On Death in the Afternoon

I think I get it: Ernest Hemingway, that is. Up to now, I had only read short excerpts of his most famous fiction; a handful of pages at most. My wife and I walked past the Hemingway Home with its unwieldy and misshapen stone property wall, but that doesn’t count for much. We read about the cats and saw one slinking languorously around the porch from a distance, but that doesn’t count for much either.

I think I get that too: the bizarre and disjointed style taken on by so many of the writers I read in literary magazines, that is. Patience for floridity and for words that resist falling into rhythm are in short supply at my desk. Of commas, my twelfth grade English teacher said; “When in doubt, leave it out.” That seems right.

I didn’t get either until I read Death in the Afternoon. Then I got both.

When I started reading in literary journals and online magazines, I was struck by the grandiloquent structure of so many sentences. Clauses snatched the coattails of other clauses; parentheticals wedged themselves into perfectly adequate sentences; I supposes, it would follows, perhapses, that ises, and other little embellishments turned lengthy sentences into knobby and burled things that twisted about on themselves. (I should probably break that sentence up and bag those semi-colons, but what’s criticism without a little hypocrisy?)

That I prefer sparse language and vicious editing has been apparent for a long time. If I trace that back to its root, it all springs from my dad. Strunk & White, Didion, Orwell, Auster, and Liebling all fell from his bookshelf to mine. It never occurred to me that someone might prefer the reverse. David Foster Wallace makes me want to claw my eyes out, but James Baldwin is one of my very favorite writers and his style is often dense and complex. Still, Wallace wields his immense breathless sentences – intentional run-ons – for their dramatic effect and Baldwin squeezes complex ideas into single phrases. Little is truly superfluous in either. Both simply strive for a different aesthetic.

But a few weeks ago, I found a copy of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s meditations on the art and sport of bullfighting, at The Strand for $3. I’d been putting him off for too long so I bought it. The fourth sentence on the first page of the first chapter is as follows:

“I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.”

I recognized immediately what I’d been reading for months in the pages and pixels of the journals: Hemingway imitators.

Now I get it.

With respect to Hemingway, himself, I’ve developed a pattern of introducing myself to writers by way of their nonfiction. Essays reveal a mind contemplating whatever presents itself, dredging the dark places of a passionate interest, and following tangents. They’re often dressed less in metaphor and symbolism, conversational writers but with flashes of the eloquence and creativity for which readers adore their fiction or poetry.

Hemingway’s two-hundred pages on bullfighting reveal a great deal. His machismo is on full display in his accusations of cowardice and disgust with the inadequacy of certain acclaimed matadors. He is alternately sensitive and aggressive, expressing sympathy for a bull or horse and then describing the only matador he was “glad to see gored.” A blurb on the back cover, courtesy of The Guardian, praises “a superb vehicle for revealing tenderness of feeling beneath descriptions of brutality.” There’s certainly quite a lot of that.

Essays almost always reveal a writer’s capacity for obsession and Hemingway relentlessly recounts bull sizes and descriptions, the traits of different breeders, proper technique for different passes, and the character of prominent banderilleros and matadors back nearly half a century. I felt something similar reading Ralph Ellison’s meticulous inventory of various hot jazz musicians and dance bands on the scene in 1920s Oklahoma City. The quantity and unfamiliarity of the information assault the senses. But in every “Remembering Jimmy” there are bursts of memory and beauty and for every collection of pages on the exploits of Jean Goldkette and Oran “Hot Lips” Page, there is a “Living With Music.” For every fugue on recibiendo or elaborate digression there is something like the following: “... the employment of knowledge that we call by that bastard name is always most visible in its imperfection.”

Still, nineteen chapters went by without the hook finding its mark. But the twentieth and final chapter is absolutely staggering; a hypnotic meditation on everything the book could be but wasn’t, that writing can be but isn’t.

“We’ve seen it all go and we’ll watch it go again. The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it. No. It is not enough of a book, but still there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.”

We imitate but choose awkwardly. I’ll know now, when I see the baroque contortions of writers like myself, what I’m looking at. I’ll know but won’t be enormously sympathetic. “Getting it” doesn’t always mean appreciation. But at least I get and appreciate that: Ernest Hemingway, that is.