Thursday, July 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Papa

I'm one day late in wishing Ernest Hemingway felicitations of the day, but I have a good excuse: I was so exhausted after a day of marlin fishing that it was all I could do to just come home, feed the six-toed cats, toss back a couple of Mojitos, then fall asleep scratching my grizzled chest and dreaming of bulls.

But if you're anywhere near Key West this weekend, you'll want to be immersed in the annual Hemingway Days, which culminates in the look-alike contest (dozens and dozens of white guys with trimmed white beards).  Other events include readings and book signings, an award ceremony for the annual literary competition, a one-man play ("Hemingway's Hot Havana"), a gore-free "Running of the Bulls," an arm-wrestling competition and, of course, a three-day marlin tournament.

Somewhere in all that hype and hoopla, I hope they take time to think about the man himself.

I suppose nearly every post-World War Two writer has felt the impact of Hemingway to some degree or another.  For me, it came during a specific, crystalline moment in high school English class when I read "Hills Like White Elephants."  The spare text on the page made my eyes skip through the story quickly, and I remember thinking I'd find revelation and meaning by the time I reached the final period.

I didn't.

This is one heckuva tough assignment, I complained.  You can't even keep track of who's talking.  What's so great about this story?  It's like it's written to be a riddle.

I went back and read it a second time.  And a third.  And on the fourth trip to that hot train-station bar, it started to seep in.  The man and the woman were circling around something unsaid.  Our teacher stood at the front of the room, repeatedly asking, "What do you think they're talking about?  What do you think they're talking about?"

I stared at the page.  The man and the woman seemed to be talking about nothing; and, at the same time, everything.  They walked around the perimeter of the figurative "elephant in the room" and we could only guess at what they meant when they spoke about the "awfully simple operation" which "just lets the air in."  We were pre-teens living in a 1970s world not yet completely dominated by the pro-life/pro-choice babble of the next decade.  We weren't prudes, but sex and abortions and parenthood and crushing responsibility just weren't at the forefront of our minds at the time.

Frankly, I didn't care about the "awfully simple operation" or the symbolism of the beaded curtain in the bar and the heavy baggage the man carries outside to the platform.  I was absorbed in the words and how their halting, staccato rhythm had worked their way into my bloodstream.
"And we could have all this," she said.  "And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible."
"What did you say?"
"I said we could have everything."
"We can have everything."
"No, we can't."
"We can have the whole world."
"No, we can't."
"We can go everywhere."
"No, we can't.  It isn't ours any more."
"It's ours."
"No, it isn't.  And once they take it away, you never get it back."
"But they haven't taken it away."
"We'll wait and see."
What initially appeared to be nonsensical and irrelevant dialogue suddenly held resonant, invisible meaning.  Even back then, I was fascinated by how much could be said without actually adressing the subject head-on.  Hemingway and those he influenced (particularly Raymond Carver) knew how to build entire worlds within a single word.  I've spent my entire writing career doing my best to boil down the language to bones that gleam like white elephants.

1 comment:

  1. Hemingway's dialog can be pretty elliptical while Carver's ear for it is uncanny, even when four people are talking while stoned out of their minds. You're right, though, what is left unsaid is usually more important than what is said.