Book Review

Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume

Can I love Hemingway's writing but hate Hemingway?

It’s no longer socially acceptable to like the literature of Ernest Hemingway. It’s no longer good form to like his books.

Now, in 2017, it is crass to like Hemingway, it is Brexit to like Hemingway, it is Trump to like Hemingway.

Now, in an era where male openness is lauded in writers like Knausgaard – who has revealed himself, more recently, to have gender ideas barely more refined than Papa’s – this reticence of Hemingway’s is seen as off, as wrong. His “iceberg” approach to narrative is dismissed as poe-faced lack of engagement with the self, his inability to express emotion is regularly laughed at in the boho literary circles I move in [on the rare occasions when I feel comfortable moving in them due to being a) not too anxious, b) not mid-bender, & c) have written words other than my blog in the previous month.]

Liking Hemingway is unacceptable, it’s like being into mild cheddar or well done steak, it’s something we’re meant to get over.

I recently overheard someone describing The Old Man and the Sea as boring. Boring! The Old Man and the Sea!? It takes about thirty minutes to read! How can you be bored by 30 minutes of a story! Well, apparently you can, apparently all the [liberal] literary intellectuals of London can. Which is sad, because even though Hemingway was an absolute tool (and if the person who sent me angry comments the time I said Jack Kerouac was a dick is reading this, I will give a DIRECT explanation of this assertion later), he was a truly gifted writer, able to turn – not 100% of the time, tbf – these ugly, butch-sounding moments and locations and experiences into true, glorious, literary art.

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This week I’ve been reading Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume, which is a literary biography about the beginning of Hemingway’s career, i.e. the lead-up and response to The Sun Also Rises. What Blume does excellently is dramatise the terrible behaviour of Ernie and others and its setting in 1920s American expat Europe, and she (yes, that’s right, a woman writing about Hemingway!) also evokes the excitement I remember feeling as a floppy-haired undergraduate first reading Hemingway.

Oh, to have hair and hope for the future. [For me, they go hand in hand, though they clearly don’t for many, many, many, other bald men. (I’m the only bald man I’m aware of who repeats the classic mantra of “my dog is my best friend” with the appropriate level of melancholy.)]

In this book, and in the narratives and histories it recounts, Blume makes no attempt to hide Hemingway’s dickhead personality. He fucks over his friends and his mentors; he forces Hadley, his devoted wife, to live with him and his glamorous mistress before abandoning her and their infant son; he publicly mocks people who did him huge favours and he, throughout, behaves like an entitled, self-important arse who deserves all the success he eventually attains. Blume, tbh, never really calls out Hemingway’s bad behaviour with – for me – the right level of chastisement.

The Hemingway depicted in Everybody Behaves Badly is revolting, more in his brash self-importance than in anything else. Hemingway in this text assumes high status and begins to – probably deliberately – patronise and damage people who went out of their way to help him achieve success. In his womanising and boozing he was hardly a unique sinner (especially amongst literary men), but in his treatment of Sherwood Anderson (discussed on this blog years ago), Gertrude Stein (likewise, briefly, here) and all of the other (once) close, personal friends he savaged in his publications, Hemingway made himself a one-of-a-kind shithead.

Blume’s weightily researched and impressively annotated book (there’s like 80 pages of referencing, few things excite me more) recounts the real life friendships and love affairs and betrayals that almost exactly mirrored the plot of The Sun Also Rises. Some of the people concerned accused Hemingway of writing “reportage” rather than a novel, as the narrative was so close to their lived experiences. Even in this third-hand retelling, though, the 1925 trip to Pamplona was a fucking powder keg of excitement. It made me wanna go to San Fermín all over again, even though I know the festival, now, will have nothing on what it had back then.

Blume’s narrative is informative and pleasingly indiscreet. She spoke to the surviving relatives of many people involved in this part of Hemingway’s life, and also consulted huge volumes of published and unpublished manuscripts and letters. This – for people into literary biography and Hemingway, is a great read and I’d recommend it. However, what’s most interesting for me right now [though I am in a weird place, psychologically and need to wrap this post up, hit publish and go to therapy soon] is the issue of Hemingway’s increasing unpopularity. Let’s look into it. Click for more info on Blume’s book if it sounds appealling.

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I haven’t read The Sun Also Rises since I still believed that finishing my BA in English would lead me to a life of prosperity, mental stability and creative fulfilment (LOL), but I loved it when I read it, and I’ve never really gotten over the glamour of European travel that it impressed upon me.

The Sun Also Rises is an old book, yes, but it’s one that is often claimed to symbolise a generation, to contain a moment, a mindset, a worldview. The American expat, the literary expat, the debauchee, partying like the world has already ended. These people that Blume describes, a huge pool of drunks desperate for literary success, but only a handful of them getting it, is oddly familiar, movingly depressing, dryly real. I too am of a lost generation. But not lost because we’ve all been fucked up by the first world war, but lost because we’ve been fucked up by a stagnating society where the old possess all the power, all the wealth and – bizarrely, given the imminence of their own deaths – all the optimism.

Nostalgia reigns here, so it makes sense for me, too, to slip into twofold nostalgia – that of the English-language literary Paris scene most of a century before my birth, and also a personal nostalgia for the other end of my twenties and the bare, raw, enjoyment I found in the writings of Hemingway. Woof. [I don’t feel old, per se, but I do feel too old.]

The question constantly on my mind as I read Everybody Behaves Badly was simple: can I condemn Hemingway the man while still lauding Hemingway the writer? It certainly seems that popular opinion – amongst, at least, my peers – is “no”, even though Blume – an American, which is perhaps significant – doesn’t seem remotely bothered by this ethical quandary.

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What I find most strange about the overwhelming disapproval of Hemingway is my peers’ quiet tolerance of my interest in Ian Fleming.

Fleming’s worldview creaks with similar dinosaur politics, and his books were, similarly, things I primarily enjoyed before becoming an adult (by my definition of adulthood). Fleming’s Bond novels are exciting (if not compelling) and fun, but they are regularly sexist, racist and homophobic, though usually with a touch of the ridiculous added to moments of prejudice. For example, the famous bon mot included – and presented as fact – in Diamonds are Forever (I think, I’m not going to check): “gay men can’t whistle”. Is that so absurd that it isn’t offensive? I don’t know. A lesbian called “Pussy Galore” who’s seduced by Bond because he’s a “real man”, I know that’s offensive, but is it a more rounded and realistic presentation of a female character than you find in Across the River and Into The Trees, For Whom The Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast or ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’? Not necessarily, no. The difference, then, isn’t just the offensive content, but the context, the differing seriousness with which people treat these – to my eyes, similarly politicised – texts, and also the age at which they are ordinarily first encountered.

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I first read Dr No when I was twelve or thirteen, borrowed from the school library. I’d watched most of the Bond films three or four years before that, when ITV (back before ITV2) showed ALL of them on consecutive Wednesdays on loop (or at least it felt like that). These unpleasant, patriarchal, stories were – to me – something of childhood: I first watched James Bond “neck” a woman most of a decade before I’d so much as hold a woman’s hand, and I’d read about his sexual exploits long before I’d ejaculated on purpose (or on anyone else). Thanks to my slow (that’s one word for it) sexual development, my interest in James Bond began as a truly sexless one. Now, when I reread a Fleming novel or watch a Bond film, I’m scratching the same nostalgic itch as I’m tempted to do – though have so far resisted – whenever I pass a Lego store. Reading a Fleming novel is regressing to an easier world, a simpler world, a friendlier world, where bad people are punished and people who are pretty much the same but don’t torture are rewarded.

Hemingway I first read when I was 19, when the kind of behaviour he recounts was the kind of behaviour I saw all around me. As Blume writes about in Everybody Behaves Badly, it’s all sex and parties and drugs and boasting and lying and seducing and secrets – it’s a pretty undergraduate world evoked in The Sun Also Rises, and it was written while Hemingway and many of his peers were living in Europe on what were effectively ultra-long gap years. It was all trust funds (often – in many cases, not just Ernie’s – spousal), alcoholism and networking. People set up their own literary magazines and little presses, some of which failed, some of which succeeded, but they all published each other and created this international, sellable, myth of the artistic Left Bank, a marketing ploy that Hemingway’s publishers would focus on over in the US of A. And – crucial – they were all making literature.

Hemingway was espoused as literature, as new, as fresh, as literary: as culturally important, significant, worthy of the time and consideration of the English-speaking world’s intellectuals.

His stories, written in their spare prose, are easy to read, though often imply rather than dramatise both emotions and actions. Coming off the back of Henry James then Conrad then Joyce, this wordlessness was revolutionary, and was what Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford (all, then, literary tastemakers) thought was the necessary step forward. Their opinions – Blume implies – were proved right by Hemingway’s commercial success. But is this something the readers of now object to?

Have there been so many imitators of Hemingway (especially in America) that his works look tired, unoriginal?

When his style – made dull through imitation – is still heralded as groundbreaking and original, when coupled with blokey, macho, pre-1960s gender politics, when Hemingway’s work is advertised and marketed as something essential, important, are readers objecting to the failure of these books when asked to compare them against their own reputations?

Hemingway’s politics are out of date, and his style has been aped so much that it can be tiresome to read terse little sentences that treat emotion as something implied. Check out this website, the Hemingway app, which purports to show people how to write well, by writing more like Hemingway, teaching through algorithms. Eurgh.

Hemingway has become a buzzword for something nasty within literature, something prescriptive and something butch. But what everyone’s forgotten is that he achieved this importance by persuading people who kinda mattered that his work was worthy of this level of attention. His writing is of its time, but at its time, it was new, it was exciting. Reading Hemingway when you’re a young, naive, reader is very different from reading him when possessed of more literary nouse. But to confuse being 90 years old and overly copied with not being important literature is unfair to the texts Hemingway produced, though perhaps not unfair to the dickhead who produced them.

Hemingway was mean, bitchy and self-important. His books imply [cis-gendered heteronormative] blokey camaraderie, like Ian Fleming’s novels, but Hemingway’s have always been touted as literature, his have always been touted as important.

I enjoyed Blume’s book so much that I will [eventually] reread The Sun Also Rises, but I understand that Hemingway is extolling a worldview I do not share, and writing in a style that has become – through its own success – unremarkable.

What separates Papa from Fleming – and it’s obvious, really – is that people understand I know the Bond books and films are trash. Neither Bond nor Fleming is a man I aspire to being (lol, I’m 28 and still haven’t “found myself”, whoops), and I know these texts are – at best – good thrillers, and, at worst, nostalgia-driven, probrexit propaganda, which is similar to how a harsh critic might describe the big game hunting, deep sea fishing stories of later Hemingway, a man whose career (though not life) I definitely envy.

These two writers are men whose books aren’t suitable for the modern liberal palate, but only one of them is considered literature and, because of this, he is the one it is unforgivable to read. Because Fleming is a silly distraction, it doesn’t matter if I read him; because Hemingway is meant to be art, it is corrupting to do so.

It’s interesting, the way history treats the dead. When I was an undergraduate I wanted to write under the pseudonym “Flemingway” because I thought a combination of these two writers’ tones would be sellable. Maybe it would’ve been. We’ll never know. I’m a blogger now, unable to focus long enough to make art.

My whole theory falls apart, though, because I haven’t read any Hemingway for years. I’ll go and find my old copy of The Sun Also Rises and report back in a separate post. I think it’s in my parents’ loft. Which is, maybe, where most of you think it belongs.

TOO LONG TOO LONG GONNA BE LATE FOR THERAPY

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