Ernest Hemingway with Fidel Castro in 1960 during “The Ernest Hemingway Fishing Competition,” which just sounds like crazy good fun.
I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking about Hemingway a lot lately. He’s one of the greatest American writers and probably one of the most often imitated writers, because his style is so simple, and yet the imitation does no justice, usually. It just comes out like half bad Hemingway and half bad Mickey Spillane.
Who knows, maybe it’s the death of Sylvia Plath’s son recently that made me think of Hemingway, in that sometimes great talent runs in some families, but maybe so does great sadness. Or just bad brain chemistry. And that seemed to be the case with the Hemingway family tree, which quite possibly had suicide as it’s seasonal fruit.
Or maybe it’s just that the idea of the tough guy is over, except in the rare screen commodity like Clive Owen, and… well, I don’t know. The tough guy and the cowboy have kind of become jokes these days, haven’t they? But the writer, ah, the writer is as lonely as ever…
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich. Ernest, you old dog you.
What follows is Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.
No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.
It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my countery to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writers, and in ths sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with good luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.
Again I thank you.
Sadly, Hemingway was unable to accept his prize (which consists of $36,000, a gold medal, and an illuminated diploma) from the Swedes in person because of a repeated series of injuries in the month and years before (possibly because of his increasingly self destructive nature), so John C. Cabot accepted it for him and read Hemingway’s prepared speech.
One of my favorite Hemingway bits of all time is from A Moveable Feast, when F. Scott Fitzgerald confesses to Hemingway that Zelda said he (Fitzgerald) had a small penis. Hemingway tries to tell his friend that it’s just Zelda being her usual self and trying to mess with him (or psychologically destroy him, since they had a very complex relationship), but verbal reassurance alone wasn’t lifting up Fitzgerald’s spirits. An excerpt from the autobiographical book:
“Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”
“Come out to the office,” I said.
“Where is the office?”
“Le water,” I said.
We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
“You’re perfectly fine,” I said. “You are okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.”
Now that’s just being a good friend right there. A version of the same moment is done in Jason’s lovely graphic novel, The Left Bank Gang, in which all the great expats from the tens and twenties are gathered in Paris, but instead of novelists and poets, they’re struggling artists working on their comics, and they look like highly anthromorphized animals. The usual characters – Hemingway, Joyce, Fitz, Zelda, Ford Maddox Ford, etc. – are all there, in perfect caricature form in so many ways, and it’s a heist story, hilarious and brilliant. And at one point, Hemingway checks out Fitzgerald’s stuff in the bathroom and tells him not to worry because Zelda’s crazy and just messing with his head. Oh, Zelda.
Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.
-from “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” of which James Joyce once remarked: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’?…It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…”