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Another damned thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr Wolfe?

Well, as I’m serious about getting this Hemingway bollocks completed, and as I want to prove to myself that the reading this, that and t’other isn’t just displacement activity (about which I’ve already written a blog entry, so I can’t procrastinate any more — actually that’s unfair), I got down to adding a few more words. Mainly they were based on a few more thoughts I had after reading a book of a collection of essays by a guy called Malcolm Cowley, who knew Hemingway in Paris.

He wasn’t part of Hemingway’s crowd really, mainly because he and his wife (he tells us in his in the first piece in the book about Hemingway) live in ‘a painters’ colony’ in Giverny about 50 miles from Paris and only visited ‘the crowd’ in Montparnasse once a week. He and his wife lived off a $5,000 fellowship (which was renewed for a second year) and which, because of the fabulously cheap franc the dollar could buy, was more than enough for them to get by on.

The book of essays is called A Second Flowering and was published in 1973. I mention that in particular because by then Hemingway had only been dead for 12 years and even though he hadn’t published anything of any consequence since The Old Man And The Sea (which I haven’t read and neither intend to read or even want to and which I gather is more of a novella than a novel and when it was published Hemingway hadn’t published anything of any consequence since For Whom The Bell Tolls 11 years earlier in 1940) his reputation, courtesy of his 1954 Nobel Prize no doubt was still undented.

From my limited reading — limited because there could be an awful lot more to read if I had the stomach for it — I have gathered that since Cowley wrote his book that reputation has slowly been declining, although any number of spotty-faced adolescents — of all ages — still cream themselves over his ‘style’.

Cowley can write, however, so it didn’t surprise me that although he rated Hemingway and I get the impression seems to have quite like the man, Hemingway was something of a shit to him (or at least behind his back). In my noodling around the net I came across something or other in which Hemingway refers to Cowley along the lines of ‘that moon-face idiot’.

The other authors Cowley covers in his book are Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, a poet I had not before heard of called Hart Crane, e e cummings (apparently the lower-case spelling is compulsory and in some of the more backward and remoter US states where they do quite a bit of reading for want of anything much else to do you can still be jailed for up to a year for ignoring that convention, so I’m playing if safe in case this blog is happened upon by some busybody in Alaska, Wyoming or Montana), Thornton Wilder and — another guy I hadn’t heard of, Thomas Wolfe.

Actually, whenever I heard about ’the American novelist Wolfe’, I always thought of the Bonfires Of The Vanities chappie (I’ll look up his name in a minute and add it if I can be bothered). In fact they are two different guys. (The one I mistake him for is Tom Wolfe, so the confusion is understandable).

Cowley’s book is very good reading and after reading the two piece he has on Hemingway (and the introduction, of course) I have now started the chapter on Thomas Wolfe. And what an odd guy he was.

Like it seems rather a lot of Yankee writers Wolfe went in for writing long, long tomes. I have not read anything by him so I can’t comment on his work — sound off might be closer tot the truth — but I can’t say I am initially enthused after reading that the first book he submitted to Scribner’s, where his editor was Maxwell Perkins who did the same job for Fitzgerald and Hemingway was an astonishing 330,000 words long. Perkins edited it back to manageable form, presumably after reading the bloody lot, and there must have been something in the original manuscript which persuaded Perkins that it was worth the effort.

Wolfe had started his ‘literary life’ as a playwright, but apparently despite high praise from his tutor at Harvard, no one on Broadway wanted to buy them off him to stage one because they were just too bloody long. Apparently all Wolfe’s work was about Wolfe (pictured).

The polite way of saying that is that Wolfe was a trailblazer in ‘autobiographical fiction’. And it was when I read in Cowley’s book about how it put himself centre stage in bloody all his fiction that I decided to write this entry (‘compelled to put my thoughts to paper’).

Cowley quotes from a letter Wolfe wrote to his mother which made me shudder a little. Here is the extract: ‘I intend to wreak out my soul on paper and express it all. This is what my life means to me: I am at the mercy of this thing and I will do it or die.’

Cowley goes on: ‘The next sentence reveals the nature of the “all” that he was going to express at the risk of his life.’

‘I never forget, I have never forgotten. I have tried to make myself conscious of the whole of my life since first the baby in the basket became conscious of the warm sunlight on the porch, and saw his sister go up the hill to the girl’s school on the corner (the first thing I remember).’

This is all recorded in his first novel which, edited down by — surely a very patient and benign — Maxwell Perkins became Look Homeward, Angel.

I mention all this not to make a few snide remarks about Yank writers who can’t shut up, but to wonder what it was that Perkins saw in those 330,000 first on 1,100 pages of handwritten text which landed on his desk. For he must have seen something which persuaded him doing a mammoth job of editing — apparently the task took for ever — was worth a candle. But he did.

Perkins and Wolfe are said to have got on well and (I’ve read that Wolfe saw in Perkins a father figure, although he did have his own father) and Perkins, the father of five daughters, saw in Wolfe the son he never had. Be that as it may, apparently once the book was published and sold well, Wolfe became a bit paranoid and felt he wasn’t getting the kudos he deserved as the writer because Perkins was getting a great deal of kudos as the editor who had knocked it all into shape. So Wolfe then jumped ship and went to another publisher.

. . .

Don’t imagine that the irony isn’t lost on me that I am being a tad critical about some writer bod who wrote solely about himself in — er my blog. But whatever my failings, I do like to think that egomania or even obsessive introspection is not one of them. But, and her I must confess to a possible failing, for all my huffing and puffing about how Hemingway is not, in my view, anything close to ‘a writer of genius’, I can’t shake of the fear that possibly, perhaps possibly my judgment is at fault. That perhaps Hemingway is rather good and I’m just to thick to appreciate it. Believe me that horrible thought crosses my mind more than twice a day.

So for example, I am both reading The Sun Also Rises for the third time just in case there is something in it which eludes me and might dawn on me in this third reading. And, almost from a sense of duty because I want to do this thing properly, I have also bought and have started reading A Moveable Feast. Every now and then you come across a rather good turn of phrase in Hemingway (in both books) but invariably he fucks it up within seconds by something so hamfisted that you wonder ‘where did this idiot get his reputation from’.

That question I hope to answer in the longer piece I am writing but briefly what I shall say is: his style was different, in fact very different, at exactly the right time: when the ‘literary world’ wanted something different. In a sense Hemingway scored not because he was Hemingway, but because he wasn’t Henry James or Edith Wharton or and not even Scott Fitzgerald who had a far more conventional style.

I gather, in fact, that Hemingway’s ‘new style’ wasn’t all that different to that of Ring Lardner and a one-time mentor Sherwood Anderson. But where Hemingway scored was with his almost sociopathic ambition. The man was ruthless about becoming famous and — I suspect — lived in a fantasy of his own even before he was published and became a bestseller as a ‘world-famous author’. He wouldn’t be the only one, although before the pop psychologists among you lay me down on the couch, I gave up that fantasy years and years ago. But as they say, it takes one to know one.

As for Wolfe, well the Lord knows what made him tick and why his huge tomes actually sold enough for his publisher not to boot him out of the door. I know if I were in any way ‘serious’, I would get one of his novels and read it. However, I shall be 7o in just over four months time and with a bit of luck I’ll have another 20 years on this earth, so to be frank I don’t really think I can spare the time.

Pip, pip.

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