Posted by: zhiv | September 19, 2011

Incidental Hemingway Notes, by way of Woody Allen

I’m guessing I wrote this in June, and didn’t get around to typing it, but it fits in nicely enough now with the recent Gertrude Stein stuff, and the way that movie notes seem to be creeping in around here this fall.

Taking a breather and feeling ready to dip back into the blog here, with one brief post to type up and a a book finished (miracle) and thus one to write; I’m sipping on coffee and reading the newspaper–which shows just how middle-aged and curmudgeonly I am, that I still get a newspaper. I think I just realized that the slide into middle-age is so far gone now that senior citizen status is only a couple of stops away and coming up fast, yikes. And I read an LA Times feature story about Ernest Hemingway, prompted by the caricature of Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The story is a quick assessment of Hemingway’s ongoing status as icon and caricature, and how his more serious and literary reputation stands up against it these days.

First, the Woody Allen movie. I had been hearing that people loved it, and a number of well-meaning friends said that I might especially enjoy the story of a successful LA screenwriter who cares more about writing a great novel and yearns for the literary excitement of Paris in the 20s. What I like and greatly respect about Woody Allen is that he makes movies, writes screenplays and tells stories with such a steady, energetic flow, and his movies are all about character and irony and conflict and ambivalence. His body of work is magnificent in its size, scope, and simplicity, and it will serve as a great model and aspiration for filmmakers as the young medium powers through its second century and into its third. WA loves sports, and he has become a Cal Ripken of filmmaking, working and sticking to a strong creative routine. Some of his movies are great, some are in the middle of the pack, and some are misguided stinkers, but the marvel of his work is found in advanced statistics: it’s not about home runs or even batting average, but instead plate appearances and on-base percentage, just like in Moneyball.

I didn’t like the film. Maybe I’ll like it better months from now, maybe not. We (me and ma femme) have two major WA critique points: his dialogue often doesn’t match his actors, conveying his ideas but not creating convincing characters; and he works in an odd middle range intellectually, where his movies seem designed to make relatively shallow and unsophisticated people feel smart. He wants it both ways, to gratify his own intelligence and sophistication and to be an unpretentious, regular guy at the same time. This bothers me to no end, of course, because it’s my own gambit. What’s the difference between WA’s immersion in Chekhov and Bergman, going to work shooting films and writing scripts, and going to Knick games, and my own petty version of reading May Sinclair and Robert Graves and stumbling over to my office at the studio, and obsessing on the Clippers? The problem in the latest film, aside from the fact that it obviously cuts too close, is that the scenes of literary reference and wish-fulfillment are simplistic and predictable–Gertrude Stein is reading my manuscript–and seem as if they’re meant to be serious. But the trick is that they’re placed across a broad range of comedy and caricature, one which goes alongside the fiance and in-laws who are annoyed by Paris and the French, and deaf to its charms. It’s all rather broad comedy in its way, which is odd and seems counter-intuitive to the themes and setting–but that’s Woody. I must say that I very much liked the twist at the resolution, when Luke Wilson goes back with Marie Cotillard to the Belle Epoque, which entrances her as a Golden Age, and he realizes that the real challenge is to live in the present. This was well done, but it raised questions that the film didn’t seem prepared to answer, as so much of present-day life was ridiculous and rejected–everything except a beautiful 20-year-old girl who likes old records, and depressed, neurotic, delusional middle-aged men, apparently.

So much for the Woody Allen tangent. I found the Hemingway character unobjectionable because it was so obviously comic and absurd, and it was a good signpost for setting the true tone of the movie. And the feature article that started this post mentions Hemingway’s continuing profile as parody and caricature, and WA makes a nice little meal out of it. But the article seemed notable, or worth writing about, because it raised the serious side of Hemingway’s status as if it were in question, and I read that as a prompt to write and think about my own current view of his work and the evolution of my thoughts on it.

It’s a steady, blue chip stock, I would say, and I think that Hemingway’s best books and stories are aging well. His status as a role model for American masculinity seems to be receding into the past more quickly than one might have expected 20 years ago, and this is probably the article’s primary point. But Hemingway’s writing has plenty of really good things going for it, and they are much clearer to me in middle age, in 2011.

The first, which was not one of my original points but occurs to me now, is that his work remains superb entry-level literature, especially for young men. Young women, who may be more proficient and experienced readers by the time they get to Hemingway–and why wouldn’t they take their time getting to it?–can recognize the strengths of style and character, and might pick up some of the romance of Paris perhaps, the same currency WA is trading. So I have my own view, as my own path to literature sailed briskly through Hemingway over 30 years ago, to go along with the quality of his work in literary parenting, with a daughter studying Modernism at an advanced level, and a son who is reading books and slowly finding his own way. It’s quite impossible, I might say, to really understand intellectual and developmental gender difference until you experience it first hand as a parent. That’s obnoxiously general and self-serving, of course, but I can only say that it has been a profound process to witness, one that continues to unfold slowly and fascinate at every step. And my point is that Hemingway’s work is exceedingly well-designed to be read by young men who don’t like to read very much, and haven’t developed the habit.

The danger, however, is that his work can be reduced to simplistic and dismissive terms so easily. And that gets me to my next point, which concerns the importance of finding ways to read Hemingway seriously, what seems to be missing from the article. Where can we find a handle on which to grasp the level of Hemingway’s accomplishment? I want to mention a few things that I think I know now, that I didn’t know then, back when I was an eager entry-level reader of literature myself.

The first is that Hemingway’s work is one of the best and strongest connections to the crucially important concurrent movements in painting and the arts, outside of literature. It’s good, I think now, to study the period and Modernism as a whole, with the end of the 19th century and the War providing context. Students have probably always done this, more or less, but there has also been a strong impulse to isolate texts and do close readings. Virginia Woolf’s connection to her sister and visual art is just as evident as Hemingway’s tie to Stein and the art world, but it’s self-contained. Hemingway, in part through his presence in Paris, is a straightforward way in. And the obviousness of his style, which isn’t a bad thing in its pure and best form, has a direct connection to modern art, one that’s easy to see and grasp and appreciate.

Having recently found all sorts of good books I didn’t know in the Literature of WWI category, which can be either joined or separated from Modernist classics as you wish, it’s worth remembering that Hemingway is generally regarded as a major player there. He is often used, I would guess, to touch on both subjects, WWI Lit and Modernism, which is done just as easily as the connection to modern art. What I would add now is that Hemingway seems to fall on the American Literature side of the WWI Lit category, but he can hold his own when thrown in with Sassoon, Graves, Remarque, Brittain and others. I don’t know that students of American war novels, which can be badly neglected in the first place, cross over to British and European texts very readily.

Lastly, I think there’s something to be added to the later masculinity, role model conversation, and that is Hemingway’s major contribution as a pioneer of Tough Guy Literature. This would seem obvious on the face of it, but I don’t know that people make the connection between one of Hemingway’s seemingly minor works, To Have and Have Not, and the hard-boiled genre of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and their legions of followers. I know that I never did, not until recently–it’s another thing that I didn’t get around to finishing and writing about here, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it surprising and intriguing and significant. To Have and Have Not stands to Tough Guy Lit in a very similar way to The Last Tycoon’s role in the development of the Hollywood Novel, and I suppose it’s nice to see that Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t just write a handful of classic stories and novels as modernist, jazz age ex-patriots, but they also found ways to innovate as they moved along and evolved. So I suppose there are all sorts of ways to find Hemingway’s seriousness and significance, if one keeps looking and maintains a broad and fresh perspective.


  1. You are right on so many points. Obvious parody of the Film character- It had a function. Second recession of the uber masculine aura and better appreciation of his language and literature.
    Very good article. Thanks

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