January 29, 2014
I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself.
“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself while looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality,” she writes in the book’s early pages to explain her approach to her surroundings:
[S]tatic things may [thus] be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. … From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles—
But here, where she might have allowed herself to be swept up in the lyricism of her own descriptive prose, she pauses to reconsider her words and goes on to revise them. “[B]ristles is a word of too much commotion for it,” she concedes. “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”
The object of Shepherd’s boundless fascination is the Cairngorm Plateau in northern Scotland, a plateau long ago fragmented under the pressure of the glacial drift that shaped the heights and carved out the valleys of the spectacular Cairngorm Mountains. In The Living Mountain, treating the whole of the plateau as one enormous mountain crowned with multiple peaks, Shepherd describes some of her experiences in the Cairngorms, albeit with a tighter focus on their quotidian details than on the eventful scaling of summits. The title, however, is slightly misleading in its suggestion that the book sets out to simply catalogue the varieties of life on the plateau. A more accurate title would be Living the Mountain, since the book in fact records an attempt to delve within the mountain and live as the mountain lives, to become the mountain itself and thereby bring to expression its view of the life that thrives on and around it. “So there I lie on the plateau,” Shepherd writes at the end, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain.” But while all of those elements of the Cairngorms are detailed in The Living Mountain, poetically and often adoringly, the purpose of their detailing seems to be for Shepherd to attempt to do what she now says she feels she has done. “Slowly,” she declares, “I have found my way in.” She wants not simply to experience the Cairngorm Plateau, nor to recount or convey an experience of it, but, having already experienced it, to retrospectively reach towards becoming the source of experience and to do so via an articulation of an appropriately suprahuman view of this part of the world.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, Shepherd works her way through the various aspects of the Cairngorm Plateau: its creation during the glacial age, its erosion by the elements, its resultant geology and geography, its plentiful plant and animal life, its metamorphosis under human hands. In each instance, though, looking beyond the surface of these aspects of the plateau, she finds her own vision imposing upon them a meaning they otherwise lack — reading significance into them much as one reads it into the symbols forming the words of a book — and then she casts about for ways in which to purge herself of this tendency to impose, all the better to see the plateau as it is in itself, in total, and stripped of onlookers’ preconceptions. “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?” she marvels:
the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. … [But p]erhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty. … A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.
Occasionally, Shepherd defends and even romanticises her admiration of the natural world, naming it as very literally her raison d’être. “[T]he resultant issue is a living spirit,” she writes, “a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” Ultimately, though, Shepherd finds herself drawn back to the tactility and integrity of the mountain, to its feeding of her senses, to her recurrent immersion in its surroundings, to her accretive appreciation of its quotidian being, and to the suprahuman view of the mountain that this appreciation allows her to achieve, piecemeal, over the course of a lifetime. “If I had other senses,” she writes,
there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation.
Is it futile for Shepherd to attempt to articulate what she sees when she stands in awe of such moments? On occasion, it is, and as a result her articulations can contradict one another. But perhaps futility is simply the price to be paid by those who would seek to do what she does. Bending her own mode of being to better encompass that of something far beyond the human, she cannot help but bend and sometimes break the language through which she would channel this mode of being into human expression. It is, above all, this warping of both the woman and the words she uses that sets The Living Mountain apart from the bulk of that with which it has been forced to share a genre. Much nature writing, and much writing in general, is the echo of an author’s impulse to sit down and write. Some object sparks the imagination, the mind lights up with a glow, and the writing elaborates on the qualities of the vista newly illuminated. Rather than echoing that impulse, however, The Living Mountain turns towards it in order to strike at its very core. Shepherd’s imagination, sparked by the object of the Cairngorm Plateau, fixes its gaze on the spark itself to advance a conflation of subject and object, to burrow deep down inside the thing that both impels the writing and is written about, and so to investigate, rather than elaborate on, how and why it gives off the glow that lights up the imagination in the first place.
June 9, 2013
Bewilderment is more than just confusion or perplexion. It is, in its most literal sense, the paralysing disorientation of waking to find oneself lost in the wild and overwhelmed, overawed, by the encompassing wilderness. Perhaps one follows a path through the world that is suddenly swallowed up by a forest or perhaps the path dwindles away, losing all distinction, as barren expanses surround it and stretch out towards the horizon. When brought to a halt by some obstruction of one’s intended course, bewilderment is the fog that descends and occludes all avenues for onward movement.
Bewilderment of this sort is the soul of Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds and the closest thing to the narrative centre of this baroque and disquieting debut. Across twelve prose snapshots, each one pristine, the fog settles upon a nameless narrator and a young man named Tom whose lives are so alike as to be interchangeable. A boyhood spent in the mining towns of the Pennsylvania Allegehenies is cut short by a mother’s illness and the trauma of her painful death. Adulthood is marked by a westward migration, a flight towards some idealised liberation from the past, which strains a relationship with a father left at home to mourn the absence of his wife and his son and to seek comfort in an increasingly rigid Christianity. Time and again in Other Kinds, a young man awakens to find himself lost in the wilderness of a world that has reconfigured around him and wiped away the path he presumed to follow. What makes this collection so powerful, though, is the deftness with which it repeatedly reaches for something beyond simply conveying the young man’s bewilderment. Its power flows from the compounding of his figurative bewilderment, his standing dumbstruck before the thwarting of his intentions, with both a literal bewilderment whereby the mystery and magnitude of unfamiliar surroundings overwhelm him and a stylistic bewilderment whereby the drift from sentence to sentence, from snapshot to snapshot, stirs up an experience of disorientation for readers which echoes the experiences captured on the page.
“I am named after the place I’m from,” the narrator says in the third prose snapshot, ‘Thin Enough to Break,’ which typifies the governing aesthetic of Other Kinds:
It’s a lot of fog and smokestacks. Trailers parked in mud and dog shit. The roads circle places you don’t want to be. We had left the Chinese restaurant. The subject changed in the car to Christ.
“The man spoke in riddles,” Dad said, “for ears that could hear.”
Leafless trees dripped water and there was a war somewhere. The onions gave me indigestion, and this year the ladybugs were bad. Dad would vacuum them off the windowsills.
Posters on the campus I went to had asked me if Jesus was a Republican. The campus was far from the place I’m from. It was cleaner, more cluttered, full of people who knew enough about God to say he’s on their side. I spent my time there alone. Some days Dad called and said he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day. Birds pecked at the brown grass outside my apartment window.
“That happens to me, too,” I would say.
It was spring break and rain fell slow most days that week, melting mounds of dirty ice at the edges of parking lots and driveways. Our street stretched into the woods and each driveway had its own name. Smoke rose from a row of off-white houses.
I painted in my bedroom. The same canvases over and over. I tried to paint a vision I had. I was a little boy and I was in a field looking up. And up there, the sky was gray and an airplane was taking off. The plane seemed to be everything. It wasn’t flying away, or leaving me alone.
The bewilderment of the narrator is front and centre here. Having fled the decaying town in which he spent his youth, he finds himself alone and abandoned in a place he supposed would be more hospitable and then, returning briefly to his roots, he finds his father as deeply enamoured of theological trivia as the very people who alienate him in the place that is now his home. Crucially, though, his figurative bewilderment is compounded by both his literal bewilderment and the bewildering effect of the style in which he narrates events. His literal bewilderment manifests in the disjuncture between the world as he expects it to be and the aspects of the world that contradict expectations. Springtime brings with it the promise of natural vitality, and yet a slow rain falls over trees that are still leafless while birds in search of sustenance peck at lifeless grass. His stylistic bewilderment manifests in his attempts to strike parities between disparate and disorienting aspects of the world by focusing on them and naming each of them in succession — an attempt that produces only a stream of non sequiturs which suggests, deep down, an impulse to master the overwhelming world.
Consider the trailers parked in mud, the small-town Chinese restaurant, the conversation about Christ, the war “somewhere,” the melting ice and the driveways with names, the painting and the vision of the airplane snared in stasis. How is any one of these things related to any one of the others? They are related only by the observing presence of the narrator himself, by his having associated them in prose and by his stance as the subject around which they coalesce. His attention is drawn to each of them as various aspects of an overwhelming world, and the act of naming them all implies an urge to alleviate his sense of being overwhelmed, but his failure to name them without elaborating on the relationships he sees between them extends the experience of bewilderment from the narrator himself to those who hear what he has to say. Stylistically, then, his use of words illuminates his desire to cope with his bewilderment even as the words themselves, shot through with non sequiturs, reinforce that bewilderment and experientialise it for readers by forging superficial connections between aspects of the world whose sole substantial connection is their having equally left him bewildered.
For some readers, perhaps, Other Kinds will seem to be little more than a catalogue of things that capture the attention of its wayward young men and burden them with their feelings of disorientation. Dirt roads running behind power substations in the middle of nowhere. A river overflowing its banks and blackening the nearby grass. Parking lots reeking of gasoline and the threat of impending rain. Chunks of ice in a stream, swept along by the strength of the current, slamming hard against one another, and tropical plants that smell “worse than rot because of something sweet in the stink.” ‘Ice Floe,’ the sixth prose snapshot, gives clear expression to the bewilderment that arises from these sorts of worldly phenomena. Having relocated to the Midwest, which is described elsewhere as a place in which “you can see the size of the weather, the long breaths of wind,” a young man stands paralysed both in and by his new surroundings:
There was enough wind that the clouds moved fast above the buildings. The town was on the plains and the flatness there changed the shape of the sky. It had been smaller at home. The wind felt different coming in from the emptiness out there — it was like he was standing at the spot where the world began to get round. He was exposed.
But additional structural features of Other Kinds amplify the affective power of these details, superseding the rote recitations of the form of the catalogue by calling forth variations in the sources of the bewilderment of its characters and in their responses to it. The twelve prose snapshots are broken down into three sections, each of which consists of a short italicised fragment preceding and thematically linked to three longer pieces. In the first section, a sense of shame about an impoverished upbringing, and the antagonising of that shame by others, is the source of a young man’s bewilderment. In the second section, under pressure to beat bach the silences that attend his bewilderment, he makes disclosures and personal confessions that only end up intensifying his awkwardness. In the third section, his difficult interactions with family members, with relatives who are ill or mean-spirited or somehow embarrassing, leave him flailing about in futile efforts to accept or ameliorate his troubling relationships. Yet, rather than appearing in three discrete sections, these variations on bewilderment work together in an accretive way so that, for instance, the shame experienced the first section becomes the prompt for the awkward attempts at speech in the second, and those awkward attempts exacerbate the family difficulties experienced in the third.
As Other Kinds unfolds, then, its bewildered young men increasingly strive to assert control over the very world that bewilders them and yet repeatedly meet with failures that only entrench and extend their disorientation. In the first section, for instance, the narrator, now at college in the Midwest, returns to the town of his boyhood and thinks over the time he spent with a girl he says he loved. Lost in a haze of emotional insecurity and unable to articulate his feelings for her, he recalls that he “made her a CD and labeled it Tonight and played it [in the car on the way to her house], thinking there were chord progressions that sounded like whatever it was I was pursuing.” His choice of music is therefore the voice through which he first attempts to steady his course through a world that leaves him alienated and adrift. In the second section, though, he inadvertently worsens his waywardness when he uses his own voice to try to steady himself. “She moved and talked in ways that made me feel smaller than I was,” he says of another girl who captures his heart. “I told her embarrassing things about myself. I thought saying them made them less true. As we flew to Chicago I had said I once tried to break up with a girl I wasn’t dating.” And later, in the third section, his failures of articulation resolve into a suppressed and inchoate frustration, a rage against the futility of living in a world that renders him insignificant. “As a child,” he admits earlier, shortly after having acknowledged the “war somewhere” out there, “I had imagined whole wars raging just out of sight, and my house rose from the violence as something sacred. … Out there men were dying and it was fine because they were just men and I was a little boy.” Now, towards the end of Other Kinds, the yearning for a war resurfaces. “There needed to be a war someplace close,” we are told in a glimpse of his boyhood thoughts. “The war, if it was a good war, would be in the summer.” Why should he not yearn for such a war? For someone so utterly bewildered by the world, the total chaos of war would extend his bewilderment to the world itself and so at last place him on a sort of equal footing with it.
Of course, with its undercurrents of war, its focus on the minutiae of disjointed experiences, its structuring of various prose snapshots around shorter italicised fragments, and its author’s stylistic preference for short, clipped sentences and plain, unadorned prose, Other Kinds channels no other work of literature more clearly than Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Often, too, its affinity with In Our Time even flows down from the stylistic and structural qualities of the collection of the whole to the various pieces that constitute it. In ‘We’ll Both Feel Better,’ for instance, when the narrator delivers a rebuke to a young woman who he believes he loves, his words are as shockingly understated and as devastating as those which deliver a similar rebuke in the final lines of Hemingway’s ‘The End of Something.’ And while I would usually hesitate to strike any association between a recent literary debut and In Our Time, one of the greatest debuts ever published, I made my way through Other Kinds with the sense that, for the first time in a long time, such an association would not be lazy, hyperbolic, or unwarranted. Almost every line, and certainly every space between one sentence and the next, simultaneously speaks to the bewildering experiences observed in words and strikes at the heart of the reader by making a bewildering experience of reading itself. Adopting a lack of self-assurance as an essential theme and absorbing that lack into its own aesthetics, Other Kinds takes bewilderment as a static state of being, a state subject to mere representation, and transforms it into a process of recurrent becoming by way of a dialogue with worldly phenomena whose own state of being is far from fixed. Rarely does the alchemy of subject, style, and structure produce results of such concentrated power, and rarer still is their combined effect as mesmerising, as involving, as intense, and as sustained as it is in this volume.
September 7, 2012
In December 1919, the young Ernest Hemingway confessed his fledgling literary aspirations in a letter to his sister Ursula. “You know,” he gushed, “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it. … Everything good takes time and it takes time to be a writer, but by Gad I’m going to be one some day.” Still only twenty years old, and without a single publication to his name, Hemingway’s hubristic visions of future glory have turned out, in hindsight, to fall short of the mark. He became much more than just “a good writer” churning out vaguely entertaining literary amusements. He became one of the most stylistically radical writers of his age and one of the greatest in the American pantheon.
That letter to Ursula and scores of others to friends and family have now been collected in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon. The first in a projected sixteen-volume collection of Hemingway’s complete correspondence, Letters covers the years from July 1907 to December 1922. This period takes the young writer from his eighth birthday through to age twenty-three and the piecemeal publication of the work that would reappear in his first collection of fiction and poetry. Although replete with critical notes aimed squarely at Hemingway scholars, the scholarly apparatus is unobtrusive and the volume as a whole seems targeted at non-academic readers. Letters requires only broad familiarity with and affection for Ernest Hemingway, not a detailed knowledge of his life and labour.
But what exactly is the value of reading Hemingway’s letters at all? If his major literary achievements took the form of short stories and novels, what can a reader possibly gain from browsing his private outpourings? Three possible gains come to mind: the biographical, the stylistic, and the aesthetic. Perhaps the letters reveal the sources of Hemingway’s later literature, the real events that flowed out from the life he lived into the fiction that made him famous. Or perhaps the letters mark the stages in his stylistic development, the discovery and refinement of the rhetorical manipulations which would eventually allow him to produce his more celebrated work. Or perhaps the letters offer their own sort of stimulation, an exploitation of the letter as a literary form whose artistic rewards rival the rewards of alternative forms.
The bad news is that readers who turn to Hemingway’s letters for either the first or the last reason are bound for disappointment. With the exception of the wartime injury that worked its way into A Farewell to Arms, none of the life events covered in the letters were a major influence on the Hemingway oeuvre and, as for the artistry of the letters, the author himself acknowledged their simplicity and occasional banality. “I am sorry to write such dull letters,” he confessed to his mother, Grace, in February 1922, “[but] I get such full expression in my articles and the other work I am doing that I am quite pumped out and exhausted from a writing stand point and so my letters are very common-place. If I wrote nothing but letters all of [my passion for other literary forms] would go into them.” The good news, however, is that readers who turn to the letters with an eye towards Hemingway’s stylistic development are in for a treat — and particularly since the letters display varieties of stylistic experimentation which do not at all resemble the minimalism that made Hemingway famous.
Although the letters are presented chronologically without categorization, they fall into three phases which only faintly overlap. The first phase takes Hemingway from his childhood in Michigan to his early manhood on the Italian front. The second phase takes him from his wartime injury to the courtship of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The third phase takes him from his marriage to Hadley to the brink of literary success following their emigration to Paris.
Hemingway’s childhood in rural Michigan seems to have consisted of a series of boys’ own adventures in the spirit of his Nick Adams stories, as the idyllic outdoors perfectly suited the young author’s rugged, rambunctious, and occasionally violent temperament. Here, for instance, is a letter he wrote to his father on July 23, 1909, two days after his tenth birthday:
today Mama and the rest of us took a walk.
We walked to the school house.
Marcelline ran on ahead.
Wile we stopt at Clouse’s.
In a little wile she came back.
She said that in the Wood Shed of the Scool house there was a porcupine.
So we went up there and looked in the door, the porcupine was asleep.
I went in and gave I[t] a wack with the axx.
Then I cave I[t] anthor and another.
Then I crald in the wood.
Wrane to Mr Clous and he got his gun and Shot It.
Hear some of the quills.
He learned to suppress his violent streak over the following years, but otherwise he rarely hesitated to unleash his inner provocateur. In September 1910, he wrote a letter to his sister, Marcelline, in which he recalled accompanying his mother to a women’s suffrage meeting “thru which I slept soundly.” In May 1913, he was forced to write a “Confessional Letter” to his father, Clarence, in penance for some unspecified misbehaviour: “My conduct at the Coloseum yesterday was bad and my conduct this morning in church was bad my conduct tomorrow will be good.” In July 1915, he wrote a letter to an acquaintance, ‘Carissimus,’ in which he admitted to reading through some letters that Marcelline had received from her friends. He was “trying to find out what the dames think of me,” he said, when he came across a note from a mutual friend who had confessed to Marcelline her attraction to ‘Carissimus.’ “Gosh but [that letter] is mushy,” Hemingway went on. “I tell you guy beware! All females are alike.”
Hemingway’s attraction to literature first became evident between 1914 and 1916, at around the time he wrote that last letter, just as he entered adolescence. It seems to have manifested first as a tendency to conceive of his own life in literary terms, likening his unruly behaviour to that of a young boy who lived only on the page. On September 8, 1914, he wrote to his mother, Grace, about his adventures at school that day. A delayed train left him two hours late for his classes, he said, so that he arrived to find himself in a scenario straight out of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “There was a report circulated around that I was drowned and some of my pals thot I was a ghost.” On July 13, 1916, he again alluded to Huckleberry Finn when he complained to a friend about his family’s views of his distaste for schoolwork. “Just think how pleased My family would be,” he said, “if they would civilize me and inculcate a taste for Math and a distaste for Fishing.”
Since the older Hemingway would someday hail Huckleberry Finn as one of the greatest works of American literature, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that his younger self should have been so in thrall to Twain’s most memorable characters. What is surprising, however, is that Twain appears to have been the exception to the rule of what the young Hemingway chose to read, the sole American writer in a reading list dominated by classicists and contemporary British authors and headed by Rudyard Kipling. And, at the same time that Twain exerted an influence on how the young Hemingway saw his own life, it was the stylistic stiff-upper-lip of Kipling that emerged as the clearest influence on the young author’s early literary output. “Well old soak,” he wrote to Marcelline in June 1916, “I suppose you have had quite the ‘Je su pas’ time as it were. While commencement was going on Lew and I were fishing all night on a pool of the Rapid River 50 miles from no-where. Murmuring pines and hemlocks — black still pool — roar of rapids around bend of river — devilish solemn still — deuced poetic.”
Insofar as echoes of the ‘black still pool’ and ‘roar of rapids’ appear in stories like ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ and in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway clearly never lost his adolescent attraction to a particular sort of natural imagery, but those masterpieces are conspicuously lacking in phrases like ‘devilish solemn’ and ‘deuced poetic.’ Fancying himself a literary legend in the making, the young Hemingway seems to have turned to Kipling, one of the literary legends of the time, and set about aping his style. True to his temperament, Hemingway also sought to bolster his own legendary status by playfully but provocatively diminishing the literary skills of writers clearly more accomplished than himself. When he was living away from home and received word that Marcelline had been accepted as a member of a local writing group, his letter of congratulations included more barbed comments than evident good will: “You poor bonus caput how in the name of all things just and unjust did you get in the story club,” he wrote. “If I couldn’t write a better story than you I’d consign myself to purgatory. Congratulations.” More audaciously, he used a letter to his parents to reveal a jaundiced view of no less a writer than Cicero. “Cicero is a pipe,” he declared. “I could write better stuff than he could with both hands tied behind me.”
Until 1917, Hemingway rarely wrote letters in which his emerging literary sensibilities cast an overt stylistic veneer over his retellings of his adventures. On the one hand, he expressed admiration for certain literary heroes and confessed to holding literary aspirations. On the other hand, he simply went about living his life and wrote plainly about the life he lived. Only once in Letters does an incident from his life receive overt stylisation: the hyperstylisation of exaggeration and grotesquerie. “Another item of information,” he wrote to his friend Emily Goetzmann in March 1916, “is that my beautiful Graeco Roman Etruscan Irish nose, or to use the Language of the Vulgar my pulchritudinous proboscis has wandered over on one side of my face as a result of a little boxing bout. However it has about got back to normal and people can now pass me on the street without emmitting loud coarse guffaws of touching mirth.”
Those are the words of an aspiring writer just discovering the versatility of his craft — the elasticity of rhetoric — and flying high on the bravado of the discovery but apparently uncertain about how to take it more seriously after this point. A few pages later, when he discovers that the process of revision can refine the prose on the page and sharpen the imagery and invest the whole with new vitality, it’s hard to fight off a tingle down the spine. In his classic interview with the Paris Review, the fifty-nine-year-old Hemingway admitted to being an extremely disciplined rewriter: “I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped,” he said. “When it is all finished, naturally you go over it [again]. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. … I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Included in Letters is a brief, wistful note that Hemingway wrote to his parents from rural Michigan on September 14, 1917, in which appears his first recorded attempt to affectively enhance a piece of prose by subjecting it to revision:
Probably I will be home in time for the Worlds Series in the middle of Oct. All the trees are turning red up here now. All the birds are putting on their beautiful autumn foliage and the trees are gathering in twittering flocks ready for their flight to the glorious south land.
Within weeks of writing that letter, Hemingway raced head-first towards a radical stylistic variation and a more disciplined writing practice. On scarcely a moment’s notice he left Michigan for Kansas City, Missouri, where he landed a job as a reporter at the Kansas City Star. According to the legend which he himself later bolstered, it was the house guide at the Star that formed the basis of his mature prose style. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he famously declared in A Moveable Feast, revealing the advice he gave himself when he made his first conscious efforts to write and fiction. “Write the truest sentence you know. … [C]ut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” — and, as he told the Paris Review, “[o]n the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence.”
But Hemingway’s workload at the Star seemed to continuously replenish itself, and, not long after he took up his position, all those countless declarative sentences drove his more personal writing in an entirely different, opaque, and fragmented stylistic direction. “All cops live me like a brotherhood,” he wrote to Marcelline in October 1917:
I am Editor of Public Mind like Vox of the Pop. but am now promoted and edit mind with less frequency. This is copy paper. On it is written with a typewriter solely. Poor hand-writing has not handicapped me yet. At St. Josephine I was and have chance to work on St. Josephine Gazette. But the Salary! Merci! It is nought. A mere pittance! Here I receive 60 of them per month. A princely stipend. and why is it I hear from you not? Loneliness consumes me theoretically; practically I am all business and have no time but at the office there is a frequency of the Tempus.
As his workload increased towards the end of the year, the Star came to affect his literary style not only by demanding that his professional writing meet rigorously declarative standards but also by leaving him with almost no time in which to write anything but reportage. “I am sorry that I didnt get a letter off oftener last week,” he wrote to his parents in December, “but I aws right up to my neck in work and havn’t had a single minute¾.” The following month he sent a letter to another sister, Madelaine, in which his style suffered a devolution into borderline nonsense — “Was the old brute glad to hear ffn you.? Hw was that. He was that. He surely was that. … Some Damsel. Show this to jigggs will you.&%$#”_(&)” — and the devolution continued throughout the following months. “I’ve just time to scribble a little to you,” he wrote to his parents in March 1918. “We are awfully busy.”
On April 16, the workload finally took its toll on the young Hemingway, not yet nineteen years old, and drove him to the point of absolute exhaustion. He snapped, suffering a minor breakdown, and saw only two options before him: “a vacation or bust.” In a long and unusually intimate letter to his father, Hemingway gave voice to his demons:
This is the way things are lined up at present. I have been down here about seven months, granted. Until lately I have neen making not enough to live on. See High Cost of Living figures. I am only a kid of nearly 19 granted, and have been hitting the pace pretty blame hard. Working in competetion with men with threee to ten years more experience than I have. I have had to work like sin and have concentrated about three years work into one. … And now Pop I am bushed! So bushed that I cant sleep nights, that my eyes get woozy, and that I am loosing weight and am tired all the time. I’m mentally and physically all in, Pop, and there isn’t any body Knows it better than myself. Look at it this way. It is as though I had gone to college and been under the strain of cramming for an examination for seven months straight. For that is the way it is. Responsibility, absolute accuracy, thousands of dollars hinge on your statements, absolute truth and accuracy. A middle initial wrong may mean a libel suit. And allways working under a strain.
This is what makes you mentally fagged. Having to write a half column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, an get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop and write it in fifteen minutes, five sentences at a time to catch an edition as it goes to press. To take a story over the phone and get everything exact see it all in your minds eye, rush over to a typewriter and write it a page at a time while ten other typewriters are going and the boss is hollering at some one and a boy snatches the pages from your machine as fast as you write them.
Having resolved to quit his job at the Star, Hemingway decided to head north to Canada in order to do what he truly wanted to do and volunteer for military service in Europe. When the Red Cross sought a new intake of medical officers in June 1918, Hemingway took the chance to sign up. He travelled to Europe and spent some time seeing the sights — on June 3, in remarks that would become atypical of him, he wrote home with the verdict that “Paris is a great city but not as quaint and interesting as Bordeaux” — and then, stationed in Italy on June 9, he dashed off a note to a friend at the Star just after he had been briefed on his duties. “I go to the front tomorrow,” he wrote. “Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.” But his service as an ambulance officer lasted barely a month, ending with an explosion that gave him both a lifelong injury and the basis for the novel that is perhaps his very best.
On July 14, 1918, Theodore Brumback, an old friend of Hemingway, contacted Hemingway’s parents with a summary of their son’s accident and news of his present condition. Brumback’s note is the only document in Hemingway’s Letters that does not belong to Hemingway himself. “I have just come from seeing Ernest at the American Red Cross hospital,” he wrote. “He is fast on the road to recovery and will be out a whole man once again, so the doctor says, in a couple of weeks. Although some two hundred pieces of shell were lodged in him none of them are above the hip joint. Only a few of these pieces was large enough to cut deep; the most serious of these being two in the knee and two in the right foot.” In the week before the incident, Hemingway had acquired a bicycle and had been cycling out to the frontline to deliver chocolate to the Italian soldiers. “[A]bout midnight on the seventh day,” wrote Brumback, “an enormous trench mortar hit within a few feet of Ernest. … The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him with earth. There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell. He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off. A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him all about it and that it had been voted upon to give him a valor medal for the act.”
On July 21, his nineteenth birthday, Hemingway wrote to his father, a doctor, with an account of his condition that amounts to one of his most tender letters. When writing to his mother about a week later, he offered a self-deprecating but frank assessment of his recovery prospects. “[F]rom present indications I will never look well in kilts as the old limbs present a somewhat cut up appearance,” he joked. “They look a bit disgruntled. For a time Maw I resembled a walking blacksmith shop.” When he wrote to his father, however, he began by sugarcoating the severity of his injuries — “Everything is fine and I’m very comfortable and one of the best surgeons in Milan is looking after my wounds” — and then he cast his recovery prospects in terms that deftly walk the line between the physician’s professional desensitisation to injury and the young masculinist’s determination not to let his injuries make him flinch. Taking a no-nonsense view of the physical damage that left him incapacitated for weeks, the young writer attempts to meet his father in exclusively rhetorical terms: to represent his injuries with a stylistic austerity that strikes a balance between his own fascination with masculine stoicism and his father’s presumed interest in the bodily particulars of his wounds:
There are a couple of pieces still [stuck] in [my legs]. One bullet in my knee that the X Ray showed. The surgeon… is going to wait for the wound in my right knee to become healed cleanly before operating. The bullet with then be rather encysted and he will make a clean cut and go in under the side of the knee cap. By allowing it to be completly healed first he thus avoids any danger of infection and stiff knee. That is wise dont you think Dad? He will also remove a bullet from my right foot at the same time. … All the other bullets and pieces of shell have been removed and all the wounds on my left leg are healing finely. … There will be no permanent effects from any of the wounds as there are no bones shattered. Even in my knees. In both the left and right the bullets did not fracture the patella. One piece of shell about the size of a Timken roller bearing was in my left knee but it has been removed and the knee now moves perfectly and the wound is nearly healed. In the right knee the bullet went under the knee cap from the left side and didnt smash it a bit.
During his recovery period, of course, Hemingway met Agnes von Kurowsky, the young Red Cross nurse who later became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Although their relationship is known to have been a passionate one, very little of the passion appears to have made its way onto the page as Kurowsky is mentioned in only two letters. “In regard to the question you asked I will reply,” Hemingway wrote to Marcelline: “Yes. She is a Cross Red Nurse. Further more I cannot state I am of a dumbness.” But the dumbness had worn off by the time he described Kurowsky to his lifelong friend Bill, with whom he tended to be less guarded. “Bill this is some girl and I thank God I got crucked so I met her,” he wrote. “Damn it I really honestly can’t see what the devil she can see in the brutal [Hemingway] but by some very lucky astigmatism she loves me Bill. … Why man I’ve only got about 50 more years to live and I don’t want to waste any of them and every minute that I’m away from that Kid is wasted.” An aura of tragedy settles over those words for readers who know that the young man who wrote them could not have foreseen that his romance was doomed or that Frederic Henry, Hemingway’s eventual fictional stand-in, would love Catherine Barkley much more than Hemingway himself ever appeared to love Agnes von Kurowsky.
The letters that follow the dissolution of Hemingway’s relationship with Kurowsky are littered with oblique references to other people whose names would eventually trickle down into Hemingway’s fiction — Neroni, Krebs, Wemedge, and others — until he suffered a renewed cri de coeur at the beginning of 1919. The end of the war left him uncertain of his direction in life and his attempts at becoming a writer were marked by a distinct lack of progress. Although he had not yet spent any time as an American expatriate in Spain, he felt himself burdened by much the same sense of ennui and listlessness as that which colours The Sun Also Rises and he yearned for an opportunity to prove himself worthy of some sort of greatness. His hopeful, enthusiastic, and hubristic remarks to his sister Ursula — “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day” — were written at the tail end of this period.
“I’ve written some darn good things Jim,” he declared in a spirited letter to Jim Gamble, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, in March 1919. “That is good for me. And am starting a campaign against [the Post]. I sent them the first story Monday last. … Tomorrow another one starts toward them. I’m going to send ‘em so many and such good ones, no I havn’t really got the big head, that they’re going to have to buy them in self defence.” A footnote spells out the young writer’s disappointing fate: “The stories EH mentions submitting remain unidentified: nothing he wrote would ever appear in the Saturday Evening Post.”
“I’m all up in the air about what to do next fall,” he confessed to Gamble about a month later. “Wish a war would come along and solve my problems. Now that I don’t have to do to work I can’t decide what the devil to do. The family are trying to get me to go to college but I want to go back to Italy and I want to go to Japan and I want to live a year in Paris and I want to do so damned many things now that I don’t know what the deuce I will do. … It was very simple while the war was on. Then there was only one thing for a man to do.” It was at this time that Hemingway experienced the crystallisation of the worldview and the attendant moral dilemma that would together preoccupy his imagination for decades yet to come. “Idealists lead a rough life in this world Jim,” he told Gamble. “But like hermit crabs they acquire shells that they cover their ideals with and that they can retreat into and protect the ideals with. But sometimes something comes along with a heavy enough tread to crush the shell and the ideals and all.” What is an idealist then to do? A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and others all offer varying responses to that one unanswerable question.
Surprisingly, though, Hemingway’s own response during the onset of this listlessness was not so far removed from the response of Jack Kerouac, Hemingway’s successor as the spokesman of a generation but very much his opposite in terms of literary style. In August 1919, with the autumn fast approaching, Hemingway wrote to his friend Bill with a proposed plan of action. That plan now reads like a missing fragment of Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, written almost thirty years before Kerouac and Neal Cassady ever hit the road:
Bill if you want to keep the old ideals straight and cut loose from the damned dirty money grubbing for a year I’m your man. There is so much of this world we haven’t seen and it is just a little while that we’re here anyway.
We are Simpatico Bill and we could go anywhere and have a good time. If you want to go out to Hawaii and the South Seas meet me in Chicago this fall. We’ll bum — it may take us quite a while to get there. But you know we’ll have a good time together. The more money we had to start with the better. But it isn’t a necessity. We’ll go through the South West to the coast and you can get to Hawaii for 45 dollars from the coast. And we’ll discover every place we go. And we’ll have thousands of adventures. And we’ll work when we have to and we’ll loaf. And we’ll live Bill! We’ll live!
Hemingway certainly lived, but he didn’t live as he dreamed of living when he sat down to write to Bill. Between that one letter and the end of Letters there is scarcely any correspondence in which Hemingway elucidates the circumstances he fell into, but the suddenness with which he fell into them is implicit in the scarcity of such elucidation. In December 1920, Hemingway met Hadley Richardson through mutual acquaintances: Richardson’s roommate, who would eventually marry John Dos Passos, had a brother who shared a house with Hemingway in St. Louis. Hemingway and Richardson were married less than a year after meeting, and, in December 1921, Hemingway landed the job at the Toronto Star that enabled the two of them to move to Paris. The last pages of Letters reveal Hemingway’s Parisian attempts to establish himself as a writer of fiction and poetry by impressing writers already established and carefully cultivating his ties to them. Fresh off the success of Winesburg, Ohio, it was Sherwood Anderson who had originally suggested that Hemingway would benefit from a relocation to Paris, and so it was Anderson who received one of the earliest letters in which Hemingway described his impressions of the city. The floweriness of its language contrasts with the more utilitarian rhetoric of concurrent letters and suggests that Hemingway wanted as much to maintain contact with Anderson as to appeal to his literary sensibilities:
Well here we are. And we sit outside the Dome Café, oposite the Rotunde that’s being redecorated, warmed up against one of those charcoal brazziers and it’s so damned cold outside and the brazier makes it so warm and we drink rum punch, hot, and the rhum enters into us like the Holy Spirit.
And when it’s a cold night in the streets of Paris and we’re walking home down the Rue Bonaparte we think of the way the wolves used to slink into the city and Francois Villon and the gallows at Montfaucon. What a town.
The poetic imagery of the second paragraph is a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Lodging for the Night,’ but beyond that point all the poetry belongs to Hemingway himself:
In a couple of days we’ll be settled and then I’ll send out the letters of introduction like launching a flock of ships. … There’s a deathly, tired silence you can’t get anywhere else except a railway compartment at the end of a long ride. … We came via Spain and missed all but a day of the big storm. You ought to see the spanish coast. Big brown mountains looking like tired dinosaurs slumped down into the sea, gulls following from behind the ship holding against the air so steadily they look like property birds raised and lowered by wires. Light house looking like a little candle stuck up on the dinosaurs shoulder.
Other mainstays of Hemingway’s years in Paris make their debut appearances towards the end of Letters. The volume includes a striking photograph of the young author standing amid stacks of books inside Shakespeare & Company, supposedly in the spot where he first met Ezra Pound, while the photographer’s byline credits Sylvia Beach herself as the woman behind the camera. “Gertrude Stein who wrote Three Lives and a number of other good things was here to dinner last night and stayed till mid-night,” Hemingway writes in one of these Parisian letters. “She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice. She is very keen about my poetry. … [And on] Friday we are going to tea at Ezra Pounds. He has asked me to do an article on the present literary state of America for the Little Review.”
That was in February 1922. The following months appear to have given Hemingway little opportunity for further stylistic experimentation, at least in his letters, but they certainly afforded him the material for his early short stories as his duties for the Toronto Star took him to other European destinations, to Constantinople, and to war-ravaged Smyrna. Before the year was out, he lost almost his entire body of work when Hadley misplaced a suitcase full of his manuscripts — an incident that will open the next volume of letters, since Hemingway did not write about it until he described it to Ezra Pound in January 1923 — after which six more years in Paris and a lifetime of literary greatness awaited the unsuspecting aspiring author.
Within the next twelve months, Hemingway would become both a father and a published writer of fiction and poetry. He would also visit Pamplona, Spain, and witness the first of the many bullfights that gave him literary inspiration. In the two years after that, he would edit the transatlantic review with Ford Madox Ford, twice return to Pamplona, publish the legendary In Our Time, dedicate a solid eight weeks to producing a draft of The Sun Also Rises, and begin a long affair with the woman who would become his second wife. These experiences will no doubt shape Letters: Volume 2, as will perhaps Hadley’s discovery of her husband’s affair, the slow death of their marriage and their divorce, Hemingway’s brief but traumatic battle against anthrax, the publication of Men Without Women, his new marriage, and his decision to leave Paris in pursuit of the sun and the sea in Key West, Florida.
It remains to be seen how those experiences might have shaped Hemingway’s style and driven him decisively in the direction of minimalism, particularly as he engaged in further stylistic experimentation and developed greater awareness of the affective properties of various styles. For now, though, it is enough to be able to watch him coming into an awareness of style as a repository of affective power and of endless potential for manipulability. If Letters offered little more than a catalogue of autobiographical details, a rote record of Hemingway’s experiences and the people he encountered, it would be effectively interchangeable with a more straightforward biographical study — and, to the extent that readers approach the volume as a de factoautobiography, it is bound to be disappointing because so interchangeable. What makes it valuable is its status as a record of Hemingway’s initially tentative but increasingly confident modulation of rhetoric in service of a variety of private disclosures and for an extraordinary range of readers. What emerges from letter to letter is a gradual but steady accretion of literary ability via experimentation, a sketch, in words, of a writer enmeshed in becoming a writer. Letters is as much the opening chapter in the story of Hemingway himself as it is the opening chapter in the story of the Hemingway style, and to watch that style slowly resolve itself on the page is a privilege available nowhere else but here.
June 28, 2012
[George Armstrong] Custer’s ‘Last Stand’ is now one of the most thoroughly analysed events in American history. How, then, can anyone hope to say anything new about it?
[Nathaniel] Philbrick does not endeavour to extend the boundaries of such well-trodden territory. He knowingly offers no significant new findings that might revolutionise our understanding of Custer’s fate but attempts, instead, to reconsider the causes and consequences of Custer’s Last Stand. “Custer’s smile,” he writes in his preface, “is the ultimate mystery of this story, the story of how America, the land of liberty and justice for all, became in its centennial year the nation of the Last Stand.” Ostensibly, then, Philbrick intends to examine what Custer’s Last Stand has come to mean to America (or at least non-indigenous America) and why it enjoys such ongoing cultural resonance, although, early in his examination, he adjusts course to reconsider the Last Stand in a way that deconstructs Custer’s character and thus destroys his cultural legacy.
My review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn appears in the latest issue of Limina.
May 13, 2012
Dutch is an awkward language. It sounds humorous to me even now, except when someone uses it in anger. When my stepfather cursed, I imagined dirt in his lungs, old black farming earth from the north of Holland, clotted with blood and bone. God verdomme.
On the back cover of Michael Sala’s The Last Thread, the publisher’s blurb hails the book as “[r]eminiscent of the great autobiographical novels of JM Coetzee and Michael Ondaatje.” For a publisher to associate those names with a debut work is an audacious move, an attempt to make the book appealing to a very particular readership even at the risk of raising readers’ expectations to heights the book can’t reach. Thankfully, there’s more substance to this association than mere marketing gimmickry. Like Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Sala’s autobiographical novel depicts the tensions of a troubled youth in prose that oscillates between the lyrical and the limpid. Like those novels, too, The Last Thread strikes a balance between the personalisation and depersonalisation of a life story, concluding with an adult’s first-person reminiscence on his boyhood years after he has offered a third-person depiction of his younger self. But are those similarities enough to make The Last Thread worth reading? If troubled youths are a dime a dozen in the age of the misery memoir, and if Coetzee and Ondaatje have breathed new life into a tired genre with various artistic flourishes, is it enough for Sala to follow his masters’ footsteps through such well-trodden territory or does he break away from them to blaze a trail of his own?
Michael Sala was born in Holland in 1975 but immigrated to Australia in the 1980s. The first part of The Last Thread follows a young boy, Michaelis, on a broadly similar but less straightforward journey. Born in Bergen Op Zoom to a Greek father and a Dutch mother who divorced when he was an infant, Michaelis moves to Australia with his brother, his mother, and his abusive stepfather Dirk. After his mother experiences difficulties adjusting to Australian life, the family makes a return to Holland but then, when a change of heart leaves his mother longing to see Australia again, the family embarks on a third migration back to the coastal city of Newcastle. Intertwined with the turmoil of repeated and prolonged migration are a succession of other disruptions to Michaelis’ social and emotional stability. His ongoing fear of the tempestuous Dirk and his gravitation towards his distant father in Holland. The birth of a half-brother whose arrival signals Dirk’s permanent presence in the life of the family. The deterioration of the relationship between his mother and his stepfather, and then the discovery of the secret that has shamed his Dutch family for the better part of forty years.
I wasn’t captured by Sala’s story, although I’m not sure that the story is supposed to be so captivating. The dramatic tension has been sapped from every source that might generate drama. Dirk’s abuses are acknowledged, summarised, but rarely described in detail. Michaelis’ father in Holland hovers around the margins of the novel without doing anything particularly interesting. Even the vaunted family secret turns out to be less a source of shock, outrage, and familial conflict than a half-hearted revelation coloured by ignobility. The storyteller is too guarded, too detached, to mine all the depths of storytelling.
Where The Last Thread works best is in its exploitation of the interstice between the story told and the telling of it. Consider what happens after the events of The Last Thread have ended but before they can be distilled into words and transformed into literature. Sala’s decision to engage in autobiographical fiction suggests a belief that the act of writing allows the author to retrospectively edit, reshape, explain, and manage the experiences he could neither understand nor control when he first endured them. Yet, counterbalancing the belief implicit in its form, The Last Thread is guided by an undercurrent of ambivalence about whether the act of writing can indeed allow for the reclamation of control, and the novel comes to life when the narrator’s anxieties leave him paralysed and vacillating between subjecting his material to renewed control and wallowing in the linguistic mud.
For the most part, The Last Thread unfolds with what appears to be a steady stylistic assurance. I counted only one use of parentheses and no more than perhaps a dozen dashes: the point being that the novel consists of a succession of statements laid on the page largely without interjection, digression, equivocation, and qualification. The prose strides on, clear and direct, and yet, beneath the sense of assurance it conveys, the narrative seems crippled by the narrator’s ambivalence about the assuredness of his linguistic and recollective capabilities. With his sentences of almost relentless linearity, the narrator, Michael, erects a façade of certainty over a narrative that repeatedly returns to those moments in which he senses the fragility of both his words and his memories. The premises of the form of the autobiographical novel begin to falter as The Last Thread pushes forward with a life story told by a narrator with less than total confidence in his abilities to remember the life and to tell a story.
“It’s important to know what happened,” Michaelis’ mother tells him after he gains an awareness of the Holocaust. “If enough people know, if they really know about that sort of thing, maybe it won’t happen again.” But the causal connections of that last sentence crumble under the pressure of a moment’s thought. “When Mum is gone,” the adult Michael writes, “Michaelis lies in the darkness thinking about what she said. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand how knowing about something can stop it from happening again. It’s never been that way for him. Like when he crosses his legs under the table. He’s eight and he’s been doing it forever. When he crosses his legs, Dirk kicks him in the shin. Once the pain has died down, Michaelis just does the same thing again. … It is called forgetting.” But because the forgetting is remembered by the adult version of the child who forgets, it undermines the veracity of what else is remembered in this scene and throughout the novel.
At times, too, other characters in the novel, versions of real people remembered by Michael, explicitly challenge the accuracy of what he, as the narrator, remembers. “They ride [their bicycles] alongside a field locked in early morning fog,” he writes of his younger self, his brother, and his father, and he adds that “[t]he ears of rabbits rise and dip as the bike rattles past.” But then, without having spoken as his younger self, he remembers his father refuting the observation Michael has made as the narrator: “‘You always say they’re rabbits,’ Dad says, ‘but they’re not. They’re hares. Hares have longer ears.’” Remembered events are remembered in a way that repeatedly challenges the authority of the rememberer. “Oh God,” says Michaelis’ mother, remembering the moment, years earlier, when her husband’s Greek parents offered her the culinary delicacy of pickled sparrows. “[T]hose naked little sparrows,” she complains. “It made me sick to the stomach just looking at them!” Michaelis chimes in — “I remember that,” he says — but then his brother, Constantine, enters the conversation and shouts him down. “You don’t remember anything,” Constantine sneers.
Also working against the veracity of Michael’s remembrances are, firstly, the recurrent accusation that Michaelis does not pay close enough attention to the details of the world around him — an accusation levelled by his father, his brother, and even his teacher — and, more importantly, the difficulties of articulating those remembrances in an adopted language. “Words from home” reflexively slip off Michaelis’ tongue after his arrival in Australia, “but suddenly they are out of place.” He cannot communicate in a lucid way. “What’s Holland like?” a school counsellor asks him in an effort to help the boy open up. When Michaelis begins talking,
[w]ords from home tumble into his sentences. He talks about Dad and football in the park. He tells the [counsellor] about the endless rain — het regen — about his ten uncles and aunts, one for each finger, though he never saw most of them, and about snowy-haired Moessie who lives with a white dog Baasje on the top floor of an apartment block called the Bunthof. Underneath the apartment block stretches a dimly lit tunnel with lots of doors. Each door leads to a dry, stale smelling room like a prison cell, except people put bikes and old stuff they don’t need down there. … Michaelis runs out of words and has to draw pictures.
Obviously, the adult Michael does not resort to drawing pictures in order to articulate his remembrances. But he does assemble his sentences in a way that suggests an uncertainty about the capacity of his English words to accurately refer to aspects of his childhood world. Michaelis arrives in “a place called Sydney,” for instance, and then he moves to “a place called Newcastle” where he plays video games on “a machine called an Atari.” The English language “is so clean in his head yet comes out so muddy from his mouth,” and Michael’s efforts to ensure that it does not now come out muddy on the page result in the overdetermination of even those simple referents. As the fallibility of his memory places the narrator’s vision of his own childhood world forever on the brink of collapse, the words with which he reconstructs that world are burdened with the task of stabilising it where it risks faltering. Michael’s words, and especially his rare redundancies and circumlocutions, not only work to convey his remembrances but also suggest an attempt to forestall their dissolution.
Michaelis’ interactions with his beloved mother construe this later act of writing as an enterprise undertaken in her linguistic shadow. Her entire life revolves around the palpable realisation of a single word that occupies her mind and is forever on her tongue. The word is gezellig.”
This is Mum’s word. ‘Nou ja, dit is gezellig,’ she says as she shrugs off her coat full of winter rain and puts on a light. Gezellig. Indoors you hear it, around talk and tea and coffee and pastries with cinnamon and clove and nutmeg, around Mum’s music. You hear it between people, and you cannot touch it because it is a feeling a place has when it is filled with the right kind of things, when it is safe, when Dirk is away.
All the actions of Michaelis’ mother, the intermittent readjustments of her circumstances, are aimed ultimately at transforming her life into this single word. The actions of her adult son, the writing of his life in the form of a novel, testify to his inability to distill his own life into just one word — even though, in a sense, he should be able to do so. Because he is now an adult, because his boyhood is behind him, because Dirk is away, his life should be gezellig. But insofar as that word cannot encapsulate his life, insofar as he makes recourse to tens of thousands of words, his boyhood is not behind him and Dirk, although absent, has not gone away.
For Michael to have grasped gezelligheid would have been for him to pre-emptively negate the need to sit down and write The Last Thread. The writing of the novel, then, is a recollective purging of Dirk, a reaching towards catharsis, whose ideal ending is the realisation of gezelligheid. Yet, perhaps inevitably, gezelligheid continues to elude Michael by the end of the novel. The Last Thread comes to an end without actually ending by veering into a circularity, by denying the author gezelligheid and directing him towards an abundance of words, by bringing Michael to a point at which the end of his childhood with Dirk allows him to remember and begin writing about his childhood with Dirk. “He doesn’t understand how knowing about something can stop it from happening again,” and in fact, in his own case, it is his knowledge of his childhood with Dirk that allows that childhood to be continually happening in the narrator’s memory. As above, while the story of that childhood is stirring and distressing, the thrust of The Last Thread lies less in the story told than in the telling of it, in the manner of that telling and in its failure to elaborate into something with reference beyond itself. If it’s not quite of the calibre of Coetzee and Ondaatje, it is recognisably — and audaciously — of the same blood.