Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing

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The Rational versus The Non-rational

Two books read, and not for the first time:

I have read Steppenwolf no less than three times, and each time I feel like I am reading it anew. I almost never expect it, yet it is true that I discover things in each re-reading of Steppenwolf (and of other books by Hermann Hesse, and of books by other authors) that I cannot remember having read before. Such is the hallmark of a “good book” in my estimation—a story of many layers that reveal themselves, over time, to readers who continue to grow toward union with, or at least intimate knowledge of, the author or his concepts.

I have re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig so many times that I have abstracted and transcribed the philosophical parts to more efficiently revisit and study the essence of the story.

I see as a common thread in these two books the argument (as in ‘Zen…’) and struggle (as in Steppenwolf) between the rational and non-rational.

Pirsig termed the arguing elements in man as the “classical” and the “romantic” view of the world. Pirsig’s character, “Phaedrus” (who is really the author, himself) reconciles the dual nature of man (i.e., the rational and non-rational) into the realization that “quality” is the over-arching idea that unifies them, or at least provides a framework for balance between them.

In Steppenwolf Hesse shows the man of highly-developed intellect, but of little worldly knowledge or appreciation, becoming aware of the pleasures and values of imagination and sensuality. Another way of viewing Hesse’s character is that he becomes aware that life is mostly or merely an illusion, to be better appreciated by the non-rational than by the rational aspects of one’s nature.

I think/feel (“classical”/”romantic”) these two authors, and other creative people, are the more qualified to help us understand this dual nature in man, and its terrors and delights. I say this having just again scanned a book I recently bought because of its title: Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience, by Springer and Deutsch. Through the employment of the scientific method we have learned much about the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and of the corpus callosum that connects them.

But the poet will bring a concept to life, while the scientist will bring us the “facts” of life.


Hemingway in Paris

A Moveable Feast

The book consists of twenty vignettes, later-remembered stories of France where Hemingway was a poor, struggling writer during the years 1921 through 1926 and married to Hadley Richardson, his first wife. Mary Welsh Hemingway, Ernest’s fourth wife, edited the book after his death in 1961. Jonathan Cape Ltd, London, published it in 1964. A copy of the first edition currently sells for $850.
Hadley and “Tatie,” as his wife called him, loved each other very much and had a child during their time together. They named him John, but called him “Mr. Bumby” throughout the book.

This is biography enough to present here. Those interested in more about Hemingway’s life can simply put his name into their Internet search engines to find a wealth of information. Here is a timeline for Hemingway’s life during his Paris years.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

Many of the stories are about now famous writers and artists with whom he had varying degrees of friendship and acquaintance. The first writer mentioned in the book is Gertrude Stein.

In the second story, Miss Stein Instructs, wherein he recounts a visit with her, he first tells us of his approach to writing:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day…I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ 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 writing 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 the with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein held a popular salon in Paris where those who could tolerate Miss Stein’s imperialism (my word, not Hemingway’s) were offered food and drink and could view the many paintings of contemporary artists in her apartment, which she shared with her “friend” whom Hemingway never names as Alice B. Toklas.

Stein “instructs” Hemingway thus: “You mustn’t write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it. It’s wrong and it’s silly.” As far as I can tell, the word means ‘unpublishable.’

There is much said by “Miss Stein” about the (mostly) faults and (some) good points about other writers and artists in this second story of the twenty in the book. Toward the end of this vignette Hemingway writes: “…there were almost never any pauses in a conversation with Miss Stein.” In the next story, Une Génération Perdue Hemingway continues with another visit to Stein’s apartment:

In the three or four years that we were good friends I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career except for Ronald Firbank and, later, Scott Fitzgerald.

Sylvia Beach

Sylvia Beach

In Shakespeare and Company Hemingway introduces us to a woman he mentions throughout the book, Sylvia Beach, the owner of the now famous book shop. She was kind and generous to Hemingway, lending him without charge many of the books he constantly devoured. She appears again in Hunger was good discipline.

In Ford Maddox Ford and the Devil’s Disciple Hemingway was sitting at a table outside the café Closerie des Lilas of an evening when Ford unexpectedly came up and invited himself to sit and talk.

It was Ford Maddox Ford, as he called himself then, and he was breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, upended hogshead…I had always avoided looking at Ford when I could and always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room, but this was in the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks from my side of the table past his, so I took a good look at him, repented, and looked across the boulevard.

The reference to “the Devil’s Disciple” in the story title is to Aleister Crowley whom they saw walking past them a few times.

In With Pascin At the Dôme we visit with Hemingway, the painter Jules Pascin (dubbed elsewhere the “Prince of Montparnasse”) and two of Pascin’s models. “He looked more like a Broadway character of the Nineties than the lovely painter that he was, and afterwards, when he had hanged himself, I like to remember him as he was that night at the Dôme.”

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

Although Ezra Pound’s name appears earlier in the book, we don’t meet him directly until the twelfth story, Ezra Pound and His Bel Esprit. The first sentence sums him up well: “Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people.” Hemingway was in Pound’s studio, teaching him to box, when they were joined by a friend of Pound’s, Wyndham Lewis. Hemingway apparently didn’t like him: “I watched Lewis carefully without seeming to look at him, as you do when you are boxing, and I do not think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man. Some people show evil as a great race horse shows breeding…Lewis did not show evil; he just looked nasty.”

Pound was instrumental in helping T.S. Eliot develop his famous The Waste Land. Through his friendship with Pound, Hemingway, perforce, had some minor hand in this help, but he always referred to Eliot as “Major Eliot” to tease and confuse people. [See my article on The Waste Land, here].

In A Strange Enough Ending Hemingway begins: “The way it ended with Gertrude Stein was strange enough.” Upon her invitation for him to visit before she was to take a trip with a companion, he went to visit Stein and, upon being allowed in by a servant, overheard in another room Stein “pleading and begging” with someone she called “Pussy.” Despite the servant’s suggestion he stay, Hemingway left. After this time, relations between her and her friends began to deteriorate, just as did the quality of the art she hung in her residence. “In the end (everyone) made friends again in order not to be stuffy or righteous. I did too. But I could never make friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head. When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst. But it was more complicated than that.” [End of vignette].

There are other references to and stories about a number of other well-known people, including some already mentioned, but I will additionally mention only F. Scott Fitzgerald and, necessarily, his wife Zelda, both of whom appear in the three stories before the ending story.

The seventeenth vignette is the longest, about a mad train trip to, and car trip back from Lyon. Zelda was the causative agent for the adventure, although she didn’t directly participate. Fitzgerald proved himself scattered and unreliable in matters of logistics, and Hemingway had a miserable time trying to keep the whole thing together. Eventually the car was delivered to Paris. During this period Fitzgerald was writing the book that would elevate him to the pinnacle of success, The Great Gatsby. This section of Hemingway’s book ends: “If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. But we were to find them out soon enough.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald

From the next story, Hawks Do Not Share:

Zelda had a hawk’s eyes and a thin mouth and deep-south manners and accent. Watching her face you could see her mind leave the table and go to the [previous] night’s party and return with her eyes blank as a cat’s and then pleased, and the pleasure would show along the thin line of her lips and then be gone…Zelda was jealous of Scott’s work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern. Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly. He would start to work and as soon as he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party.

The following vignette ends thus: “Scott did not write anything any more that was good until he knew that she was insane.”

The last story in the book, There Is Never Any End to Paris, is very sad and poignant, presaging the reason for Hadley’s divorcing him, an affair with someone he later married, the second of his four wives. Since Hemingway writes rather painfully and elusively about this period, I will allow the reader of these pages to find out the rest of the story from other sources.

It seems rather odd and circular to know that Hemingway’s fourth wife, and widow, edited this book, including this last story, after Hemingway’s death. I wonder if he would have approved?

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“Buddenbrooks”, Thomas Mann’s First Published Novel

One can easily find a summary and analysis of the book on the Internet, such as this from “BookRags.” I have a different, but not contrary, view of the book which I offer below.

The edition I bought was published in 1952 when Thomas Mann was 77, three years before his death. It seems almost shameless for Pocket Books, Inc. to engage in such hyperbole in their presentation of this admittedly highly regarded novel, Mann’s first published novel at age 26. Mann’s being granted the Nobel Prize for literature was due at least as much for his later and more mature book, The Magic Mountain. In my view, Buddenbrooks is a wonderful and well-told story, but not as timeless as The Magic Mountain.

To offer more perspective for my comment, here are some of the other important living men (and women) of letters in Mann’s generation:

Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1957)
Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
Helen Keller (1880-1968)
George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885-1970)
Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
Edna Ferber (1887-1968)
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Christopher Morley (1890-1957)
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Henry Miller (1891-1980)
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Pearl Buck (1892-1973)
Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)
Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970)
James Thurber (1894-1961)
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
Ben Hecht (1894-1964)

And, these are only the American men and women of letters during Mann’s lifetime.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal in Buddenbrooks making it commendable to your reading, if you can get past the initial tedium of necessarily learning about the family members and getting used to the social manners and ways of speaking at the time and place of the story (the nascent German state, around 1840-1880).

The full title of the original volume was (translated from the German) Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, Prince of Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, Prince of Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

My initial impression was that I was about to be immersed in a 19th century German soap opera about the middle and higher classes. I was determined not to let this deter me, and I was glad of this resolve not too shortly thereafter. The backdrop of this drama includes wars between various European entities including France, Prussia, some German city-states and Austria–all culminating in the unifying of the modern German state in 1871 under Otto von Bismarck.

The soulful underpinnings of this story, however, involve the clash of values between those represented by the Protestant church and those of the rising of mercantilist middle class. Additionally, there are the yearnings of the lower classes to be free of the ignominy of being, essentially, serfs to the noble classes and those of the middle classes attempting to emulate the nobility.

The fortunes of family Buddenbrooks are based on the family business, grain brokering for the most part. The business passes down the male line and ends with the death of the last of the male Buddenbooks who wished only to be a musician. This, of course, is a very simplified summary. There are many characters, related by blood, marriage, commerce and politics, carefully and fully drawn and with whom the reader can identify closely–with distaste or sympathy.

I was particularly moved by the religiously-oriented elder matriarch and the musically-oriented youth who ended the story. The two central characters are brother and sister, children of the matriarch and the last of those who were connected with the family business. The sister had the burden of marrying men (she divorced twice) whose positions seemed useful, at the time, to the family business or family fortune.

It seems a cautionary tale for those who are on a path to abandon soulful values for the lure of fortune and influence. Additionally, it shows what perhaps is the inevitable path of any family in its cycles of rising and falling and possibly, as in this case, disappearing.

I don’t read German so I can’t remark on the original prose. The translation seems to capture well the linguistic subtleties and regional differences (e.g., Hamburg vs. Bavaria).

An unexpected element of the story is how much the French language and some French manners were part of the family’s atmospherics. One male ancestor married a French woman whom we see briefly in the beginning of the book.

Having now read Buddenbrooks I feel I have done myself a favor. As a writer-in-training, I saw how the author cleverly structured the beginning of the novel to introduce the characters, and how he used a family diary to help us understand the history of the family. Such devices are invaluable in providing the detail necessary to understand the nature and trajectory of the novel’s characters and actions.

Aside from how it was instructive to me, I enjoyed the story and how it was told. In addition, I kept in mind my recent reading of Mann’s much later Novel, The Magic Mountain and could discern the author’s philosophical and literary trajectory thereby.

I suppose I should now read his Death in Venice which I have waiting for me in my bookcase.

So many books, so little time …