Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Brodsky’s Venice

15 Apr
Colleoni statue with bird, evening.

Colleoni  (he of the three testicles) and bird, evening.

I have long admired the poetry of Joseph Brodsky – although with reservations – since hearing him read at Cardiff’s County Hall alongside Derek Walcott (a veritable pairing of poetic satyrs). Before travelling to Venice last Friday I purchased his Watermark, to see what he had to say about the city, where he spent a four-week vacation from his job as a U.S. college professor every winter for seventeen years. In the past I have read Jan Morris’ famous book on Venice, which I could not get on with, and Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City, which by contrast I enjoyed very much, and I approached Brodsky’s essay with trepidation. One hundred and thirty pages of large double spaced print, it is published as Penguin Modern Classic, though how it qualifies for this status is quite beyond my comprehension. It is a minor work by a once significant poet, who was the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize (he was 47), perhaps awarded as much for his status as political opponent to the USSR – this was 1987 – as for his literary achievements. Early in the book, we accompany the young Brodsky on his first arrival at the city’s railway station, where he is to be met by a woman for whom he harbours amorous thoughts (his sentiments are not reciprocated). Then this: ‘The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious.’

When I first read that line I thought it sounded interesting, but something nagged at me, because a thought does not really become coherent until after it has passed through the ‘subconscious’. But I didn’t wish to be unnecessarily antagonistic, so let it go. It sounds pretty, after all. Then some pages on, another nice passage: ‘The fog is thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.’ A nice conceit, I thought, which complements the earlier line well – but why spoil it with the literalism of that ‘likely to stay open for half an hour’, which sounds like the answer to a request made of a pub landlord.  And here: ‘Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet says, time’s very flesh and blood.’ My response to ‘Every surface craves dust’ was one of admiration, even if it is what “a poet” says (irritating, as we want to know which poet), but why ‘flesh and blood’? Dust is flesh, but not blood. Dust is decidedly bloodless, and dry. Dried, desiccated flesh.

The essay is self-regarding and repetitive (not a woman enters these pages without Brodsky’s lecherous gaze resting on her, however peripheral her appearance). Then there is the prose: I realise English was not Brodsky’s first language, but there is too much in this short essay that is merely confusing: describing unenthusiastic meetings with the ex-pats he comes across in the city, he begins to fantasise about ‘some local solicitor’, and inevitably, as it is Brodsky, ‘his secretary’ (yawn): “Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if one needs a formula, that is.” Pardon me?

And this, of Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, who famously enjoyed the attentions of a bull while sheathed in a cow-outfit: “perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since the bull’s horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons?” What?!

And so on. I don’t wish to disparage the dead, but this is a very meagre piece of work, and is by no means a ‘Modern Classic.’ As a book set in Venice it comes ahead of Hemingway’s catastrophic Across the River and into the Trees, but not by a long way.

Perhaps it is a warning though. If you travel to Venice, be careful what you read. I have been to the city six or seven times, but it is only in the past few years that I have become interested in the literature about the city, from Casanova, who spent a while locked in upper reaches of the Doges’ Palace, to Régis Debray, who loathed the place and saw in it a reflection (and the source) of all the evils of Western Capitalism. On this last visit I dipped into Hugo Pratts’ Secret Venice of Corto Maltese, which came highly recommended from a friend. I was not familiar with the graphic stories, but you don’t really have to be to enjoy the itineraries around the city’s less visited corners that this anti-guide book offers, describing seven walks that lead you off the beaten track, into hidden nooks and across secret portals. Don’t take it with you around the city, but jot down a few notes first, otherwise you will end up like the perennial Venice tourist, leaning on the parapet of a bridge, trying to figure out why the map of the city you hold in your hands does not correspond to the physical actuality of the place around you.

Perhaps the best book about Venice is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which does not set out to be a guide at all, except for the imagination.


Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.











Santa Hemingway

23 Dec

Santa Hem

I was walking past this bar, called Revolución de Cuba in Central Cardiff (but seriously), when I spotted this sandwich board on the pavement advertising the venue with a picture of Santa Claus, which on close inspection bore a striking relationship to Ernest Hemingway. The only difference being that rather than bearing the gloomy, withdrawn, rather terrified features of Hemingway’s last couple of years on earth, this guy is looking really cheery. Like Santa Claus, in fact. Except that he’s Hemingway. Maybe.

I wonder how many of the winners of the annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, held in Key West, Florida, actually resemble Father Christmas as much as, if not more than the man who in 1936 battered Wallace Stevens (a man twenty years his senior) to the ground in the rain in that same resort. Stevens, incidentally, did not look remotely like Santa Claus.

Which raises an interesting proposition: rather than have a look-alike contest, wouldn’t it not be more interesting to have an Ernest Hemingway/Santa Claus look-unalike contest? Sticking to males only (for the sake of simplicity) I would nominate Charles Hawtrey. Or Michel Foucault, neither of whom look remotely like the Hemingway/Santa Claus amalgam.

Charles Hawtrey

Charles Hawtrey

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Why Writers Drink

4 Aug

“An alcoholic may be said in fact to lead two lives, one concealed beneath the other as a subterranean river snakes beneath a road. There is the life of the surface – the cover story, so to speak – and then there is the life of the addict, in which the priority is always to secure another drink.”

Nothing remarkable about this, you might think, except that it mirrors almost exactly what Ricardo Piglia writes about the structure of the short story: that the outer, surface narrative, always contains and conceals a parallel interior story. This is interesting because it poses the extraordinary thesis that a human life is always about (at least) two narratives, the overt and visible, and the covert or hidden. In the case of the addict, the duality of these narratives is especially extreme, because the parallel interior or subterranean story – even if initially concealed or invisible – eventually breaks out into awful visibility, affecting all those in the immediate vicinity.

Echo SpringEven if one takes the subtitle with a pinch of salt, Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, proves a fascinating read, exploring the relationship of six famously bibulous American writers with the bottle. The lives of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman are put under the microscope and – unsurprisingly – a lot of very messy stuff comes into view. However the book is beautifully written, and displays a profound understanding of both her subject matter and her subjects. Perhaps of all these cases, Fitzgerald’s was the greatest waste, while Berryman, with his astonishing grandiosity, provided the darkest farce. Of Berryman’s final years. Laing writes:

“That’s what alcoholism does to a writer. You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’ve yet to finish.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an excellently researched book on a difficult topic. It is filled with fascinating digressions and integrates the author’s findings with a journey she herself undertakes across the United States in pursuit of her subjects’ homes and histories.

Never any end to Paris

1 Nov
Enrique Vila-Matas.

Enrique Vila-Matas

If today, at this moment, I had to answer that impossible question as to who is my favourite living novelist, I would plump for Enrique Vila-Matas.

Extraordinary as it might seem to his many readers worldwide, he is practically unknown in the UK, another startling blemish on the blinkered, xenophobic, utterly predictable tastes of the British publishing industry, for which anything that deviates from a well-worn mainstream formula is treated as toxic.  The only two of Vila-Matas’ twenty-eight books to appear in English up till now have been Bartleby & Co (2004) and Montano (2007). In fact the book I wish to discuss here is not yet available in the UK: I have been reading the American New Directions edition, published in September.

Formally, the closest that most British readers will have come to Vila-Matas, might be W.G. Sebald, if only in the sense that Sebald was also the author of fictions presented as documentaries, or documentaries presented as fictions. But Vila-Matas actually makes me laugh, which counts for more than the sardonic smiles evinced by Sebald. And he shares a great deal too with Roberto Bolaño, with whom he became close friends in the last few years before the Chilean’s death in 2003. It is rumoured that Vila-Matas had more than just a hand in the final version of ‘The Part about Archimboldi’, the last (and best) section of 2666, Bolaño’s posthumous masterpiece.

Born in Barcelona in 1948 (and not 1931 as the back cover of this book informs us), Vila-Matas is, like Eduardo Mendoza, a Catalan who has chosen to write in Castilian. He grew up during the Franco dictatorship, and while still at law school, escaped to Paris to try and make his way as a writer, lodging, while he was there, in the garret of the house belonging to Marguerite Duras. And this is the topic of his new book, Never any end to Paris, its awkward title manifestly an acknowledgment of Hemingway’s memoir, A moveable feast. But whereas Hemingway claimed of his Paris years in the 1920s that he was ‘poor but happy’, Vila-Matas’ experience fifty years on was, he claims, both ‘very poor and very unhappy’. But he exaggerates, of course, and at least comes out of it with a wonderful book, first published in Spanish in 2003.

The story begins with Vila-Matas entering the annual Key West Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, and being disqualified outright for an “absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway”. Having set up his initial trope, the author leads us back in time to 1974, when he was living in Paris, intent on following Hemingway’s lead, researching and writing his first novel in his cold chambre, drinking the nights away with other young artists and poets. (Strangely enough, young Blanco stayed in Paris in the summer of 1974, just before his eighteenth birthday, on his first Big Adventure. Who knows, we might have met).

Later (again like Blanco) the young Vila-Matas is seduced by the teachings of situationism, dressing in black from head to foot, “converted” as he puts it “into the prototype of the secretly revolutionary, poetic intellectual. But in fact, being a situationist without having read a single line of Guy Debord, I was on the most radical extreme left, but only through hearsay. And . . . I didn’t practise, I devoted myself to feeling extremely left-wing.”

He is disheartened by how many of his fellow Spanish expatriates and exiles are ground down by heroin or cheap Spanish wine, and struggles to find the right role models for his own literary apprenticeship. Among them, needless to say, is his landlady, Marguerite Duras, who scares the living daylights out of the young Vila-Matas with her ‘superior French’ (he can’t understand a word she says to begin with), delivering him a sheet of notepaper with a list of thirteen points on how to write a novel (which he helpfully includes).

The aspiring writer attends parties, meets Roland Barthes, tries to hit on a young Isabelle Adjani (who spurns him icily), makes a fool of himself as a matter of course, takes acid at the top of the Eiffel Tower and is convinced by his demonic girlfriend, Kiki, that if he jumps he will probably land safely, ‘but it won’t be in Paris’.

At the party for the screening of Duras’ film, India Song, he tells how Alain Robbe-Grillet approached Duras to tell her that, as with all her films, he had enjoyed this one very much, to which she replies, without drawing breath, that “she was very sorry she couldn’t say the same about his films.” Vila-Matas (who was clearly impressed) comments: “I had never in my life heard anyone speak with such frankness, and perhaps for this reason the words etched themselves deep in my memory. What’s more, I have imitated this kind of frankness on a few occasions in my life, always with bad results . . .”

An often hilarious recital of his serial miseries, this gratifyingly unflattering self-portrait leads the reader through the ‘three lectures’ of which the book is composed (although we never learn where one lecture ends and another begins, nor indeed if we or some invisible others constitute the audience, nor where the ‘lectures’ are taking place). Indeed, Vila-Matas (or his narrator) at one point early in the narrative asks of himself (or us) ‘Am I a lecture, or a novel?’ (we do not receive a reply).

Vila-Matas’ narratives often proceed in just such an uncertain way, finding by going, as it were, where they have to go. Later in the story he writes: “When people ask me if I have my texts organized in my head before I write them or if they develop as they go, surprising even me, I always reply that infinite surprises occur in the writing. And that it’s lucky it’s like that, because surprise, the sudden change of direction, the phrase that appears at a precise moment without one knowing where it comes from, are the unexpected dividends, the fantastic little push that keeps the writer on his toes.”

On the same theme, in a recent interview, when asked how much in his texts is fiction, how much autobiography, Vila-Matas replied (with quite a dollop of irony): “The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well-ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention.”

There is much to commend this book, its leaps and its insights, its portrait of the excruciating self-consciousness of the emerging writer, as well as some profound moments, and a sense of true respect for his landlady, the phenomenal Marguerite Duras. Here is his accolade to her, which, I feel, might, with time, be applied to him:

“I remember she embodied all the monstrous contradictions to be found in human beings, all those doubts, that fragility and helplessness, fierce individuality, and a search for shared grief, in short, all the great anguish we’re capable of when faced with the reality of the world, that desolation the least exemplary writers have in them, the least academic and edifying ones, those who aren’t concerned with projecting a right and proper image of themselves, the only ones from whom we learn nothing, but also those who have the rare courage to literally expose themselves in their writing – where they speak their minds – and whom I admire deeply because only they lay it on the line, only they seem to me to be true writers.”