Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing


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Like a Visit with an Old Friend

This is the phrase that leaped to mind, unbidden, as I read the first few pages of the “Preface” to Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

steppenwolfThe familiarity of the words (for I have read them at least thrice), their poetical presentation (even in translation from the German!), the warmth and clarity in the characterizations of the first people we see in this story… these are the paltry words I conjure for a picture much richer in my mind and soul.

I am reminded, even as I begin, how different today’s published novels are from the writing then.

“Then” was merely ninety-four years ago; it was first published ten years before I was born. This forms my perspective. That is, I have read many stories, as a child and youth, which were published beginning the mid-19th Century. In my youth and teen years, I devoured the novels and short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain, “Saki” (H. H. Munro), Victor Hugo. Later, in my twenties, I was enthralled with the writing of Henry James, then later still, Joseph Conrad. Beginning my college years, I learned to love the soliloquies in Shakespeare’s fictional biographies of kings and princes.

Many others could be cited, but these are stored in deep memory, having moved from current memory to make room for the avalanche of information and impressions one is relentlessly confronted with in current times.

One reads these books not only for the story but for the way the words were presented by the author, sometimes author/translator. I look back and thank my father for having such books available to me, despite our otherwise, and temporarily impoverished living conditions. We had wealth beyond what is considered wealth today.

So now you have an idea of my perspective when I read a contemporary fiction such as “Stay with me, by Ayobami Adebayo,” which was recommended to me.

stay with meI found the writing immature and uninspiring,  even if the author was skilled in depicting, sympathetically, the emotional state of the main character who suffered a series of great tragedies throughout her life.

And this is where I become perplexed–the author and her novel are highly regarded:

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2017 BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION; LONGLISTED FOR THE 2018 INTERNATIONAL DYLAN THOMAS PRIZE; LONGLISTED FOR THE 2018 WELLCOME BOOK PRIZE; NEW YORK TIMES 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2017 (Source)

Ayobami Adebayo‘s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Hedgebrook, Sinthian Cultural Institute, Ebedi Hills, Ox-Bow School of Arts and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2017, her debut novel Stay With Me was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. (Source)

The above is all to the credit of an author who is thirty years old, and whose celebrated novel was written, I assume, through her late twenties in that it was first published when she was 29.

But…

Its appeal is to the emotions, exclusively, in my opinion. There is little depth in the characters, even some equivocal characterization. The words are simple, which is all right indeed, but they are not put together in a way that makes want to slow down to savor their progress.

Why does her writing receive such accolades?

I suppose I am out of touch, being an old, “white,” male.

Back to “Steppenwolf.”


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The Stoner Cult

Illustration by Ryan Gajda at sundaydogparade.com

Illustration by Ryan Gajda at sundaydogparade.com

”I don’t have a bedside table. I pile my books on a pallet next to the bed, and Stoner is on the top.” This response given by a budding member of the cultural elite to the standard question from lazy journalists; What do you have on your bedside table? Giving the “right” answer is the key to acceptance by the cultural coterie. Stoner!! Say no more, you are in!

Why was it no surprise that Stoner was at the top of the pile? John Williams´ book has been the subject of numerous gushing reviews and articles in the Swedish press this year, and has been parked in the number one spot on the   best book list for months. So, for all aspiring members of the cultural elite, Stoner had been the must book to buy and display on top of your pile or coffee table, perchance also to read. It has been described as a cult book, a label often glued to books of limited commercial success, circulating amongst a select band of people in the know, the intellectual disciples. The more a book spreads to the mass market, the less cult it becomes.

Why Stoner? It is an unlikely candidate for cult status. What is it about this book that signals cultural awareness? Is it the book’s inner qualities which have attracted attention, perhaps? I mentioned the book to my friend Ron, and he asked if it was about somebody who was stoned. This of course is often a requisite for a cult book. Having now read Stoner, at the instigation of two enthusiasts who said it was so readable but couldn’t say why, I can assure Ron that main character Willy Stoner is not stoned at any time during the book.

So, what’s it about? Only son of poor sodbusters in Missouri is encouraged to study agricultural science, finds English literature more absorbing, if less useful, takes the academic road and abandons his parents down on the farm. Painful social ineptitude, neurotic wife, class differences, obnoxious in-laws, academic back-biting by power-hungry colleagues all take their toll. But Stoner puts up with all this, findings solace in the sonnets and in dedicated teaching of students with, sadly, limited interest in the works of Ben Jonson. Occasionally Stoner peeps out from his ivory tower and notes events in the world outside; the Great War, the Depression and the Second World War. These make little impression on Stoner, or the book. True to character he avoided enlistment for WWI, preferring the safety of familiar university life to a tour of Europe. The arrival of students still in army uniform announces the end of WWII to Stoner, who is more concerned with their devotion to studies than their war experiences. While his personal world crumbles around him, he escapes to his room at the university, seeking consolation in obscure literary tomes. At other times, when wife Edith is having one of her many long breakdowns, he runs the home and looks after daughter Grace – an unusual role for a father in the inter-war years. This interlude of apparent domestic bliss is cut short by Edith’s return to take over the management of home and daughter. Willy retires to his sofa existence, like the family dog.

So, why has cultural Sweden adopted Stoner at the cult book of 2014? Readable, perhaps, but this is not uncommon in books. Cult books do often tend to be more esoteric the less readable they are, and the more incredible the storyline, if there is one.

What probably appeals to those who actually read the book is the chronic drudgery and pain of ordinary life. William Stoner is ordinariness embodied, average, nothing special, almost mediocre, his one published work described – by himself and others – as uninspiring, and soon to be forgotten. Just like this his autobiography on first publication. The author gives a picture of  himself as plain, ordinary and unexceptional too.

A positive episode in the book – Stoner’s warm loving relationship with research student Katherine – is sadly not plausible and clearly out of character, a pipe dream.

Few if any of the characters in the book are likeable or attractive. Stoner is a sorry person, who just accepts humiliation after humiliation, a stayer who puts up with life on the sofa without a fight. Murphy’s law rules and in the end he dies an ordinary sort of death (sorry), seemingly to finally escape life and pending retirement. Stoner is an aggravating anti-hero. The reader is tempted to shout “don’t give in, fight for your life, or get out”, but know that the message will not reach him hiding deep in the catacombs of the university library.

Is this life what arouses interest in the book? After reading Stoner, ordinary life may seem a bit less boring, drab and painful by comparison. In fact, it works as a feel-good book for those who hoped there would be more to life.

But is this the essence of a cult book? I think not. The more popular this celebration of ordinariness is amongst the populace, the less cultish it will appear. At least to those who use it as a watershed between the cultured and the common crowd.

So, why a Stoner cult? My vote goes instead to a combination of provenance and public relations. The book has an unconventional background; obscure writer with everyday name that nobody can remember writes provincial autobiography in 1985, few copies sold and removed quickly from the shelves. Rediscovered 30 years later by enterprising publisher and re-launched in vintage series by the publisher, plastered with enthusiastic one-liner endorsements attributed to a gaggle of big-name authors. People in New York who matter in the international culture sphere embraced Stoner, and their murmurings were picked up by the sensitive ears of the Swedish culturati. They proclaimed it THE CULT BOOK OF 2014. That is, until the mainstream got hold of Stoner – and started reading it!

Eric Gandy, Contributor


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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?