The “set book” for this discussion was “Men Without Women” (1928) – a book of short stories by Hemingway, with “Farewell My Lovely” (1940) – the novel by Chandler – the “optional extra”.
Introducing “Men Without Women”, the proposer said he felt Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an under-rated writer. He was undoubtedly an American icon, but he was often thought of simply as a macho man, addicted to hunting and fishing, and assumed to be of the political right. Hemingway himself, with his gift for self-publicity, had created this image.
But the reality was different. Hemingway was torn between his macho side – which his father has helped to foster – and a more gentle, sensitive side, the sort of person that his mother had hoped he would become. The conflict between his masculine and feminine sides gave his writing much of its depth (and indeed one of his last works had been about a transsexual relationship). Politically he had been very much left wing, opposing the growth of fascism in Italy and championing the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
Hemingway has started life as a journalist – which had helped develop his distinctively succinct prose style – and had continued to produce a fine journalistic output throughout his life. Notably he had worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, where he had covered the D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and claimed a hand in liberating Paris. His early work as a journalist in the US was interrupted when he volunteered to work for the Red Cross, ending up as an ambulance driver in Italy. That experience shaped some of these stories, as well as his novel “A Farewell to Arms” (also published in 1928). After the war he had decided that he wanted to be a serious writer, and had moved to Paris, where he had known and been influenced by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. However, he had been able to stand up to Pound, and accept only what he wanted to from him.
He had also fallen under the spell of the country of Spain, and in particular bull-fighting. This sport dominated much of his writing, including the first (and perhaps the finest) of these short stories – “The Undefeated”.
The title of the book (and Hemingway placed a lot of weight on titles) suggested that the stories would all be about tough guys. Perhaps they were superficially. But, looking more carefully, some of the men were very dependent on women – such as the prize fighter who was solely motivated by helping his wife. And in “Hills Like White Elephants” Hemingway’s sympathies seem to lie with the woman as the man seeks to persuade her to agree to an operation.
The proposer had chosen this book because he felt that the short stories showed Hemingway at his best, in concentrated form where he gets the idea over quickly. Some of his novels– such as “For Whom The Bell Tolls” – had some rather irritating weaknesses and self-indulgence. But he also put in a plea for some other works to gain more recognition, such as the superb “Dangerous Summer” about bullfighting (first published in Life in 1960), and the fine posthumously published novel “Islands in the Stream” (1970), which included scenes set in Cuba.
There was universal acclaim for “Men Without Women” from the group This included some who had not enjoyed previous encounters with Hemingway, and some of whom did not normally like the short story format. What did we like about it?
The concentrated, chiselled story-telling, which could reveal a whole world in just a few pages. Thus the “Undefeated”, in which the whole bull-fighting system, with the roles and attitudes of all the participants, was brought to life. Every single word counted, as in poetry.
The colour, variety, and sensitivity, which had not been expected, alongside the harshness, which had been expected.
The way in which a deceptively simple story inferred a wider world beyond. Thus the world of Fascist Italy was revealed by a scene in a restaurant and a couple of motoring incidents. The world of war was revealed by how someone relived the memories of his childhood to keep at bay thoughts of the war going on outside.
The sparse, staccato dialogue, that caught the way men talk to each other obliquely rather than reveal their true emotions (but a note of dissent here – wasn’t there rather too much dialogue sometimes?)
Hemingway’s wonderful descriptive language, with which he could capture the essence of a scene, a season, a country, a character, a mood with a few simple brush-strokes. And how accurately he caught the way people in Italy and Spain talk and behave.
The tension he effortlessly builds, and the ability – as in “A Canary for One” – to turn a whole story on its head with one telling last line.
The stoic, tragic fatalism of many of his heroes, and (for a young writer) his ability to empathise with people near the end of their lives.
Although some of the characters were indeed dependent on their women, some of the tales – in particular the last one ( “Now I Lay Me”) painted grim pictures of dysfunctional relationships.
Not all stories were rated equally – with “Today is Friday”, dealing with post-crucifixion Roman soldiers, the least favourite – but at least the short story format allowed you to focus on the ones you liked best.
It was remarkable that the indefatigable Ezra Pound had latched on to Hemingway, as to so many other writers of the period, and sought to influence him. Perhaps Pound’s imagist doctrine – of favouring precision of imagery and clear sharp language – had worked better for Hemingway’s prose than for some of the poets it was aimed at.
But were there not some fingerprints of Pound’s wilful obscurity in the stories? For example, was the operation discussed in “Hills like White Elephants” an abortion, trepanning, or a vasectomy? Most thought abortion, but it was not certain. Was “An Alpine Idyll” meant to be tragic or funny? Or perhaps both? What was the point of “A Pursuit Race”? Perhaps it was a parable that we strive to keep ahead in life but our weaknesses – and indeed death – will always eventually catch up with us. Was that indeed a homosexual proposition in “A Simple Enquiry”? But we felt this limited degree of ambivalence and enigma – of leaving the reader to work at the significance of the minimalist tales– was a strength, giving the stories more resonance.
There was a sense of innovation and experimentation in the stories, of a young writer trying out different subjects and techniques that he might later pursue in more depth. But it was also a remarkably assured performance. We agreed with the proposer that this was Hemingway at his very best, and perhaps only also in “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Man and the Sea”, plus some other short stories, did Hemingway fully realise his genius as an artist.
But perhaps also “Death in the Afternoon”? This had inspired one member to see a bull fight, which he would not otherwise have done. This started the group down the highways and byways of the tragedy of the bull, comparing and contrasting bullfights in France, Portugal and different regions of Spain….
We shall leave our bulls rampaging there, and pick up the subsequent discussion of “Farewell my Lovely”. The proposer told us that Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was born in Chicago, but moved to London after his parents split up. He was educated at Dulwich College. Despite doing exceptionally well in the Civil Service exams, he soon left and returned to Los Angeles. He had already written one book of poems and a short story. After serving with the Canadian Army in the First World War, he went through an endless series of jobs, not helped by his drinking problems and rudeness.
He married a woman 18 years his senior, to whom he was very devoted, and she funded him to start on a career as a writer. After working as a writer of pulp fiction, he published his first novel – “The Big Sleep” in 1939, and then “Farewell My Lovely” in 1940. His success as a novelist also brought him work as a Hollywood screenplay writer.
While Hemingway assiduously studied the great nineteenth century Russian novelists to help him develop, Chandler listed his main influences as Dashiell Hammet and Erle Stanley Gardner. Chandler wrote a famous essay on the detective novel, which defined the style of hard-boiled novel, derived from Hammet, that was his goal. In such a novel the private detective was the only man of integrity in the mean streets he walked down. This literary genre was to have immense influence on subsequent novels and films. It was intriguing that Marlowe nicknames one of his policemen in the novel “Hemingway”, apparently satirically, but there was a letter extant which indicated Chandler’s strong support for Hemingway’s work. We did not know what Hemingway thought of Chandler.
This book (which not all had managed to read, and one had accidentally read in abbreviated form – a new trend for the busy Book Group member?) produced more divided views than the Hemingway. One found the plot terrible by the standards of other detective stories – another found it very clever. And for another the plot was uneven – the scenes with the “Psychic Consultant” and in the dope house did not seem well integrated.
For another the essence of a Chandler novel was that sense of Byzantine mystery and human venality that lurked beneath the surface of American society. His method of cannibalising two or three separate short stories to produce a novel helped create this haunting sense of mystery – if not a very coherent plot. The novel brought out the sharp contrasts between the seediness of the negro bar and the squalor of Mrs Florian’s drink-sodden existence on the one hand, and the high gloss life of the Grayles and Lindsay Marriott on the other. And it was the tragedy of little Velma that she had managed to cross that great divide and live the American dream, but reverted to viciousness when her past caught up with her. Thus the closing words of the novel: “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way – but not as far as Velma had gone”. His themes transcended the boundaries of a conventional detective story.
But – here was an interesting question – who was the lovely to whom someone was bidding farewell? Was it Moose to Velma? Marlowe to Mrs Grayle/Velma? Velma to Moose? Mrs Grayle to her former self in Velma? Velma to Mrs Grayle? No consensus here –except that it was great title, embodying a sense of poignant loss. Saying goodbye in a title appealed to Hemingway too (“A Farewell to Arms”) and later again to Chandler (“The Long Goodbye” – a title itself echoed by many imitators).
And did his characters show any development? Perhaps not, but you did not expect that in a detective novel – unless there was a development in the character of the detective during a series of novels. But were his characters much differentiated from each other – for example the policemen? Yes for some of us; no for others – but then arguably their dramatic role was to be the straight man for Marlowe’s wisecracks, a role which did not need much differentiation.
There was, however, unanimity about the quality and richness of the language. The book was beautifully written, and a delight to read. Chandler had the ability – similar to that of Hemingway – to write simple prose descriptions that were poignantly evocative of place and emotion. His wit was legendary, and his imagery fresh and surprisingly lyrical. One newcomer to Chandler had loved the language so much that he kept re-reading each page – to the detriment of following the plot.
And what a start to a novel, with the giant Moose Malloy – “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food” – barging into Florians, shortly followed by Marlowe climbing up in the dusk endless steps above the beach at Montemar Vista – “the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly” – in pursuit of an enigmatic assignment. While so many of Chandler’s plots and characters had been endlessly copied, so that they may seem less original to someone approaching him for the first time, none of his imitators had matched that quality of language.
The discussion then tiptoed up to the subject of …sex…Why did Marlowe keep turning down the bevy of beauties who propositioned him? Was it that Dulwich schooling that made Marlowe such a finely spoken, chess-playing chap, who felt it not cricket to take advantage of the Velmas of this world? If it were a fastidiousness about getting the hero engaged with the immoral Velma, why also reject the fragrant Anne Riordan? Did it reveal Chandler’s own lack of experience on sexual matters? Or – diving right in now – was it caused by the repressed homosexuality that a recent biographer had claimed to uncover, and which the jarring comment about Red’s wonderful eyes might substantiate?
But, mercifully for Chandler, the cold light of reason then shone. We were not going to have truck with the critical fad for exhuming sexual skeletons from dead writers’closets. The kissing scene with Velma was surely hot-blooded heterosexuality enough! And one sufficient reason for Marlowe’s priggishness was the mores of the 1940s – for both novelists and film-makers. By the time of Chandler’s last novel “Playback” (1958) Marlowe is succumbing fully to the dames. Nevertheless, a striking difference between Marlowe and Hammet’s Sam Spade was the moral ambivalence of Spade compared with the probity of Marlowe.
Picking up on Chandler’s Dulwich education, had anyone noted that another famous Dulwich schoolboy had spent much of his life in America and produced novels of remarkable wit – viz P.G. Wodehouse?
So – what conclusions could be drawn from the intriguing comparison of Hemingway and Chandler?
One was how great the similarities were. Both lived in the same era. Both spent much of their formative years outside America. Both had drink problems. Both had exceptional power in writing simple but evocative language –perhaps only D.H.Lawrence of that generation could rival them. And the language of both ran foul of today’s political correctness regime! Both writers created some very memorable titles for their books. Both books came near the beginning of the writer’s career, and in both cases the writer did not go on to produce books of significantly higher quality later in their careers. Some famous American writers of the nineteenth century perhaps owe their fame more to the paucity of American rivals than to their absolute merits. But Hemingway and Chandler are both writers who can compete successfully with the best of those writing in English in their times.
But there were important differences. Chandler’s novels are the high point of the American hard-boiled private investigator school, in some ways transcending the genre, and helped spark off a whole genre of film noir. Important as the detective genre is for the twentieth century, Hemingway has a much greater range as a writer. Hemingway devoted his life to his art, while Chandler seems to have fallen into writing as a career because of the failure of other options. Hemingway remained open to the outside world, whereas Chandler retreated into California. And there is perhaps more of Hemingway’s soul in his works.
Moreover, added one member, Chandler’s novels were consistently of a high standard, with only his seventh and last (“Playback”) of markedly lesser quality. By contrast Hemingway’s works were inconsistent in quality, with only a few being fully realised works of art. Yes, but, replied another, isn’t that true of all great artists? This discussion then soared off into the literary stratosphere, at which point your fatigued correspondent closed his book, and his eyes, and dreamt of little Velma…