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Want to do something instead of frittering away your life? Read. And don’t ever allow yourself to be persuaded that running around like a blue-arsed fly is actually ‘doing’ anything. When something is ‘done’ you need more than a pile of shopping to prove it

I should imagine it happens to everyone every so often, but for some reason I have been feeling very restless for these past few days and about the only thing which soothes that restlessness is to write (as I am doing now). I have no idea why I feel this, or why it began. Oddly, I suspect it has, apart from anything else, something to do with blood sugar levels as in low blood sugar levels, but that is just surmise. I do know (and this is the first time I have admitted this to anyone but myself) that another reason for the restlessness whenever I suffer from it is feeling that I haven’t ‘done’ anything.

I know exactly what I mean by having ‘done’ something but I won’t try to define it here because, to be frank I can’t be arsed and anyway there’s not much point in doing so. But to try to clarify what I mean I’ll point out that as far as I am concerned, and this is probably quite obvious’, ‘activity’ is really not the same as ‘action’.

Going shopping for a few necessities is ‘activity’, as is spending a very pointless sixty minutes — and invariably always far longer than I intend — going through the Guardian and Daily Mail websites very morning to see if there’s anything worth knowing. (NB There rarely is and I always, on the Guardian website, skip the many ‘eco pieces’ agonising over how the world is going to hell in a handcart. In tandem, on the Daily Mail website, I make a point of skipping all its gammon pieces about what load of old cack all this eco-nonsense is).

At some point I’ll look through Facebook, but there’s rarely anything there to hold my attention. Facebook then out of the way, I often — I do this particular thing quite a lot — log onto the Autotrader website to see what cars are for sale at between £500 and £2,500 locally. By locally I mean within 35 miles: much further and you start being shown cars for sale in South Wales, just 50 miles away as the crow flies but about 180 miles if you drive there, and I’m obviously not going to drive there to buy a cheap secondhand car.

The silly thing is there isn’t even any point in taking a look at what is available on Autotrader: I’m not going to, and don’t yet have to, replace my old T-reg 1600cc automatic Astra which might now have quite a few miles on the clock (LATER 118,060 as of yesterday when I filled her up), but has some life left in her yet. But it’s something I like doing, though I don’t know why.

In a nutshell, all that is just ‘activity’ — it is not ‘doing’ anything at all — and fritters away several hours, if most of the day, and the restlessness continues.

. . .

I’ve previously mentioned the piece I am slowly working on which is about what — in my view — something of a nine-bob note Ernest Hemingway was and how his ‘debut novel’ (it was actually his second novel) is anything but a masterpiece and that Hemingway is anything but a ‘writer of genius’. Getting on with writing it is, as far as I am concerned, bona fide ‘doing’ something in that it all has a definite purpose, however personal and obscure that purpose is. Ironically, doing a number on Hemingway — which is pretty much what I am doing—is not, in fact, that purpose. And I’ve already posted a few blogs along those lines — one here and another here.

Writing it long, long ago stopped being just a languid blog rant about ‘what an odd-bod tosspot Ernest Hemingway is’ and is taking longer than I thought it would. For one reason or another the task is becoming increasingly complex (although ‘complex’ is meant comparatively and I don’t want to over-egg the pudding — it’s not ‘complex’ in any sense in which the word is customarily understood, just more ‘complex’ for a simple chap like me), and as one reason for writing it — and engaging in all the reading that has now shown itself to be necessary — is to acquire more ‘intellectual discipline’, I don’t want to cut corners. In my scheme of things, cutting corners, of which I have been too often criminally guilty in the past, would be utterly pointless.

BTW My ‘comma placement’ was laboriously learned from one Peter B. with and for whom I worked on the Daily Mail (and previously in Birmingham). My view is that the only ‘rule’ in punctation is that it should make a written piece more comprehensive. A comma will briefly slow you down when reading a piece. For example, these two sentences don’t mean the same thing and using a comma is important: ‘The doctors who were fed up resigned from their jobs’ and ‘the doctors, who were fed up, resigned from their jobs’.

The first is talking about only those doctors who ‘were fed up’ and implies there were other doctors who were not fed up and who did not resign. The second sentence implies that all the doctors were fed up and all of them resigned from their jobs. Just thought I’d add that as I am very conscious that I do use a lot of commas, but, I hope, correctly. I mean that all too often you are reading a sentence, then have to re-read it because you don’t understand it, and that a well-placed comma would have saved you all that hassle.

. . .

 I began the piece last July and have steadily but slowly worked on it, but as I got deeper into it, found out more about what was going on in Paris while Hemingway was living and working there, and found out more about the convoluted process which led to the publication of The Sun Also Rises, the task has grown and evolved. And keeping true to my primary purpose of acquiring a little more, possibly a lot more, intellectual discipline, I want to go down every new avenue as one opens up, and that involves quite a bit of reading and taking note. So a few hours spent lying on my bed reading the relevant books also counts as ‘doing something’.

I started by simply reading then re-reading The Sun Also Rises (LATER and have even just started reading it for a third time, bugger it, just to be fair) then googling for whatever I could find about it and Hemingway’s life as a would-be literary star. That last might sound like a throwaway gibe, but I have learned that becoming a major figure in the literary world was a singleminded pursuit, and Hemingway’s whole being was pretty much marshalled into serving that purpose. Given the number of people he ruthlessly shat upon after they had given him a leg up, given the number of fights he picked, given his bizarre obsession with looking macho and given many other aspects of his life, there might even be a good case to be made that the man was clinically a sociopath.

My googling threw up many reviews of a book by a New York writer and journalist Lesley M. M. Blume (pictured) called Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingways Masterpiece the Sun Also Rises and finding it was like finding the motherlode. NB I have included a photography of Ms Blume on the horribly sexist grounds that not only is she an interesting (and witty) author who can write, but she is also, in my view, a strikingly handsome woman. In today’s #MeToo environment I don’t doubt this might dismay many female readers of this blog and possibly one or two men, so let me apologise in advance and assure you no offence is intended even if some is taken. And surely intention is the sin? Still, she is handsome, isn’t she?

It is a very detailed — and very, very entertaining and highly recommended — account of the time and circumstances of the novel’s genesis I was interested in. I’m now re-reading it (and finding that re-reading really is worthwhile. Perhaps I’m thick and miss too much the first time around, but for me re-reading is immensely useful) and have two more books lined up.

It has occurred to me that the reading — and I am not a fast reader — might be some kind of displacement activity to put of the actual writing, but I’m sure that’s not the case as the so far I have written more than 14,000 words. They, however, now merely make up very much a first draft because the ‘shape’ of the whole piece changes by the week as I re-think my attitude to the novel and Hemingway, and despite my — well, let me be frank — antipathy to the man (‘tosspot’ is to my mind going easy on him) it is only fair to do him justice.

I mean I might not think he’s a genius and I might not think The Sun Also Rises is a masterpiece, but he certainly did regard himself as such, and for decades that view has been shared by many. And if I am serious about acquiring a little ‘intellectual discipline’ I am obliged — or better I am obliging myself — to check out a great deal more than I first imagined I would have to.

So, for example, after reading his bloody ‘debut’ novel twice, I am now reading it again and intend, reluctantly I have to say, to read some of his short stories. I’ve mentioned that I am re-reading Blume’s book and I have already finished Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill and the two other books I have lined up to be read are Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise And Fall Of A Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson and Being Geniuses Together by Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle.

F. Scott Fitzgerald played a crucial, possibly the crucial role, in Hemingway being able to establish himself a novelist of renown. He was already well-established as novelist when he met Hemingway in Paris (reportedly at a café called the Dingo’s Bar, though there are several accounts of that first meeting, one from Fitzgerald and several
differing versions from Hemingway, who often played fast and loose with the truth and was something of a mythomaniac, especially about his own life).

Fitzgerald persuaded his editor, a Maxwell Perkins (pictured), at his publisher’s Charles Scribner’s Sons, to take an interest in Hemingway, and with Perkins’s backing and his eyes on the future, Hemingway’s career took of spectacularly. Here the important point to make is that Perkins, who had started his career at Scribner’s in the advertising department after spending several years working as a reporter for the New York Times and had a very good commercial eye, was for Scribner’s to move ahead and publish more modern authors.

Until then, Scribner’s, which had started in 1846 by publishing sermons before it broadened into literature, was known as being a very staid, though prestigious, house whose authors included such establishment luminaries as Galsworthy, Henry James and Edith Wharton. Fitzgerald had been one of his first successes with his debut novel This Side Of Paradise, a book which for the times was regarded as very racy and which the older folk at Scribner’s hated. But Perkins won through, after pointing out that if it was to survive as a leading house, Scribner’s had to move with the times. This argument persuaded the house’s chairman.

The attraction of Hemingway’s novel for Perkins was precisely its shock value and ‘modernity’ and that it would continue to drag Scribner’s into the 20th century and help to ensure its survival. I suggest that his motives in championing Hemingway were more commercial than literary. (Scribner’s is still thriving but was bought out by Simon & Schuster seven years ago.)

. . .

I am especially looking forward to reading Being Geniuses Together: I might well be wrong, of course, but the title of his and Boyle’s memoir of their time in Paris has a certain tongue-in-cheek quality which makes me suspect that his low and brutal opinion of Hemingway character and his work hits the mark rather truer than all the eulogising from assorted self-proclaimed modernists who thought the sun shone out of Hemingway’s arse.

In 1923 writer and poet Robert McAlmon (pictured) published Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories And Ten Poems in a 300-copy run, and he and another acquaintance, the journalist Bill Bird, who at the same time published Hemingway’s second book in our time (the initial lower case were intended, presumably, to lend the work an air of modernism, and the volume should not be confused with Hemingway’s collection of shorts stories In Our Time — upper-case initials, published by his first real publisher, Boni & Liveright) were part of the ‘the Crowd’ Hemingway with whom knocked around in Montparnasse.

I call McAlmon and Bird ‘acquaintances’ of Hemingway because I can’t say whether or not they were friends, and given what my reading has taught me about the regular and enthusiastic backstabbing which went on in ‘the Quarter’ I think ‘acquaintances’ is more to the point. McAlmon and Bird, however, did take off with Hemingway for a trip to Pamplona and McAlmon, for me gratifyingly, developed a low opinion of the man.

He and Hemingway first met when Hemingway was staying with Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy in Rappallo, Italy, where the Pounds had move, and his first impression was not complimentary. Lesley Blume writes: ‘McAlmon materialised in Rapallo during Hemingway’s winter stay. He had never heard of Hemingway before, and his early impressions of the young writer were less than favourable. He had a “small-boy, tough-guy swagger,” McAlmon recalled later. “And before strangers of whom he was uncertain a potential snarl of scorn on his large-lipped, rather loose mouth.” ’

On that visit, and despite in many ways being like chalk and cheese, the two men drank together and Hemingway showed McAlmon some of his short stories. There were fewer of these than he would have liked because his wife
Hadley (pictured with Hemingway at their wedding in 1921, a photo which also shows off Hemingway’s ‘lovable, boyish grin’ which so impressed Robert McAlmon) had a case containing pretty much all Hemingway’s work up to that point stolen from a train in the Gare Saint-Lazare.

Blume writes: ‘Even though McAlmon and Hemingway seemed socially mismatched [McAlmon was thought to be gay or bi-sexual], they got together in Rapallo and drank in the evenings. For Hemingway a potential publisher as still a publisher, no matter what his tendencies. He showed McAlmon the remains of his earlier work and his new efforts. McAlmon didn’t love the style; he deemed it the self-conscious approach of “an older person who insists upon trying to think and write like a child”.’

Later, once he had got to know Hemingway better and had witnessed how the putative genius slowly clawed his way up the literary ladder, his opinion did not improve. Blume writes: ‘Some in the Crowd watched Hemingway’s ascent through narrowed eyes, including those who had once happily helped build his platform. Robert McAlmon, for instance, had decided that Hemingway was an utter phoney. “He’s the original Limelight Kid, just you watch him for a few months,” he ranted one day after running into Hemingway in a Montparnasse café. “Wherever the limelight is, you’ll find Ernest with his big lovable boyish grin, making hay . . . He’s going places, he’s got a natural talent for the public eye, has that boy.” ’

. . .

So once my second reading of Blume’s book is out of the way, it is on to those two none-too-slim volumes. But my point is that although the world might see me lying on my bed with my nose in a book, apparently lazing without a care in the world, this, given the nature of my reading is ‘doing’. Chasing off to Bodmin to Asda or Morrisons, however necessary and useful, is not ‘doing’. The one is action, the other mere activity. And I find that these days unless I have actually ‘done’ something during the day and, in my own terms, have used that day productively, I feel a tad guilty.

Finally, of course, once this Hemingway piece is out of the way (and it will be published here in this blog — after all, it began its life as a blog entry) I can then get on with my next, and I have to say, far more important project, although on that matter I shall be keeping wholly schtum.


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