Ernest Hemingway: My New Guilty Pleasure

I’ve collected quite a number of Hemingway’s books over the years, but until recently I’d never read any. This is because any mention of Hemingway is usually accompanied by talk of misogyny, bull-fighting, big game hunting or animal cruelty. As a feminist who also happens to be a vegan, I don’t tend to go out of my way to read books that I know will raise my hackles.

However, after reading rave reviews from Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Madame Bibi Lophile Recommends of A Moveable Feast (1936) – the memoir written towards the end of his life about his early days as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1920s – my interest was piqued. I shifted it towards the top of my TBR pile but it languished there until I had fallen so far behind on my #20 books of Summer reading challenge that I found myself scrabbling around my bookshelves looking for the shortest novels I owned.

So it was, that at the height of a wet Welsh summer, I found myself sitting in a tent reading A Moveable Feast to the staccato sound of rain on canvas. I was transported to the pavement cafes of Paris, to the company of literary legends and to the daily struggles of an impoverished but visionary writer with a family to feed. Hemingway frequently talks about the process of writing and I found myself underlining numerous insights throughout the book.

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

For the reasons I’ve already out-lined, I had not wanted to like Hemingway, but against my better judgement, I found myself luxuriating in his prose. All thoughts of speed-reading to complete my 20 books of Summer went out of the window as I savoured each chapter.

Having had my mind blown by A Moveable Feast, I was not yet ready to drop Hemingway for another author, so I turned to the fable that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, The Old Man and the Sea (1952). If his writing in the memoir was wonderful, this was truly magnificent. The apparent simplicity glows from the page, and I read several passages aloud simply to taste the words. The tale is one of a struggle between man and beast, an old man’s ambitious struggle to capture a huge fish, but his success turns to grief as, having overreached himself, he can only watch impotently as his greatest triumph falls apart before his eyes.

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.