Friday, April 6, 2007

Follow-Up on the Discussion We Had on Hemingway's Stories

Dear Students,

I would like to thank you for your engagement and your enthusiasm about Hemingway's short stories that you demonstrated yesterday. I wish we had more time to discuss all the beauty and subtlety of his writing style, as well as his message in those 3 stories. I have already received a few letters from some students where they say what a deep impression these stories have produced on them. Please remember tha we are going to discuss "The Sun Also Rises" on April 19. (I have uploaded a file in the revised .doc format. It doesn't contain weird symbols.)

I got a very interesting message from Sveta and I would like to invite both my students and readers of this blog to a discussion of the issue raised by Sveta:

Anna Vladimirovna, about today's discussion. You didn't answer my question. I really want to know your opinion: How could Hemingway write about 'the importance of being important' for a woman if he had 4 official wives (to say nothing of non-official)? From his biography, I learned that he treated his women not in a very fair way. Though you've said the author's personality has nothing to do with his works, I shall disagree with you. All works are written according to life experience, after all.


anna_filatova said...

Sveta, to have a right to ask questions you cannot answer yourself is one of the privileges of teaching … :) However, I’d like to share my ideas with you.

I did want to answer your question in class, but we got carried away by the discussion of the stories. I am flattered by your interest in what I think. Frankly speaking, I am often way too willing to share my opinion with the class and sometimes I have to restrain myself not to come across as imposing and nerdish.

When I was your age, I tended to react the same way. I used to think that art could not be separated from its creator and that a writer should live up to the values he advocates.

When I was 16, I read all the published poetry and prose (including personal diaries, journals, and correspondence) by Marina Tsvetaeva. Maybe it was then that I understood that it’s a bad idea to be judgmental and categorical in trying to measure up a poet’s personal life (e.g. indulging in extramarital love affairs, forming close friendships and severing them easily, being a bad mother and a bad housewife, etc) with her immeasurable poetic gift which was overwhelming even to her, which used her up as an instrument, a channel for transmitting poetry of the highest magnitude (Sorry, I am metaphysical in a Plato kind of way).

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), a writer isn’t freed from human bondage: of the right to commit blunders, to fall a victim to passions, to be desperate and lost. We exercise all of these rights - this is how we develop personally and find purpose in life. The only difference is that people who have a true talent are slightly more daring in exploring different manifestations of life and using their experience as a source of inspiration and new ideas. You remember we talked about Hemingway’s numerous hobbies and his audacious adventures (going to World War I as an ambulance driver and a correspondent to WWII). What drove him forward, what made him take all those risks?..

As to the issue of love, I want to quote one of my favorite poets Rainer-Maria Rilke. I would highly recommend you to read his famous “Letters to a Young Poet” which will shed light on the nature of creativity and an artist’s true vocation ( This is what he said in his seventh letter: “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”

We are human and we invariably choose this journey with all its bliss and all its pitfalls, frustrations, and soul-searching. Maybe when we master the art of self-giving love that expects nothing in return, we will become true creators. Then our life is going to be pure poetry.

That’s why I am inclined to forgive Ernest Hemingway for his being human. Because I myself err all the time. And because I like his literary legacy. After all, as Boris Pasternak said, “talant-edinstvennaya novost” (“Talent is all that matters”).

Did I answer your question?

PS Don’t you agree that we all crave for feeling important at least to people we love? That was my resume to the three stories we had discussed. It applied more to “The Cat in the Rain”, but if one looks deeper, it can also be referred to “Hills like White Elephants” and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber”.

Which story did you like best? Which story moved you most? I am looking forward to your sharing impressions about the stories we have read so far. I hope other students will join in.

Neil Winton said...

I think one of the really interesting things about studying any writer is to look at his or her life and the world that they live(d) in as I feel that this can often help to inform our reading of their work. For example, had the ‘Cold War’ not been such a real thing in the late 1940s would George Orwell have been able to write “1984” as powerfully? Similarly, had Hemingway not been involved in the Spanish Civil War, would he have written “For Whom The Bell Tolls”?

However, I also feel it is vitally important to recognise that any good writer is capable of writing from a point-of-view that is not necessarily representative of their own thoughts and beliefs. By this I mean that it is quite possible for an author to put forward a character, or a theme, which is not an accurate reflection of the writer.

A good writer is able to create a convincing reality or a realistic character through their skill with words, that is why we admire and study them… and we accept that these creations are fictional. I do not have to have actually murdered someone to write convincingly about murder… similarly, I do not have to agree with a particular point-of-view (eg: racism or feminism) in order to write sympathetically about it.

What one does find is that, whilst having contextual knowledge of a particular writer can be beneficial, one is left to study a text for what it is… not what one wishes it to be.

Sveta raises a good point: “All works are written according to life experience, after all.” This is true, but it is (I feel) a mistake to assume that all life experiences become a part of the writer’s work. TS Eliot took great delight in lacing “The Waste Land” with metaphysical references and allusions which were purely artistic creations… but the impetus for the poem came from the aftermath of the Great War.

Incidentally, I do not believe that this is an exclusively literary trait. If one studies what was happening in music and art in the aftermath of the Great War, one can see how many works of art are a reaction to the collective experience of war… yet they do not take war as their subject matter.

If I use myself as an example here I’ll try to make a couple of last points.

I try to treat everyone fairly in my teaching and in my daily life, but that does not prevent me from adopting a persona in my writing which can be fair / bigoted / racist / understanding / passionate / loving / cynical / heartless / etc. etc. etc. Like Shakespeare, I have studied people and so know how to write about them and if I were talented enough I could convince you that I believed one thing when I hold a completely different opinion. The problem you would have is trying to separate the reality from the artifice… or you could simply concentrate on the words I would leave in my writing and ignore the writer. All you could say about me was that there were certain events going on in the world at the time I lived… but you can never truly know how they affected me.

Finally, as time passes we lose contact with a writer’s life… or at least in sufficient detail to validate an opinion on the influence his or her life has on the writing. We know a lot about Shakespeare’s era, yet we know remarkably little about Shakespeare the man. His plays imply that he was a humanist in his outlook, yet there is no hard evidence from his life that we could point to to support this point-of-view. Even with all of the wonderful technology we have at our disposal today (and will have in the future), can we truly say we know what another person is thinking? I don’t think so, and that is why I believe that we have to take any text on its own merits and use our contextual knowledge sparingly and wisely.

so-summer said...

And in my opinion, Hemingway writes about "the importance of being important" for ANY human being, be it a man or a woman. However, I noticed that the sufferings of a male character are usually more important and "universal", than that of women. Just compare 2 stories: "Hills like White Elephants" and "The short and happy life of Fransis Macomber". We know that abortion is a quite dangerous operation, that a woman puts at risk her ability to have children later and that usually this decision is a stark choice. But in the story the girl has already made up her mind, and it is the hesitation of her partner that made her ill at ease. While in "The Short and Happy Life of Fransis Macomber" a man suffers just because he ran for life. But in the author's opinion, the man's role as a severe hunter is superior to a woman's role as a mother and a wife. A woman sacrificing herself for her beloved is "weaker" than a man sacrificing his life for a short moment of extasy and thurst for blood. From the point of view of ferocious but magnificent nature and laws of surviving, it is so. So I think the idea of Hemingway's stories does not contradict his life experience. It does not mean that he did not respect a woman as a human being, as a personality at all,and still, he let only male characters experience how sweet it is to win a fair battle, regardless the cost of victory.

ewe said...

Hello, Anna Vladimirovna!
I think, there's no any more comments here because students just have nothing to add to these two thorough comments :)
Actually, I agree with Sveta but not absolutely. I wouldn't be so categorical in stating that "All works are written according to life experience". Yes, life experience moulds the character and influences on views, but it, as Neil Winton said, "I do not have to have actually murdered someone to write convincingly about murder".
And about "treating his women not in a very fair way". Hmm, Sveta emphasizes that Hemingway had 4 wives. I think every person decides whether he/she wants to be happy and seek for happiness with the beloved person or to tend to maintain wearisome for both (because, from my point of view, if one in a couple doesn't love there can't be happiness for another) wedlock.

anna_filatova said...

Lena, Olga, thanks for contributing your insights to our discussion. I hope we'll continue this conversation when discussing "The Sun Also Rises" next week.

Meanwhile, could you please comment on Olga K.'s ruminations about Hemingway? She put it quite nicely.

Sunrise said...

Sveta: Frankly speaking, the three stories by Hamingway seem somehow identic to me. However, each one contains a distinguished nuance on the 'woman theme'. For example, 'Hills like white elephants' emphasize the importance of being taking care of and listened to. 'The cat in the rain' prompts to think about the importnace of women's desires and not the stupidity or absurdity of them. As to 'The short happy life of Frances Macomber', it reminds the reader that a woman is alwais a cup of passion, however old she is. The only obstacle to giving out her feelings may be a partner who either has complexes, like cowardness, or just doesn't perceive women as human beings at all.