Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ernest Hemingway and his sister who was a year and a half older, were dressed the same as children by their mother. Sometimes they were both dressed as boys. Much more often they were both dressed as girls.

Hemingway wanted to know the rules of being a man.

How would a man act in a war. How would a man act when shooting unarmed animals in Africa. How would a man act camping out.

Many of his early short stories about about Nick Adams, a young American man in America. Few, very few, of Hemingway's later and best know work happens in the USA. He lived and wrote expat.

Jack London has a story called "To Build a Fire" which tells the experiences of a man lost in the wilderness of Alaska. He knows if his feet get wet he will die. It's high stakes.

The story is a very careful straightforward description of what he does to not die. His feet get wet and he dies.

Hemingway's early Nick Adams stories bring that intense vibe to Nick Adams camping out and fishing in Michigan. The stories would never call what's happening camping out. Nick Adams is under great pressure to do every single activity in his outdoor excursion exactly right, the way the ideal man would do it.

The pressure is immense, sort of like the pressure in "To Build a Fire." It's hard to say, "Come on! He's camping out in Michigan in the summer." The stakes aren't that high.

But for Hemingway, he of the early frilly dresses, the stakes around being man exactly the right way were huge.

Drinking was part of being a man, but you also had to be able to go upstairs to your hotel room and write well.

When Hemingway in the 1950's wrote a novel that involved gender-bending he was in a period of his life where George Plimpton report that when he was shirtless, which was often, his liver stuck out a lot from his torso.

He never finished his novel about a man and woman changing gender roles as part of a love affair. It was published after his death by someone who reworked the many contradictory manuscript pages he left.

Scholars of Hemingway who have seen the original manuscripts are disagree about what was published. Some say that it is not what he would have done. Others say that it is an amazing accomplishment that the editor got a coherent novel out of it.

If Hemingway's liver stuck out from his torso from drinking, what kind of shape was his brain in?

If Hemingway had been able to finish for himself his novel that partly came from being dressed as a twin girl when young and partly from traveling the world for decades having adventures to prove he was a man, his work might be relevant now in a way that it isn't.

It would have an interesting arc that ended up in some issues people are very interested in now. But he couldn't do it. Maybe he couldn't face it anyway, but running all that alcohol through his body for years couldn't have helped.

He couldn't face the final dare. His last big seller was about an old man who knew the correct way to fish. It had a point of view character from another culture, Cuban. Hemingway had lived in other cultures his whole adult life, but he hadn't tried to do something where everything the reader knows is what the central character from another culture knows.

That turned out a common way for such cross cultural efforts--the old man seems very generic. Wise old poor guy. Not someone with a specific personal history. Extremely not an old man hurting from alcohol use and injuries from his manhood proving adventures, and remembering, or not, his childhood.

"The Old Man and the Sea" is the name of the late short book about the generic old Cuban fisherman. "Big Two-Hearted River" is the name of the intense short story about camping out in the summer in the U.S. Midwest, like it really really matter. "The Old Man and the Sea" could be called "Big Two-Hearted Ocean." The intensity in "The Old Man and the Sea" made more sense because the old man was fishing off-shore and was in more danger than the Michigan camper.

Two-hearted? What's with that? The book published after Hemingway's death from his mess of a manuscript about men and women lovers changing gender roles is called "The Garden of Eden." Small two-hearted Garden of Eden.

I am clearly not one of nature's natural Ernest Hemingway fans, but I really like his two Great War novels and would recommend them to anyone who reads novels.

"A Farewell to Arms" takes place during the Great War, later to be known as World War I. "The Sun Also Rises" happens during the Great War afterparty in the 1920's. They are about two different guys who fought in the war, but I find it easy to think of them as one guy, and a Hemingwayish guy.

People talk, sometimes, about Hemingway's view of women. In these novels, I think about Hemingway's choice of women. The women in each novel is British, privileged and nuts. The insanity of the nurse in the hospital where the soldier is recuperating is a little less up front than the nutiness of Lady Brett Ashley in "A Farewell to Arms." She is both believable and a type. Lots of money, lots of intelligence, looks for the moment, and massive stylish self-destructive instincts.

One job of such women in life and in novels is to make the guy look sane, especially if his nuttiness takes the form of day-to-day repressedness and the frequent taking of physical risks.

In Hemingway's later novels and stories the women are bitchy and seem less individual and less interesting. Being bitchy is a widely available choice, widely taken. Easy to displease, eager to criticize, verbally sharp in a particular way. Anyone who spends a lot of time doing it doesn't seem so much like themselves as like all the other bitchy people.