Friday, 14 January 2011

Nouvelle Vague

Hemingway began as a reporter; and only later became a novelist.  One wonders if he ever completely made the transition.  Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, perhaps his most famous book, suggests some of the weaknesses of the newspaperman.  It is the world understood from the outside; Paris life seen through café windows; Spain from an arcaded square.

The fiesta was solid and unbroken, but the motor-cars and tourist-cars made little islands of onlookers.  When the cars emptied, the onlookers were absorbed into the crowd.  You did not see them again except as sports clothes, odd-looking at a table among the closely packed peasants in black smocks.  The fiesta absorbed even the Biarritz English so that you did not see them unless you passed close to a table.  All the time there was music in the street.  The drums kept on pounding and the pipes were going.  Inside the cafés men with their hands gripping the table, or on each other’s shoulders, were singing the hard voiced-singing.

In Edgar Reitz’s Die Zweite Heimat, a film divided into thirteen parts, each approximately two hours length, there is a section that confronts this very problem: how much can we know from the outside.   For Reinhard, who is a writer and film director, all the important things in life, such as thoughts, feelings and love, are invisible.  Rob, his cameraman, disagrees.  For him everything can be understood by sight alone; all you have to do is look closely enough.  Part of the film is effectively a cinematic argument between them, where Rob, through large experiments in image projection and film screening, seeks to capture reality just through images.  Ultimately he fails, and his argument is lost.  Later, when Sixties revolutionary politics invades the scene, he is encouraged to talk about his role and about his ideas of film.  Now he recognises the limitations of the camera.  He says, realität ist nicht wahrheit.  Reality is not truth.  The machine cannot feel or think.  We need the human mind to capture the important things; the truth not visible to the eye.

You take a camera and some recording equipment to a dinner party.  You set it up and watch the evening unfold…  This seems Hemingway’s technique.  There is so much dialogue in the book.  Interspersed with vividly described scenes, like the one above.  And note the language.  Quite bare, with certain words running a sort of relay race across the paragraph: the repetitions of fiesta; onlooker; table; and the two singings almost clattering into each other at the end.

It has a power, as you would expect.  There are wonderful descriptions of the Fiesta in Pamplona, excellent evocations of Paris, Madrid and the Basque country; and the characters are caught clearly – they stand out from the background.  But all is seen from the outside, even Jake, the main character, often feels impersonal, although this is a first person narrative.  This detachment is reflected in what they do: drink mostly.  Their life is a long holiday, with a morning hangover, and a few pieces of work in the early afternoon.  No wonder Americans loved Paris!  To me though, it feels rather dull.  Like the first student days, where the early excitement of debauch becomes stale through repetition.  The same characters, saying the same things, the world narrowed down to a small circle of bars and boulevards (here they are differentiated between interesting and boring!).  It is a superficial life, with little complexity of thought or feeling; and with no wider horizons, of art or politics; though many of the characters are writers.  The small group, the in-crowd, with their high and lows, the tensions and jealousies, is all that counts.  They live an illusion of close friendship; protected by emotional distance, and maintained by alcohol.  They are buddies, mates, and fellow Americans, while even the lovers seem more like friends.  No-one must get too close.  The two characters who do, Robert and Frances, who have forgotten the rules, each in their different way, are treated pitilessly.

The richness of the artist is reduced to the surface glitter of the socialite, or later, when the novel travels to Spain, the action hero who, more beast than human, prefers doing to thinking.  Hemingway’s technique is perfect for this – the technical details of bull fighting, the evocation of Pamplona in the midst of the festival, and the bull fight itself.  We see them all so brightly!  Though a certain subtlety of human interaction is lost; it is as if we’re stuck on package holiday with a bunch of drunken businessmen. 

The novel does have an emotional core: Brett Ashley.  A “new woman” with short hair, social sophistication, and plenty of sexual freedom, the source of much tension and jealousies; climaxing in Pamplona, when Robert Cohn, who is utterly addicted, loses it when she falls for a young bullfighter.  The hurt, the hard banter and the aggressive interplay within the group, are all shown; even the casual anti-Semitism, which now makes the book seem dated.  We see it all.  For the emotions, and thus the behaviour, are extreme, and close to the surface can be described from the outside.   But Jake is in love with Brett too…  Yet it is Robert Cohn who is dragged through the streets of a Spanish town; butted and tossed by his rampaging jealousy.  Is this creative experiment or artistic failure? 

Jake is celibate from a war wound.  One lonely night in his apartment he cries in his bed; and we see at last his impotent desire. 

I never used to realise it, I guess.  I try and play it along and just not make trouble for people.  Probably I never would have had any trouble if I hadn’t run into Brett when they shipped me to England.  I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have.  Well, people were that way.  To hell with people.  The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling all that.  Good advice, anyway.  Try and take it sometime.  Try and take it.

I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around.  Then I couldn’t keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go into sort of smooth waves.  Then all of a sudden I started to cry.  Then after a short while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep.

This pain isn’t too bad, it seems, and can be obliterated later by drunken nights, fishing trips and bullfights.  Instead we watch the disintegration of another character; like guests at a friends’ divorce, where all the arabesques of thought and feeling are hidden behind inebriated sulks and arguments.  We see merely the surface reflections, the punch-ups and verbal crossfire, which we have to interpret for ourselves.  Though they stay with us, strangely; the power of Hemingway’s technique. 

Is it enough?

Are we satisfied with a newsman’s reports, with the plain facts and a collection of travel descriptions, or do we want something deeper and subtler?  What about those invisible things that Reinhard loved so much?  See invisible things?  Yes!  Those new machines, and powerful microscopes, the artist creates to help us glimpse those hidden worlds under our skin.  One could argue, of course, that Hemingway transformed the novel into a sort of cinema; his books the forerunner of the art films from the 1950’s on.  A real inventor, as opposed to my metaphorical one.  Isn’t this enough for any man?  Perhaps it is, especially if we place his work within the context of Western literature.  But if we consider the book as it stands, a single person on the street corner, rather than a large crowd in a piazza, can we be so certain?  Should a novel contain all the world; or just its fragments….

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