Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Hemingway’

Of writers.

In Memoir, Travel, Writers, Writing on April 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

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.

“…largely ignored…”

In Death, Travel, Writers on October 20, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Full quote: “It is good to live in a place largely ignored by the rest of the world.”

The quote is from my favorite living American author, Jim Harrison. It’s from his new novel, The Great Leader. (My review can be found here.)

I was deep in the lake region of Patagonia, maybe five, six years ago, I don’t remember. (Time and space, especially time, escapes me.) I met George, from France, the village of Joan, of the Arc fame. He’d come, as had I, to chase the brown trout that were big deep in the ice rivers of the Andes, the Futalafu and other rivers. Huge trout, weighed, not measured. (Not fifteen inches but six pounds. And more.) Blue green rivers, fresh out of the mountains. One thing leading to another and I discover George is a reader. “Who is your favorite writer,” I ask. “Jim Harrison,” he responds. I jump–yes, jump–“Mine too,” I exclaim. “He is,” George says, “the only writer who combines the life of the mind and the life of action.” Leave it to the French.

But, the point being the quote: What is it that makes a man (me)  what to go further and farther away to the place people largely ignore? Is there a place where a person can hide? Escape? Evaporate? It will happen soon enough, given a few years, or less, and a person, all of us, will be extinct. Gone. Vanished. Dead.  And we will be so very dead as to not even know it. So why rush to the place that is largely ignored, either specifically or, in a more surreptitious manner, figuratively? Can’t answer that. There comes a time, as Hemingway observed, when we (might)  decide to sprint to the finish line. He did. Don’t think I want to sprint. I’m more of an endurance guy, taking my time. But the destination is the same, all together the same.

They say a society is not a civilization until the poets arrive. I believe that. I hold my lantern to the darkness, at the foot of the citadel, outside the drawn gate, alone, peering into the darkness, looking, waiting. Where are the poets? Where is the civilization? Will they arrive before the extinction?

The Limit of Anything is not a Natural Place

In Books, Reading, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I’m told the key to writing a good blog is to know a subject and stick to it. A blog should be focused and appeal to an audience interested in the subject. Well, that’s two strikes against me.

What am I doing here–here being the blog (although “here” being life is also under consideration)–and why am I doing it? I’ve been toying with these questions. It’s my way of sorting things out, toying with them. I go to other blogs and they are about something. Politics, culture, travel, finance, and so on. I have nothing so sexy going for me as all that. This blog is about me writing about me. That is, recursively–it’s about writing (not the explicit discussion of, but the practice), and the reading behind the writing. Secondly, and thoroughly intertwined, it’s about a life, my life. Together they make something of which I am unsure. I am the student of that something, trying to be more sure.

On the writing side of the quest–and it is a quest–I have been enamored with the idea of writing fiction, the novel specifically, all my life. Being enamored of a thing does not make it so. Despite attempting to train for the long haul, as Hemingway admonished, I have no endurance. If a gene for genre exists, mine would be inherited from Montaigne, albeit in such a diluted form as hardly perceptible. I am an essayist. And to make matters worse, in this day and age of the navel-gazing memoirist, I, if pushed for a confession, am most guilty of committing the crime of the personal essay. There, I said it and feel better for it.

The reading behind the writing is found throughout the postings here. I’ve said it elsewhere, I am–and have been–a lot of things over the years. The one thing that remains, and steadily so, is me the reader.

If this were simple math, the denominator in this quest fraction, is my life. Can I understand it better? How? Here’s the framework I like to use: Socrates’s admonition: The unexamined life is not worth living. He did not  say, Answer the question of life; rather question it, examine it. He didn’t say, Develop a flow chart,  or create a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. He exhorted, simply: Examine life. Accept nothing less than an adequate account. It is an open and expansive thought. Contrariwise, it is drilled into us from childhood, seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

Often, for me, to examine is simply to be awake to life. If nature instills a sense of wonder, it is a function of examination to be aware of wonderment. Just as often, the notion of the examined life is less effortless and more grinding, a struggle to be more authentic. Authenticity is, in my math, the result of life multiplied by examination. Authenticity is the anthesis of complexity, I think, and is, as Sartre, said, at the limits of language. That is the grind. The limit of anything is not a natural place.

So, back to where I started, the nature of this blog. To summarize, it–the blog, “…the house…“–is the notebook in which I work out my quest to examine a life wishing to be authentic. My tools are ancient and simple: the words I cobble together.

What now?

Not for the coffee table.

In Creativity, Photography on February 1, 2010 at 9:52 pm

A few weeks ago I ordered some photography books. Not for the coffee table. For the eye. They are:

Robert Doisneau, a Taschen “Icon” series book.

Bernard Plossu, So Long

and two monographs:

Edouard Boubat &

Lee Friedlander

Not a photography book, per se, but I also purchased Clive Scott’s Street Photography, From Atget to Cartier-Bresson. I have not read it yet, but it seems a bit pedantic. Stay tuned. I also reread David Hurn and Bill Jay’s fantastic book, On Being a Photographer. Every photographer should have this on the shelf.

When the books arrived, Carole remarked, “More photography books?” She commented on how big and heavy and thick they are. I said, “If I were a poet, the books I’d study would be small and slim. But I’m a photographer, not a poet.” (I’ve heard it argued, however, that all the artistic disciplines aspire to that of poetry. That seems correct.)

The one I to talk about, because it has been the most thought (eye?) provoking of the group is the Friedlander, properly the Peter Galassi MoMa’s retrospective exhibition book, 2005. Thought provoking because I never much cared for Friedlander’s work, to put it bluntly. Now, though, like so many things in life, I think I didn’t care for it because I didn’t understand it. Not that I “get” Friedlander. At least not everything. Much of his work is Hindemith to  Stravinsky, Pollock to Jasper Johns, if those references make any sense. (Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake?) I know I don’t get the “landscape” work of the 90s. But here’s another reference that seems to make sense to me. If Cartier-Bresson is Dickens; and Robert Frank is Hemingway; then Friedlander is David Foster Wallace. If you’re not the music or literary type, what I’m trying to say is that Friedlander is an evolution of the discipline in a post-modern sense.

They say that there is nothing extraneous in a Friedlander photograph, which is saying a lot. His most successful work is thick and complex, and not easy. That is largely the late(r) stuff. It’s not as witty, and strikes me as more earnest. But what is to be said about anyone’s work over thirty or forty years? Just the consistency is inspiring.  What I started by saying, that there is nothing extraneous in his photographs, is startling to me–and freeing somehow. It’s as if the (apparent) randomness, at first glance, is to the contrary, order. What a way to look at life! Is that art? I think so.

Masterclass of a Life Well Lived

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 2, 2009 at 12:36 am

A few years ago I attempted to write a work of extended fiction. I’d written a few short stories and essays, some of which found their way into print. I had been following Hemingway’s advice to ready myself for the long haul by working up to it, like a boxer training for a bout–or something appropriately Hemingwayesque to that manly effect. So, I began this “extended fiction” (why is it that the word novel seems so daunting and intimidating?) and set a course to explore the only, for me, truly compelling theme. To wit, How should a life be lived?

Once, many years ago, in a distant existence, in a parallel universe, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book about entrepreneurship. I had walked in those shoes for a while with a modicum of success and someone foolishly thought I actually knew something about the subject. I wrote my chapter and adorned it with a awkward title about which I am now embarrassed. In essence, the chapter title, spoke to my belief that creativity trumps everything else, talent, motivation, timing and all the rest of it. In business, and in life, creativity rules.

Getting back to the novel, my character, a successful dot com-er (I was writing at the height of the dot com bubble) decides one day to cash out and hit the road, to set out, as Twain said, for territories unknown. This guy was the perfect foil. He had plenty of resources–i.e. money–no commitments, a sense of self that reached beyond his present situation, albeit however well-stoked he found himself, and nothing but time on his hands. The premise is quite simple: What would you do with your life if you could do anything you wanted? It is the most profoundly creative question a person can ask. At some point in your life-block of Carrera marble gets dropped across your path and someone hands you a hammer and chisel. What do you do? How do you chisel out a life? How do you create it? I didn’t know what I’d do, so I wrote a novel to figure it out.

The ultimate creative assignment is the masterclass in a life well lived. I wanted, in the writing of the novel, to tackle this most personal of challenges. And here’s what happened. Nothing. Nothing happened. My guy, the character in my novel, having money and time and motivation, well, he was a bust. I could develop no creative tension in the narrative. In other words, I couldn’t answer the question, what would I do, if I could do anything I wished with my life. Was there no creative tension to my existence?

This is not an exercise in navel gazing. (I dread the cliché above all else.) So the question above will remain purely rhetorical. My existence and its creative tension, or lack thereof, is of no matter. Here is the point. Life need be carved out of raw material–created, in essence–to be, upon Socratic inspection, well designed. It ain’t gonna just happen. Sartre said that everything in life must submit to art. Creativity is an expressed solution to an unasked question. My protagonist had no challenges, and therefore his life lacked the luster of a well-polished coat of creativity.

Make of it what you will. But know this: the act of creation is the purest of expression. Draped across the robust shoulders of life, it is at once profound and beautiful.