Writing advice, Writing and Editing

After Rereading Hemingway

Last week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I had read it at least once before, during my pursuit of a University degree in Literature and it had impressed me, primarily because its style was so different than most novels that had come before. However, it had been a while, like (I hate to even say it) thirty years.

It would appear that I have changed a bit over those thirty years.

Why? Because as I read what is often considered Hemingway’s best novel, the work that almost single-handedly changed the way the modern novel is written, I found problems. They weren’t major problems, mind you. But there were problems. Often the very same problems I work to eliminate from my own writing.

Thirty years ago, as a young student and writer, I had read the novel in something like a religious awe. This was HEMINGWAY. This was a master. Everything about his novel had to be—by definition—perfect. I dedicated myself to reproducing his style.

Apparently, I have grown some, both personally, and as a writer.

So what problem did I find in The Sun Also Rises? Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but a problem nonetheless, in my opinion.

Hemingway is reknown for his spare, understated prose. He often tries to employ innuendo and nuance to tell the story as much as he does verbs and objects. And he pulls it off very well. Most of the time.

For example:

“The road came out from the shadow of the woods into the hot sun. Ahead was a river valley. Beyond the river was a steep hill. There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.”

Very simple, but effective. Compare his description with anything by Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. He uses no similes or metaphors, just simple, declarative sentences.

But sometimes it falls short, as in this conversation between Jake, the narrator, Mike, and Brett:

“I’m a little tight, you know. I wouldn’t ask you like this if I weren’t. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Oh, shut up, Michael,” Brett said. “How can the man say he’d mind now? I’ll ask him later.”

“But you don’t mind, do you?”

“Don’t ask that again unless you want to make me sore. Bill and I go down on the morning of the 25th.”

“By the way, where is Bill?” Brett asked.

“He’s out at Chantilly dining with some people.”

“He’s a good chap.”

“Splendid chap,” said Mike. “He is, you know.”

“You don’t remember him,” Brett said.”

What bothers me about this passage is the question of who, exactly, says: “He’s a good chap?”

At first reading, I wasn’t sure who is saying it. I’m still not absolutely sure, but think it’s Brett. In my opinion, this is a mistake. If someone has to pause to figure out who is saying what, the writer has not properly done his job.

Anything, that bumps the reader out of the flow of the narrative, is, in my opinion, a problem for the writer. This happens a handful of times in The Sun Also Rises, always in the dialogue. Mr. Hemingway occasionally writes so sparingly that we are left trying to figure out who is speaking.

Other than that, I thought it flawless.

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