Ernest Hemingway’s incantatory prose

My posts about prose stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg made me think of Ernest Hemingway. Here’s the first paragraph of Hemingway’s 1926 story “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

The snowy wind ruffling the fur of dead animals and turning the feathers of living birds  transfixed me as teenager. Spooky, that was—the strangeness of true art. At least, to a broody teen like me who could imagine noticing such details. Now I imagine how hurt Hemingway must have been, how hurt to notice such things. And I sense also the disgusting sentimentality—unearned emotion—that would erupt one day from beneath his stoicism. But he was my first teacher, and a fine one, in how to make sentences.

Consider his first chapter—only two pages—of his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. The novel is deeply flawed, to me—he was better at stories, better when he was young (not yet a monster, only hurt)—but his opening is heartbreakingly beautiful. And a better example of Klinkenborg’s “short” long sentences, if very similar to the story of three years before. Here’s the first paragraph:

In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Hemingway is famous for writing short, simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.”

And his sentences are varied and often complex. Some are quite long. They employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Hemingway said he liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible. He said a lot of things—too many, of course—especially when he aged into a drunken blowhard and bully. I shouldn’t take his fate personally, I know, but since I also tried to make him a father figure I do.

But, oh, his stories. They played to his strengths. This is from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

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6 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, emotion, flow, syntax

6 responses to “Ernest Hemingway’s incantatory prose

  1. Dear Richard, Though I’ve read every one of Hemingway’s stories and a few of his novels, I regret to say that I feel just as you do about how his personality (and what was worse, his writer’s voice and personality) declined in later years. To note the difference, you’ve only to contrast the novel (God, I’m writing to you now, and I can’t recall the name of it!) in which the main character is participating in the Spanish revolution against the Spanish fascists–why, oh why, can’t I remember the title?–and the later novel “Across the River and Into the Trees.” The Spanish revolution novel has some of his best writing in it, I feel, whereas the “Colonel” in the latter novel is a maudlin stand-in for Hemingway himself when he was having an affair and cheating on his third (or fourth, I forget which ) wife. I think that in some ways he became a victim of his own myth. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” that’s the earlier one! Whew! What an effort of memory–his titles are often better than his novels, but I think “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. What’s your take on it?

    • It’s been so long since I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I seem to remember Robert Jordan’s death as he feels his heart beating on the pine-needled floor of the forest at the end. I reread A Farewell to Arms a couple summers ago so remember it and was galled by its flaws, despite the heavenly opening. Your comment makes me want to reread For Whom . . .

  2. What strikes me about the passages you’ve chosen is how many “rules” they break. Starting a sentence with “it,” starting a sentence with “there,” and oh, the prepositions! Members of my former writing group would have called it a “preposition farm.”

    This is why rules are made to be broken.

    • You know, this is why I tell students—who are laden with different rules imparted by various teachers—that in English we mostly have GUIDELINES. It occurs to me that in some cases he avoided possessives by using prepositions. Now, Annie Dillard loves possessives, but evidently he didn’t—maybe he thought the trees’ leaves was ugly, as did I, before Dillard partly convinced me to accept and sometimes love that ugliness. Also his concern in these passages was rhythm. And a beady-eyed focus on a particular crotchet, like not using prepositions, can kill that. And, in some cases, a mythical or Biblical cadence that’s a higher purpose and value.

  3. Richard Moore

    I always perk up when I see commentary on Hemingway. A bit like Richard, perhaps, at an early age, I took EH for a role model, and also took his fate and personality personally. It was a roller coaster ride that went up and down over the years: first hero and role model; then serial disappointment (over his “cowardly” suicide and his crappy behavior towards friends); then stimulated by the glory of some of the material he wrote. Eventually I learned about the empty life ahead of him after the Mayo electro shocks, and managed to forgive his decision to escape via the suicide. I published a story about our roller coaster relationship—“Ernest and Me”—and in it I also cited the passages from “Clean Well Lighted Place” and “Farewell to Arms,” along with some others. While EH is easy to criticize, I feel that the work of all writers is uneven—inevitable dross amidst the jewels—and also believe that (up to a point) it is important to segment the work of an artist from his/her beliefs and behavior. Isn’t it the art that lives, not the bad or good behavior?

  4. dapmar@coqui.net

    thank you Cynthia, this is great. I love it..
    \daphne