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Uke Jackson

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Living The Artist Life With Hemingway

Posted: 07/25/2012 10:09 am

How much of my life as it was lived so far was affected by my reading Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises? I actually asked myself this question while reading the book for the fourth time as part of the HuffPost Book Club.

When I was about ten, the local librarian contacted my parents to let them know there were no age appropriate books left for me to read in the young people's collection. She wanted to recommend books to me from the adult shelves. My parents said it was okay.

In the meantime, my father came into my room with his copy of The Hemingway Reader. It was, he told me, his own copy from college. I read the short stories first, having become hooked on the form through the weekly arrival of the Saturday Evening Post. Then I read The Sun Also Rises. There was certainly no inkling on my part that Hemingway's relations with women would become problematic for a segment of the culture in a few more years.

I first ran into the misogyny question when reading the book for the third time, while living in northern California during the second half of the 1970s and writing for The Berkeley Barb. A woman I knew found me engrossed in a paperback while seated at a café table on Telegraph Avenue. She asked me what the book was and I showed her the cover of TSAR. She tsk'd me and proceeded to fill me in with what was then the feminist line on Papa Hemingway. When we happened to be at the same party a week or two later, she brought up my scandalous reading habits and recruited a couple of her friends to help deprogram me from such macho influences. Call it a literary intervention. It didn't go anywhere.

For me, the answer to the misogyny question lies in the observation that Hemingway was not a capable writer of sex scenes, the earth moving in For Whom the Bell Tolls included. When writing TSAR and giving Jake mangled genitalia, it was likely a device to avoid having to create scenes such as were being written by his contemporary in Paris, Henry Miller. (Does anyone know if they ever met?) Does anyone really believe that detailed voluptuousness and sensuality would even fit in this book?

Seldom mentioned anymore is the fact that Hemingway had a serious lisp. It used to be said that was why he embraced Castilian Spanish; wherein the 'th' sound is spoken for the letter s. Whatever the case may be, Hemingway was a complex artist with all sorts of insecurities. Labeling him this or that, based on one's own views, will not take away his power as a storyteller and writer.

Women suffer a lot on this planet. We can only hope that someday justice will prevail for them. However, if you're looking for someone to blame for the oppression - blame organized religion, blame the structure of nation states, blame the billionaires. But Ernest Hemingway and his writing? I imagine that most intelligent women today know that Hemingway is small potatoes in terms of the planetary economic and cultural fronts.

The shortest lapse of time between my readings was about four or five years - in Vermont before I left for a couple years knocking around Europe, and then again in Berkeley. That second reading, along with A Moveable Feast, sent me off in search of my own "lost generation." I found la vie boheme and have been living it to one degree or another ever since. Maybe I was already living it but without the French accent.

Previous to my sojourn in Vermont, right down the road from Peter Schumann and his Bread & Puppet troupe (and David Mamet, though I didn't know that then), my first play - a one act written while locked up in jail for weed - was produced in Princeton and surrounding areas by a street theater troupe out of McCarter Theatre. I'd parlayed that into writing for the local newspaper; which led to stringing for the NY Daily News; all of which deluded me into believing that I could go to Vermont and knock out a novel and get rich. I did get a lot of trout fishing done; and learned how to bake bread in a wood fired oven; no novel though. Surely I would find my inspiration in Europe.

My initial plan was to meet up with a couple of my brothers in County Donegal, Ireland. A friend had offered us a cottage rent free. I sold everything I owned, borrowed some money from my father. At the time I was still hoping to get some money for the broken back I suffered in a fall from a tree while in the service. (Never happened. So what if I was drunk. The First Sergeant was there egging me on to climb that tree. So what if we were all drunk.)

Anyway, I flew to London first, planning to make my way through Wales by train and then by ferry to Dublin. (A journey I would take decades later.)

It was October. It was rainy and wet in London. The sign in the travel agency window said "Sunny Spain - £19.50 by coach." My brothers eventually got word through our parents that I'd gone aroving. The ticket took me to Barcelona by bus. I ended up staying in that city for five or six weeks, practicing my phrase book Spanish on people who spoke Catalan and developing a liking for hotel living.

On the bus I'd met an older Scots ex pat who lived on the island of Ibiza. She insisted that I visit the island, and her, and I did. She had pretty much forgotten about me when I finally phoned her but was very cordial and had me meet her at Sandy's Bar in Santa Eulalia del Rio. The bar would become my mailing address and regular haunt. Sandy's (officially named El Caballo Negro - The Black Horse) was de facto headquarters for the English-speaking colony of writers, movie stars, and eccentrics who had settled around the town.

The stars shone on me on Ibiza. I was able to make a decent living playing poker. I'd memorized the odds charts in Scarne on Cards in Vermont and got hold of a copy of it again at the local hippie flea market. An English woman fifty years my senior - a Lady Brett type who'd married and divorced three times, had love affairs with artists, and whose father was Lord Mayor of London in 1900 -- took a shine to me and asked me to house sit her villa, dog and car for several months. It was while living there that I first heard a story that would eventually become my novel The Moon of Innocence.

I turned her living room into my private card room two nights a week. Some lovely art hung on the walls, including an original by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I had a maid and a gardener, ate in restaurants every night, wrote a terrible novel which never made it beyond the manuscript stage and has since, blessedly, disappeared forever. And I hung out with other writers - Bob Sheckley, Howard Sackler, Herb Burkholz, Clifford Irving, Bob Goldston - guys who had books out! Hell, Sackler won a Pulitzer. I'd read some of Sheckley's sci fi short stories and when I mentioned one title he said it had recently been made into a movie in Italy. Cliff Irving was then the most famous for his and Dick Susskind's - another local ex pat -- Howard Hughes autobiography caper. Looking over that list now, I realize two things - unlike Jake Barne's circle I was the only goy; all of them but Cliff Irving are dead.

Before my benefactress left, she told me to feel free to peruse her journals. She had been an avid diarist all her life. She had her scrapbooks, if you will, leather bound and embossed with the years in each volume. There were photos and invitations and the like along with letters from others and her own hand written observations, sometimes in the margins and sometimes going on for several pages about someone or some event. She pointed out a couple of the early volumes, and said to be sure to read the letters from Siegfried Sassoon, the poet. (Further research on Sassoon, a few years later, led me to the writing of Robert Graves, which would provoke another journey to the Balearic Islands a few years later, only this time to Majorca - a whole other story.)

There's only so much one can lay at the feet of another writer in terms of influencing one's own writing. Many writers influence every writer. Hemingway was an influence on me but perhaps not as much as I imagined. In reading The Sun Also Rises this time through, or at least the first book on the first day of the book club's discussions, it occurred to me that the writing was much less spare than I remembered. And that was an awakening.

In The Moon of Innocence I strove to be as spare as possible. It is a story set in Catalonia, I told myself. If someone finds it Hemingway-like, good.

The story wanted telling, for sure. Before leaving for her extended stay in England and Paris, the owner of the villa warned me off anything to do with the farm across the road. "Their daughter was my maid. She got pregnant and one of them, the mother or the father, I'm not sure which, poisoned her." Out of that grew a tale that plagued me for more than three decades. I wrote it as a short story. I wrote it as half a play. I wrote four drafts of it as a screenplay. Each incarnation and revision led to it being put away for varying amounts of time while I wrote something else. Finally, after eleven years away from it, I wrote it in the short romantic historical whodunit novel format. During this last writing it occurred to me how Hemingway's advice to finish what you start led me back to The Moon of Innocence over the years.

Hemingway revealed the artist's life as it is lived to a good size segment of the American public. If he wasn't the greatest in his relationships with women, at least he wasn't a sexual predator. As a stylist, he changed writing and reading forever.

No wonder he's still being read and talked about.

 
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