Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Man and the Fishpond

Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Man and the Fishpond

Article excerpt

Reading Hemingway, it is often difficult to suppress the thought of Roy Campbell's comment on his contemporaries. You praise the firm restraint with which they write

I'm with you there, of course: They use the snaffle and the curb all right, But where's the bloody horse?

`Where's the bloody horse?' is a perfectly reasonable question to ask when a novelist reduces his material and methods to the blunt simplicities of Hemingway. Another doubt quickly begins to surface. Could it possibly be that Hemingway didn't choose to leave all that stuff out? Could it possibly be that Hemingway was laconic to the point of the rudimentary for the same reason that every single one of his women is a wretchedly unconvincing doll; not a chosen omission, but quite simply that he wasn't up to it?

Of course, in his early novels and stories Hemingway brought something new into American literature. Personally, I think his influence proved an absolute disaster for all sorts of quite good writers, and persuaded some very bad ones that what they were doing had some kind of merit. His influence is one of the main reasons there is so little really interesting writing in America today. All the same, in those early volumes, like Men Without Women, there is something. Their subject is a limited and deplorable idea of masculinity, which a lot of readers have found unconvincing. Was it Robert Benchley who said that `the hair on Ernest's chest was a goddamn toupee'? Whenever they try to go beyond that, they collapse weedily. But there is a freshness of expression about them. They stick austerely to a kind of Basic English, never risking much or giving much away; they habitually talk about big subjects by skirting round them - so that a long description of fishing turns out to be talking indirectly about pain and suffering in the first world war. At his best, his evocation of those big subjects turns out to be more powerful than a direct description of them - well, all right, than his direct description of them - could possibly be.

All the same, one can't help feeling that Hemingway's Janet-and-John manner (`He went to the house. The house was white. The man was tall. Behind the house were high mountains', etc., etc.) is not exactly restraint. It seems to me more like prudence. By his last years, whatever he could do was long gone. Superficially, his themes look like Conrad's. Like Conrad, his method was to fling his characters against some vast crisis - a war, or a natural disaster - and see what comes back. But if you read The Old Man and the Sea after a masterpiece like Conrad's Typhoon, you start to see how banal and predictable Hemingway really was. What returns from the disaster in Conrad is the vast variety of humanity, which he has observed and not prejudged; what Hemingway finds is more or less what he wants to find, which is some boring old sea-dog butching it up in the usual way, resembling nothing so much as an off-duty drag queen. I notice that the publishers also have a volume entitled The Enduring Hemingway; surely a volume to put alongside The Wit and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf and Great Contemporary French Painters in a competition for the titles of the world's shortest books.

Anyway, this is late Hemingway. Not much of a recommendation, as anyone who has struggled through Across the River and Into the Trees will agree. …

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