Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Hemingway’

Thursday is Theme Day: Hemingway

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 24, 2013 at 6:00 am

Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Papa Hemingway

The (new) plan is to program Thursdays around a person, a thinker, writer, philosopher, a creative genius, a traveler–a person whose life was (or perhaps is) about the stuff that matters*–share some quotes,  lift a few words from a speech or lecture, perhaps recommend a few books by or about. In other words, on Thursdays, we’ll turn the podium over to an individual “the house” members might be interested in. That way you’ll get a break from my incessant navel gazing and auto-biographical-slash-memoir ramblings. (I hate the ungrammatical “/”.) Okay? I’ll try to bring you something fresh, and avoid the tired cut-and-paste lame Wikipedia entry.

Today we will begin the series with Mr. Hemingway (1899-1961).

To weigh in just a moment here (so difficult keeping my mouth shut!): I am, like so many others, more a fan of the man’s life than I am ofimgres his work. Of course Hemingway left us great writing. I am particularly fond, as I’ve mentioned before, of A Movable Feast. And of course the stories. The great short stories–marvelous stuff, indeed. But it is the life that has the grip on my imagination. (He was life outsized,  the Lady Gaga of his era.) He was no Montaigne; he did not talk about how to live outright, he showed us–at least his painful, dangerous, depressed-manic, genius version of life. So here are a few of Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts.

Oh hell…when I get excited it is difficult to stay with the program. Let’s first set this up with a quote from Joan Didion. We did just talk about her last week. When asked who most influenced her, Ms. Didion said:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time….I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Now on to Papa and his work habits:

imgres-4When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but fulling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Once, when asked about his style (of writing), Papa replied:

That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.

When talking about what writers he read, Hemingway launched into a who’s-who of influences:imgres-3

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Vergil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus, Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora–it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Hemingway & Gellhorn--the movie.

Hemingway & Gellhorn–the movie.

I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, but it is likely true that I have read more about him than by him. The great biography by Hemingway associate, Carlos Baker, is definitive. (Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, called it “the King James Version” of Hemingway’s life. Not everyone thought so highly of the book. Truman Capote said, “The Baker book was bad all the way through. It was dull, it was uninteresting, it was badly put together.” ) There are many others–at last count over 500!–more or less of value.  For me, however, one of the most interesting books about Hemingway is Denis Brian’s, The True Gen. It’s a collection of memories and reminiscences from friends, lovers, enemies, and wives. It’s heavy on gossip, but rounded out the man in a way I found compelling and brimming with insight.


*If there was a tag line to “…the house…” it would be, We think about the stuff that matters. But wait!– whether you know it or not, we have a tag line, A Journal of Life Pursued. Can one have too many tag lines? Too many interests?

In the Beginning was the Word

In Books, Creativity, Music, Writers, Writing on January 8, 2013 at 6:00 am


Since we seem to be leaning toward the literary of late, I thought I would share a piece I wrote a very long time ago, twenty-one years to be precise. It was published in the Baltimore Sun, March 25, 1992. (Hey, it’s my blog, as I auto-plagiarize as I see fit.)


Words are all we have ~ Samuel Beckett

The mechanics of reading follow roughly along these lines: The cones and rods of the eye are struck by photons of light reflected off the words on the page. This activity, transmitted by way of the optic nerve, is received as a hail of electrical blips somewhere in the lobes of the brain. A neural string of cells explodes, registering and triggering a response. Somehow, understanding, or cognition, results.

That, of course, is an approximate rendering of the process. Very little about it is actually understood.

The event that set me thinking along these lines occurred over a leisurely breakfast recently. It was one of those rare mornings when the children were quietly occupied elsewhere and the coffee in my cup was still warm. My wife sat reading across from me. I heard a sniffle, and, not moving my head, I looked up to see a tear rolling down her cheek. In a moment she was up and searching for a tissue, while I sat pondering the silent triggering of a tear duct.

My wife was reading the popular autobiography of Lewis Puller, Jr., “Fortunate Son.” Puller returned home from Vietnam without his legs, his buttocks, and parts of both hands. That’s enough to make one cry. But his account does more than simply rouse the reader to sympathy. It is artistic beyond imagery. Puller’s voice is both lyrical and humane, a voice speaking to what is best in us all, and to what is not best. That is why my wife cried. That is one of the things good writing does; it affects us.

Music can be just as potent. It is said the young Beethoven could easily discern what it would take to reduce his parlor audience to tears and then proceed to do just that. Afterward, he would mock those in the audience, calling them spoiled children and fools. I suspect he found their response to his music superficial, working as he did at a level of unfathomable artistic understanding.

Later, the Romantics exploited music’s emotive quality. One critic stopped calling it music altogether. It is all emotion now, he claimed.

The written word, however, is more directly related to the intellectual process of the human species than is music. Most of us do not think in musical terms. We think in words. (Fine musicians do both, I am told.) Most of us think in a type of linear verbal progression, almost from left to right. Stop reading this now and try to think in any other way.

It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.

Historically, civilizations arose when organized knowledge encountered adequate methods of writing. This first occurred in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, where business transactions required documentation. Archaeology has discovered the records of ancient traders, but it not the stuff that stirs the emotions or provokes the intellect. I have heard it debated among reasonable and educated adults that civilization, by definition, is not civilization until the poets arrive.

In the beginning was the Word. Scholars debate the intent of the gospel writer in this passage and wonder over the influences at work here. But I venture that the poets understand the meaning. Any of us alive enough as to be provoked by the written word knows the wonderful and mysterious tapestry that is one human spirit alighting on another. That is the core of the artistic experience and is the beginning of everything we value about ourselves as humans. It is rejuvenating to think that with the word we ceased being beasts and became human.

Ernest Hemingway, in a cogent moment, observed that long after the temples have decayed, the written word will survive, even flourish. This is not the word of the daily transaction. He was referring to the word that sparks the neural cells and makes one rise in search of a tissue, the word that sends the telltale tingle down the spine, as Vladimir Nabokov noted.

It would be a shame if the biologists were ever to explain the process.


Thanks for reading and take care,


Of Writers

In Books, Literature, Memoir, Travel, Writers, Writing on September 4, 2012 at 6:00 am

I am traveling, in the mountains of Colorado. I leave you with a favorite post, published earlier this year in April.


Bruce Chatwin observed that there are two types of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” Chatwin was a mover. When I read him I hear the cadence of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Once, in London, traipsing around Bloomsbury, I sought out the home of Virginia Woolf.  It is not open to the public, and is now converted office space. But the brass plague confirmed the address. I was reduced to peering in through a barred street window. There were fax machines and furniture, a woman in a beige sweater pounding away on a computer and the flurry of activity one associates with commerce. I tried to imagine Mrs. Woolf there but failed–a “dug in” writer who slipped through my fingers. The failure was particularly poignant in that she had so famously observed, “A woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Likewise, I found Gertrude Stein’s Paris house, her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, the place she shared with Alice B. Tolkas. Stein called Alice “Pussy” and Gertrude was “Lovey.” There is that awful scene in A Moveable Feast, where the young Hemingway, standing in the foyer of Miss Stein’s house, overhears her upstairs: “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.’” She was dead eighteen years when Hemingway’s memoir of Paris and being hungry was published–”But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Of his writing, Miss Stein said, “Hemingway’s remarks are not literature.” He got her back in the end.

Hemingway is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.

I went to Prague seeking Kafka, the writer who perhaps more than any other, ushered us into the modern era. But he too had disappeared. The City of a Thousand Spires, however, remained true to a fashion and I gave myself to its dark alleys and endless cobblestone streets. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he wrote. Though Prague invites the exercise of transmutations, to this pilgrim the city is more given to music. Smetana and Dvorak are easier to find than the man of The Castle. I do not think this unusual as music, once released abides ripe in the atmosphere, whereas the written word must be sought out.

The spirit of Joyce is to be found in Dublin, though ironically he wrote in self-exile. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden is lost to history, but Emerson’s house in Concord remains and it is easy to imagine the great man dug in, to use Chatwin’s phrase, surrounded by his books and working intently.

And of Chatwin? I found him a desert stretch removed from the Minaji Plain in Rajasthan. But that is another story for another time.


“Sometimes, like right now…”

In Depression, Life, The Examined Life, Writers on June 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

Black dog

Sometimes, like right now, this evening, when the black dog nips at my heels, I look out the window and attempt to remember what matters. Then something rises in me and suggests that it all matters, if only I pay attention. For instance, I paid a high degree of attention to that last period, after the word attention. I read recently that in poetry a period is an exclamation mark seen from above: down the shaft and the dot driven into the sod. That is, indeed, a high degree of attention and is enough to serve a person well for a while.


I wrote the above paragraph three months ago and saved the draft thinking I would get back it to. Never got back to it. I don’t remember writing it. Nor do I recall being chased by the black dog. (I have held for many years that it was Hemingway who labeled depression the black dog. Now, however, I am given to understand that Dr. Johnson was first with the phrase, though he would have been alluding to melancholia, as they called it back then. I am intent on not settling this. Occasionally I prefer to live in an imagined pre-Google world of ambivalence.) I find it interesting that I chose to write about paying attention, yet have no recollection of doing so. It is too frequently a personally inconsistent and troubling world.

Maine, three years on.

In Life, Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Writing on May 30, 2012 at 6:00 am

The Great State of Maine

We moved to Maine three years ago this week. As I’ve observed previously, place matters, though I did not understand that truly until settled-in here in the northeast. (In a society where transience seems valued, such musings must seem quaint.) Of the world places I’ve seen, Maine is favorite. That I’ve seen a lot of the world, makes Maine the more significant. I’m not going to attempt to explain it. Ineffableness is how the important things are best realized.

There are other places that pique my interest. Colorado is such a place, as is Montana and Wyoming. Mountains and rivers, remoteness, low population, challenging weather–these are factors in favor of a place. A consideration of my travel resume reveals my interest in places appealing to the few. A family member, upon hearing of the minor hardships endured in Nepal recently, asked why I wouldn’t rather go to a place like Hawaii. That question obviously cannot be answered as it requires of the asker an impossible comprehension.

My father, who is ninety years old, still talks about living in a cabin aside a river in Alaska, where he will fish for his dinner and tend to a garden, where he will live in a manner fashionably now called sustainable. Of course no such place is left him, nor is much of him left for it. It was a dream. He also dreamed of living on a boat, a more reasonable quest, but also unfulfilled. Instead he worked his way up through the ranks at International Harvester until he retired as early as he could. His modest life, shared with my mother, included cutting the grass once a week and cleaning the gutters in the spring, caulking and painting the window frames, and attending to the weekly trash. He said to me this very morning that it’s best to have left that world behind, that he would not be able to walk behind a lawnmower now. Though he is still of sound mind, he talks of someday getting another motorcycle, like the Harley he had as a young man. I humor him, but suggest he also get a sidecar in which to store his walker.

It is fortunate that, unlike my father, I have made progress pursuing a dream or two, though my dreams have never been so concrete nor vividly imagined as his. The nature of my life has been more that of the rising stream during spring run-off. It will likely follow the course it took the year previously, but one cannot be sure and there is a thrill in that unknown. Eventually, as occurred three years ago, something might nudge it out of its ancient bed and turn it toward parts unknown. Therein is a natural cause for celebration.


It does not escape me that this is the second post this week using a river-stream metaphor. I think a little Hemingway might be in order. Here is the last paragraph of his two-part short story, Big Two-Hearted River:

Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.

Amen, Ernest.

On late travels.

In Travel, Writing on April 5, 2012 at 11:12 am

Scheduled on the late shuttle home last night and waiting for my flight at the bar and drinking a beer or two, I realized how generally annoyed I was with the noise and the people and garish lighting and the incessant televisions–sports, Fox News, Shopping Network–and the elbow to elbow experience of drunk travelers shouting over pounding music and just wanting to be home in bed at that moment, quiet and maybe drifting off with the New Yorker in my hands. Perhaps it was everyone too drunk and consequently annoying, or perhaps was me working in that direction but not yet there that everything and everyone seemed so very hyperbolic and frenetic.

The woman to my right leaned into me and asked the time. I looked at her and told her the time and her eyes, which I recall black like I understand Picasso’s eyes black, bore through me and out the back of my skull and in that instant I was reduced to something far from manhood and turned quickly away and back to my book, feeling very and profoundly inadequate, and for some reason embarrassed, to be entirely truthful. She turned from me, sensing I’m sure my instantaneous shortcomings, and to the gentleman at her right, asking a question of him and their ensuing din of politics and pop culture and business and law and travel washed over me, fixing my already stained mood.

The man to my left, a lawyer, I overhead him say, was reading his best friend’s manuscript, a novel, as he reported to the traveler on his left. This piqued my interest but not so much as to disrupt my mood of contemplative dissatisfaction, so I let it lay, as he let the manuscript lay. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was on page sixteen.

I fly this shuttle, Portland to Baltimore, every four or five weeks, a day trip, early morning, late night flights, and because of that cumulative mileage I frequently, as I did last night, get bumped up to business class where the drinks are free. This can be a challenge as the temptation of free alcohol is something I find particularly cruel. After my second Jack I was reminded of Hemingway’s admonition to compose drunk and edit sober.

My dismissive mood lifted as we flew over Manhattan and the luminescense of that island broken only by the black rectangle of Olmsted’s park, a perfect void extinguishing the light. A lovely sight indeed on a clean night and a reminder to always sit fuselage left when returning home.

And alas, the script, “Welcome Home,” suspended in the jetway claiming all challenges acceptable and filling me again with grace.