier for the reader to enter discretely and intimately into the fictional world.

    Skimming through the Hemingway I have on my shelves, it seems that most of the short stories are 3rd person whereas the novels are 1st person. I’ve wondered whether the long form of the novel isn’t necessary for establishing the kind of unconscious bond between reader and fictional character to which Hemingway evidently aspired.

    It’s curious that this little essay about first person writing is presented in the second person. It’s as if Hemingway is taking the reader into his confidence as a fellow-writer, sharing a hard-won lesson that he knows you’ll appreciate.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 March 2012 @ 11:47 am

  4. A Moveable Feast is itself written in the first person, presented as memoir, shelved at the library in the nonfiction section. But is he playing his first-person fiction trick on his readers? He writes about being a starving artist, but he always had pretty good money while living in Paris. Some of the anecdotes seem like fish stories, exaggerations if not outright fabulations. The next paragraph after the one I posted begins this way:

    “What is, if not easy, almost always possible to do is for members of the private detective school of literary criticism to prove that the writer of fiction written in the first person could not possibly have done everything that the narrator did or, perhaps, not even any of it. What importance this has or what it proves except that the writer is not devoid of imagination or the power of invention I have never understood.”

    Hemingway evidently enjoys blurring the distinction between fiction and non, between recounting anecdotes and making stories.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 March 2012 @ 11:53 am

  5. I used all three persons for the same character(s) in IDNYC. They’re not all me anyway, or often not just me.

    Just posted the whole Didion interview on the bleug, I would say that it is not only better than anything I’ve seen that she’s done interview-wise since all the losses, but maybe the single best interview I’ve ever seen of her–it’s comprehensive, she doesn’t get testy and pissed off so easily.

    A few days ago I started writing in pencil again, it came mostly from a hard dream I had of being punished for IDNYC, and variations on that have continued through this morning. Things in real life grew out of that dream the following day–I was sybaritic in real life as in the dream, and was promptly chastised for saying anything about it, although for me, that had taken some of the pain out of having to go through the dream, which seemed ‘realer’ than most dreams But last night I knew I’d start some more stories, not another large book, because the change that I needed to break the ‘Swiss spell’ finally occurred when I got that endorsement from Ms. Bentley. The old story ‘The Doctors of Lausanne’ that I do write in 3rd person I’ll simply do another variation of, and I’ll send it to Toni. The powerful effect that had in ridding all of the burdens I’d been through with both Art & Fiction and the years of bleuger-fights (I’m not talking about ‘who’s to blame’ here, just that it was all a nightmare until there was the ‘pipeline reversal’, still continuing) were swept away by her letter so strongly that I will once again have someone to ‘write a story for’, and just send it to her –and probably submit to magazines as well, as I’ve done before, but that’s easier if I have this person to ‘write for’. I wrote both cine-musique books for Christian, as if for his ear, and the Book I of IDNYC is already a turn away from that. I wasn’t writing it exactly for Robin, but with Collapse in mind. In Dominic’s review, which is quite oblique, of course, he said that ‘any theory journal’ would want to ‘excrete it, to shit it out’. I’m sure he sees it that way (while appreciating it in others very strongly), but probably also just wanted to say it. Frankly, I don’t see it that way still. The mistake many of them have made is to refuse all classical tradition, almost as if the New York Times (for one) had literally ceased to exist because they claimed that it was ‘irrelevant’, and therefore it’s only Chomsky and Amy Goodman. But perhaps it’s enough that Art & Fiction would print the book so beautifully, and then absolutely stop there, offering a complete ‘cutoff of benefits’; I think there was a point at which I was surprised that publication even did go forward, because none of IDNYC is any longer being written for ‘Christian’s ear’. I ‘got away with it’. I probably would have never written the critics and journals that I did, even though I only got 3 good responses, and a followup from one of these has not appeared. But by last night, the sensation of fatigue-sickness caused from having to exert myself more than was even remotely comfortable for nearly a year began to ease up, and I knew exactly what a couple of the stories would be. I’ve done several based on the same technique I used for that first story, but only in fragmentary form (part of the final poem in Deep Tropical that I don’t think so much of), and a ‘play-poem’ that wasn’t published called ‘Chartreuse Trucks in Baby Shops’. The new one will be done with the same technique, and I think it’s important to realize that sometimes what is easier to execute will not be lesser than ‘hard things’, it may just mean it’s something you’re familiar with, and as you do it more, it can be more polished. I like to do polished short pieces, but IDNYC, although edited and reworked many times, was never meant to be a polished kind of thing (except the final poem and certain passages), and it’s not.

    “It’s as if Hemingway is taking the reader into his confidence as a fellow-writer, sharing a hard-won lesson that he knows you’ll appreciate.”

    Yes, and that’s a similar kind of generosity to Didion’s, but I think what it is is that they don’t want to talk about it as such, this generosity–it’s not ‘cool’. Although you don’t have to end up sounding like some evangelical fruit by being a little less ‘tough article’, which Didion has really settled into recently. And, or course, either of these (and many others) may ‘want to take the reader into his confidence as a fellow-writer’, but not all the way–ever. There is always protection of secrets that they alone can possess, and they are right to do so, or they really might start sounding like Dale Evans or Pat Boone, and most good writers don’t want that. It’s sort of interesting how long the ‘sharing with others’ can last with a given piece and a given period, until the door is quickly and suddenly slammed shut–you’re ‘no longer welcome’ despite the seeming largesse that has been operative thus far.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 14 March 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  6. “But is he playing his first-person fiction trick on his readers? He writes about being a starving artist, but he always had pretty good money while living in Paris. Some of the anecdotes seem like fish stories, exaggerations if not outright fabulations.”

    Definitely good point, I agree. And an extension and further dimension which proves it is that ‘Moveable Feast’ has a very romantic ‘fiction-sound’ to it. It’s an idealized painting of what actually transpired. Didion’s essays are closer to the actual events, but she too, as in the White Album especially, uses a lot of ‘romantic sound’, and the interview is especially good at giving further elements about the Manson case as a social phenomenon in LA at the time that had everybody terrified. I thought she had exaggerated it in the White Album for melodramatic effect, but apparently this scared shit out of people more than other crimes had. Not quite sure why, maybe you had to be there. But even Pynchon revisits it in ‘Inherent Vice’, and frequently.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 14 March 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  7. First person is something that is used too much by ameteurs who don’t know the tool they are using. It is so much more than a tool for drama (hard-boiled fiction may have ruined first person because of all the copycats), it’s a way to tell the reader EXACTLY what the character is but it’s very hard to do because the writer must, in essence, become that character to write it.

    First person is a tool to get into the character’s head (Trainspotting, Bedroom Secrets of Master Chefs and Fight Club are perfect examples).


    Comment by Sick Boy McCoy — 14 March 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  8. In Moveable Feast Hemingway writes about carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot in his pocket, the fur worn off and some of the skin too, exposing bone and sinew. That’s the kind of prose he writes. It’s no wonder there’s no sense of awe at his artistry, since he’s stripped everything down to the point where there is no embellishment or decoration whatever — unlike DeLillo and especially Pynchon in that regard. I wonder whether Hemingway’s early readers found it easier to merge identities with his first-person narrative voice. Back then he was an unknown; by now all of those stories have been conflated with Hemingway’s huge personal aura, and one reads with the author’s imagined persona in mind.

    “I used all three persons for the same character(s) in IDNYC. They’re not all me anyway, or often not just me.”

    You’re clear on your blog that IDNYC is a fiction, even though it seems drawn from real life. The use of all three persons adds to the multifaceted cubist effect of the whole. The fragmentation of narrative voice also proves disorienting, and conveys a sense of the author/narrator being able to say, like Nietzsche balanced on the edge of genius and madness, “I am many.”

    In Moveable Feast the author’s generosity is preceded immediately by a vignette in which he’s sitting in his favorite cafe writing when some acquaintance shows up and starts talking to him. First Hemingway ignores the boorish intruder, then he starts insulting him, until finally he starts fantasizing about punching the fool unconscious. Midway through the narrative shifts from 2nd to 1st person: I think again he’s trying to establish rapport with his reader before re-establishing the sanctity of his privacy.

    So this intruder is telling Hemingway about something that had befallen him recently in Greece. Hemingway is not interested.

    “Don’t you want to tell me the rest?”
    “Don’t you care about life and the suffering of a fellow human being?”
    “Not you.”
    “You’re beastly.”
    “I thought you could help me, Hem.”
    “I’d be glad to shoot you.”
    “Would you?”
    “No. There’s a law against it.”
    “I’d do anything for you.”
    “Would you?”
    “Of course I would.”
    “Then keep the muck away from this café. Start with that.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 March 2012 @ 12:58 pm

  9. Sick Boy! I’ve not followed your online novel, but based on circumstantial evidence it looks like a third-person hard-boiled to me. Presumably the golden era hard-boiled types emulated Hemingway not a little in their preference for the first-person minimalist style. I’m not sure how far Hemingway lets the reader into his first-person narrator’s heads, especially in contrast with maximalist writers-in-the-third-person like Henry James and Ford Madox Ford who were setting the standard for highbrow fiction at the time. I don’t know the other two books you mention, but for Fight Club the first person narration serves an ironic purpose: I am I, but I am also he.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 March 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  10. True and if he had written that he would not have used the word ‘devoid’. ‘Power of invention’, Hem never used abstractions. That’s a load of Bellocs. For a moment I felt a tiny tug on my beautifully turned.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 14 March 2012 @ 4:12 pm

  11. You believe that Hemingway didn’t write this essay? Maybe he never got around to cutting out the abstractions and the fancy words. I suppose Sean Hemingway could have written it while editing, then attributed it to his Grand-Papa just to get the literary detectives off his case.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 March 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  12. He used the word ‘imagination’ in relation to Scott Fitzgerald, another great story but also an invention and a payback for the long round with Morley Callaghan. Fitz. was so amazed at the trouncing that Papa was getting from Morley 4″ shorter and 20 pounds lighter but a useful pugilist that he forgot to call an end to the round. Hem. claimed that Scott had deliberately allowed the round to run over time. He spat a bloody mouthful at Morley and then later said that he was emulating the matador who when gored would do this to show their cojones.

    “So you lie up and wait till your chance comes and you take it and it feels good when you take it and the tiredness and the stiffness of your limbs cramped in the hide that you have carefully made vanishes in the moment.”


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 14 March 2012 @ 5:38 pm

  13. The only thing I’ve read by FMF is his old-man’s book ‘Provence’. It was very lusty and focussed on the importance of food. Sort of senile, but enjoyable thoroughly. I often think of points like ‘the Chinese, with an infinite frugality..’ Then there’d be English pride, and he’d talk about how Americans ‘may have their Middle West (odd choice, given that most would say ‘Americans have their West’, given that the Midwest may be admirable, but it’s not exactly American drama–Ohio or Iowa?) , but do YOU have a Lord Mayor of London?’ Then said strange things like ‘In England, some great books, but no literature’, which I have never mentioned to anyone. It was clearly an insane thing to say, and was part of his ‘love of Mediterraneanism’ that sometimes happens to English, as in Italy with E.M. Forster. And it’s such a tiresome and tedious attitude, they end up only identifying themselves as pompous tourists with an inferiority complex.

    I read the thread from omhurbhuva, I didn’t know FMF was disliked so, and then this dame says he ‘could have become very famous’. What did she mean? He was famous enough.

    Michael said he thought maybe the Hemingway novels would be the worse for wear, something to that effect. I don’t think so, but I do think E.M. Forster’s are. I just realized while writing the above that I read ‘Room with a View’ and ‘Passage to India’ and told myself that they were great. Now, just to think of them is to loathe them. I hate both of them. The only thing I like is that fantastic futuristic story ‘The Machine Stops’. ‘Janet’ said I always thought her mother was like ‘fat Vashit’, and it was visionary of the sedentary lifestyle people want to do sometimes these days. But that seems to have been taken over by youngsters who are very athletic and move about a great deal and work out all the time and socialize face-to-face all the time as well as having been on Facebook since its insemination. It’s being integrated. btw, John, I’ve got that Mozorov book ‘The Delusion of the Net’, which has good points, but it’s such bad writing I don’t know whether I care whether I’m unenlightened if I have to read it. It was interesting what he said about the hyperbole of Twitter as revolutionary in Iran in 2009, I’d been so distracted that year I didn’t even notice, I think this got published in 2011 before the Arab Spring, but I don’t know if the successes in Africa and the Middle East were again praising Twitter and Facebook as themselves being revolutionary as had Andrew Sullivan started the Iran stuff which did not end up as Twitter (or whatever) had been claiming. The other day the U.S. said Iran ‘was not close to getting a nuclear weapon’, fuck if I know what they’re talking about.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 14 March 2012 @ 8:47 pm

  14. Illegal:
    The fact that Hem is arguably a shit heel is irrelevant to the quality of his writing. It could be that his excellent writing lends credibility to deplorable attitudes. Au contraire it could be that areas of blankness in Hemland diminish his genius significantly so that when he ran out of what was in his tank ab initio he could not gather new fuel. Early success is a curse and can set a writer into immature habits. You go blind so to speak.

    I am looking at The Sun Also Rises aka Fiesta. May write about it. Foster is great, Howards End and A Passage to India great books, great movies.

    Don’t give up on Ford, the fist part of Parade’s End, Some Men Do has passages of great comedy, the scatological vicar Duchemin at the literary breakfast. I read that the BBC are bringing out a major series. They do these things rightously.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 15 March 2012 @ 8:21 am

  15. We all see things differently. I don’t think it matters in terms of the Hemingway fiction if he was a shit, I like the books and still like them. I used to like Forster, they’re fine structures, but don’t mean anything to me, the substance that is–don’t like the movies of Room with a View or Passage to India either. I can see that they’re good, but for me they’re over and done with, about something which once seemed to actually be about something, but now seems never to have actually been. To wit, the only thing that interests me about Ms. Moore is that in the film, the service says ‘she is returned to corruption’, which if perfectly repulsive, and probably the way Forster thinks. A dead body is not ‘corrupt’.

    “Au contraire it could be that areas of blankness in Hemland diminish his genius significantly so that when he ran out of what was in his tank ab initio he could not gather new fuel.”

    But what does that matter? How many others offered so much? Rossini (whom Pynchon often cites), retired 39 years before his death, having been the most popular opera composer in history, acc. to wiki. That was his business. Lives are more than even a great artist’s creative productions. I always think that, even with actors, if they managed ONE really good movie, that was a real contribution. If they don’t manage at least one–like Jennifer Jones, who was however justly popular because she was exactly right for a certain waifish 40s period type–then I don’t think they have much talent, and were overrated.

    ‘”Early success is a curse and can set a writer into immature habits. You go blind so to speak.”

    Sweeping statement, and is true only sometimes. Without going into great detail, this did happen to Capote, who couldn’t really develop because of his sexual confusions and tendencies to full-time silliness. It did not happen to Mailer, who was potent his entire life. Nor did it happen to Mozart, who just went off the scene by dying. Should mention to John here that, in the Didion article you commented on yesterday, she talks about her love for the ‘getting to the point’ of the bareness in the sentences of Hemingway. But she also calls Mailer a ‘great stylist’, and says people don’t seem to see this. She probably means that he writes in some of the books in different styles from the usual one which, though, is however very originally lush and rich and ripe, sometimes even purple (but ‘good purple’), and it’s not at all something she ever does. She seems to be thinking about only a certain few of the Mailer books, and not want to think about ‘Marilyn’ or ‘The American Dream’ or even ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, in which there’s an extravagance to the paragraphs that is almost parallel to Sinatra’s exaggerated leisure in his song styling.

    Faulkner was also a success early on, and never lost his brilliance at all. There are some who I consider to be worthless as they get older, like Marguerite Duras, esp. because she wrote a melodramatic book about quitting alcohol the hard way, only to make the book totally unconvincing as a ‘courage document’ by going back to the booze. I dislike that book.

    I will say that I think most people do continue to like Forster if they first did, but I continue to like Orwell–I think even ‘Animal Farm’ alone is worth all of Forster. And I steal that little formulation from Deleuze, when he was comparing Lewis Carroll with Antonin Artaud: He said ‘We would not exchange one page of Artaud for all of Carroll”, this even after taking ‘Alice’ very seriously.

    Do either of you remember that mid-90s feud between Martin Amis and Julian Barnes? It was highly publicized and I had only read Barnes at that point. It came across (although there must have been more elements) as ‘Barnes was more gentlemanly’ and right like the righteous Brit. Amis was seen as somewhat vulgar, and I think he is still often thought to be. But when I finally got to a few of his novels and stories in the early 00s, I thought they were much more powerful than Barnes’s, esp. ‘Money’ and ‘Success’, which are hard-hitting. Barnes seems like a lightweight to me (including the Bookered novel), but with a fine technique. I admire the books without thinking they ever really ‘stick’, make you keep thinking about them.

    I might get to more Ford, but not soon. I want to at least get a taste of PKDick, Lovecraft, and some more Pynchon. Plus, I’ve got to read this big coffee-table book on ballet costume, which I’d rather just look through. I might get to it, because the ‘Provence’ thing was strangely sloppy, but weirdly profound in its way: I actually learned lessons, adopted practices and ways of looking at life from his constantly hammering-in certain of his favourite motifs, even though it’s a totally solipsistic old-fart kind of memoir.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 15 March 2012 @ 11:18 am

  16. “This book is fiction,” Hemingway writes no fewer than ten times in handwritten drafts of an introduction for A Moveable Feast. He elaborates in various ways:

    A book of fiction may eliminate and distort but it tries to give a fictional picture of a time and the people in it. No one can write true fact in reminiscences.

    This book is all fiction and the fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.

    All remembrance of things past is fiction.

    It would be fine if it could all be true but lacking that I have attempted in this fiction only to make it interesting.

    There is no formula to explain why this book is fiction nor will it be effective.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 March 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  17. Maybe you could explain to me the value of Hemingway. In highschool my Marxist teachers told me he was a crass and vulgar American melodramatist, resorting to broad cliches for lack of deep abstract thought. So I never read him. Was reading Dostojevski at the time and felt sick to my stomach, but nevertheless, thought that writing as a profession wasn’t really possible after Dostojevski, because he said it all.
    But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief since you usually read good books.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 18 March 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  18. Here from A Moveable Feast is Hemingway discussing Dostoyevsky:

    From the day I had found Sylvia Beach’s library I had read all of Turgenev, what had been published in English of Gogol, the Constance Garnett translations of Tolstoi and the English translations of Chekov…. In Dostoyevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoi….

    I remember asking Ezra [Pound] once when we had walked home from playing tennis out on the Boulevard Arago, and he had asked me into his studio for a drink., what he really thought about Dostoyevsky.

    “To tell you the truth,” Ezra said, “I’ve never read the Rooshians.”

    It was a straight answer and Ezra had never given me any other kind verbally, but I felt very bad because here was the man I liked and trusted the most as a critic then, the man who believed in the mot juste — the one and only correct word to use — the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain given situation; and I wanted his opinion on a man who almost never used the mot juste and yet had made his people come alive at times, as almost no one else did.

    “Keep to the French,” Ezra said. “You’ve plenty to learn there.”

    “I know it,” I said. “I’ve plenty to learn everywhere.”

    “I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky,” I said. “How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?”

    “It can’t be the translation,” Evan said. “She makes the Tolstoi come out well written.”

    “I know. I remember how many times I tried to read War and Peace until I got the Constance Garnett translation.”

    “They say it can be improved on,” Evan said. “I’m sure it can although I don’t know Russian. But we both know translators. But it comes out as a hell of a novel, the greatest I suppose, and you can read it over and over.”

    “I know,” I said. “But you can’t read Dostoyevsky over and over. I had Crime and Punishment on a trip when we ran out of books down at Schruns, and I couldn’t read it again when we had nothing to read. I read the Austrian papers and studied German until we found some Trollope in Tauchnitz.”

    “God bless Tauchnitz,” Evan said. The whisky had lost its burning quality and was now, when water was added, simply much too strong.

    “Dostoyevsky was a shit, Hem,” Evan went on. “He was best on shits and saints. He makes wonderful saints. It’s a shame we can’t reread him.”

    “I’m going to try The Brothers again. It was probably my fault.”

    “You can read some of it again. Most of it. but then it will start to make you angry, no matter how great it is.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2012 @ 7:29 pm

  19. All I know of Hemingway is basically the content of his stories like the old man and the sea, or for whom the bell tolls, where the first one sounds like Moby Dick and the other like the American perspective on European war. And that he is usually praised for his journalistic style of writing, whatever that means. I didn’t get much from your anecdote, in other words.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 19 March 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  20. I’ve provided two excerpts: the post and the conversation about Dostoyevsky. So now if anyone asks you can say that you’ve read some Hemingway. If you don’t get much from the anecdote, C of P, then I recommend that you read no more Hemingway than this.

    In the anecdotal conversation with Ezra, Hemingway names one central feature of his journalistic style: he distrusts adjectives. That pretty much leaves only nouns and verbs. He’s not going to tell you how the narrator or the characters feel about what’s happening; he’ll only tell you who does what. The challenge he faces is to select just the right nouns and verbs to give the reader the sense of the people and events being real. It’s his contention in the post that this stripped-down writing method enables the reader to participate vicariously in the story, which would then let the reader feel spontaneously without being told via adjectives how to feel.

    In the post Hemingway alludes to another feature of his style which isn’t quite so journalistic: he doesn’t describe events; he makes stories. What he means by that isn’t clear to me but here’s my free association. He’s not necessarily imagining a set of events and characters in his head and then describing what he has already imagined. Instead he makes the story as he goes along out of the words he puts on the page. This distinction I think works in drawing as well. You can already have an image of a person or scene which you then try to represent accurately in the drawing, or you can make the person or scene as you draw it. This method makes the story more dynamic, more present to the writer, and presumably also to the reader. But I might be interpreting his remarks incorrectly.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 March 2012 @ 6:15 pm

  21. I’ve just found out about a book by Suzanne Keen entitled Empathy and the Novel. Evidently Keen cites studies showing that, contra Hemingway’s assertion, 1st person narration doesn’t result in greater reader identification with the character than does 3rd person. I’ve requested this book via interlibrary loan.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 March 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  22. Glad you brought it up in this form again; I see now I never even thought of it before, i.e., it had no effect at all in terms of identification with the character for me, at least I think it didn’t. Unreliable narrators show one way why that doesn’t mean much, because they are rarely the characters in their own books you care most about.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 19 March 2012 @ 7:20 pm

  23. This method makes the story more dynamic, more present to the writer, and presumably also to the reader. But I might be interpreting his remarks incorrectly.

    That’s absolutely correct. Any attempt to draw ”from reality” results in a boring, dead image – the cause of my enormous frustration over the years, with the effects of the digital/CGI on animation. I think I also saw a docu with John Cleese explaining how we perceive faces not AS THEY ARE, but in accordance with what we see as important or unimportant on the faces. Our ”mind map” of the face is more like a drawing, than a photograph. You should repeat this to Kenzie until she can’t stand it anymore. That’ll make her a great artist.

    As for Hemingway, the stories have a filmic quality to them (whenever I think about them, I see images, tho I haven’t seen any of the films made out of him). This could be due to what you describe above. And that’s an interesting question as well: does a novel primarily produce images? With Dostoyevski, I don’t have very strong images. Rather, very strong visceral reactions.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 19 March 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  24. Off topic, but relevant: if you look at the fascinating trailer for Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS, I am once again reminded of psychoanalysis – not just because of the psychoanalytic bent to Giger’s designs, but also because the trailer is composed like fucking (it culminates with the penetration of the ship into another ship). When you then look at the trailer for Pixar’s WALL-E, there is also a moment when the huge cock descends on Earth, and Wall-E, being the castrated little dick that he is, has to confront issues regarding castration. This does not (necessarily) point to the idea that the Oedipus theory is the only legitimate and valid one, but it gives strong evidence that psychoanalytic theorizing is still being applied to quite MEASURABLE effect (these movies make millions on the basis of trailers).

    Furthermore on PROMETHEUS, that whole Erich von Daniken theorizing about the alien origin of humanity is less interesting as a pop psychology, and more interesting as a quite vicious and powerful metaphor of the COLONIAL nature of civilization. The biomechanoid Gods that you see in the trailer are like leather-clad Nietzschean Ubermenschen, straight out of some highly aestheticized Nazi fetish party. Finally a movie to supplement my Melancholia obsessivity.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 19 March 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  25. From wiki: I see I’d never really grasped what this meant, while often using it myself. How extraordinary. I knew I was using this ‘thing’, but didn’t know it was the ‘unreliable narrator’. Parts of IDNYC use it and others don’t:

    Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 20 March 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  26. LOL that you considered yourself a ”reliable” and ”responsible” narrator!


    Comment by Center of Parody — 20 March 2012 @ 4:30 pm

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