True Sentences & Biased Books

One true sentence, eh? Well, here goes. Real men cry. Or here’s another: success is only sweet after failures … OK, that one’s a bit self-help and lame and let’s hold hands and sit down in a circle and hum together. It’s instructive though. When good things happen appreciation of them is only really possible in comparison with the times when similar expectations were not met or somehow blew up in one’s face.

Is a true sentence hard to write? Would Mr. Hemingway approve? Yeah, it’s not easy, not that I’m completely confident I know what he meant when he wrote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know” in A Moveable Feast, one of my favourite books. Perhaps this is a true sentence: there are several examples of passages I don’t understand in books I claim to be my favourites. At least that is honest … but one suspects Ernest meant something different from honest when he put sown the word true. True means no artifice, I think. And artifice is difficult to shake – potentially it is even impossible to evade – as we are all trying to appear in some sort of control, to show the world (or those we care about or those who we deem are worth impressing) our best selves, and so the way we dress, talk, eat, smell all has something of artifice about it. Do we even have true selves? Good question. Dunno. It is tempting to think that alone, in a bare room, on a chair, a person is truly their self – but this could actually be misleading. Many people are quite deluded, and if it is possible to lie to oneself so successfully, the true personality being obscured even from the individual who projects some vestige of that personality to society, then possibly the whole question is pointless. If sometimes we don’t even know who we are then how can others know us – or is there a true self to know – or are we different selves to the different segments of society we present ourselves to, including ourselves? Maybe.

A true sentence is the sort of thing Ernest wrote in this book, his book about being a struggling writer in Paris. Something like: in those days we were poor and writing work was tough as it was cold and sacrifices had to be made as we had bugger all money and a little baby but we were happy as we were in love and we had enough to live on. (Not that Hemingway wrote sentences like that very often.) The real circumstances of Ernest, his then wife Hadley, their child, and their cat F. Puss were much more prosperous than presented in this work, in fact. Thus a true sentence relating such an image about this time cannot be seen as very true at all.

It is bloody difficult to write something true that isn’t also banal or boringly obvious: it is warmer in summer than winter … when it rains in dry places plants tend to grow … it is better to be loved than despised, are all examples. There’s not much that is insightful there. The trick is to be wise and to be true, and that can be difficult. What Ernest seems to go out of his way to say in this book that when he drank alcohol it was to warm him – as he wasn’t a pathetic girly alcy, like the friend and (admittedly hopelessly, embarrassingly alcohol dependant) who had once helped him so much, F. Scott Fitzgerald. No, Ernest wasn’t a girl, and he could take his liquor, and this sounds like I’m having a pop at the bloke and maybe I am: but as a bloke – not as a writer: what he wrote and how he wrote it can hardly have been bettered. He was so influential that authors still try to ape his spare, short sentence, basic word style – but he was the best, he started it and still conquers all comers as they have a go at his method.

Ernest could be unpleasant. But he was a great writer. There, that’s two true sentences.

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Published in: on August 17, 2010 at 8:23 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey just had a look at your blog, found you via twitter, we are now following each other. On Ernest, he could be unpleasant (but can’t we all? I am doing my bit to try to reclaim his reputation, I don’t think he was that bad; I think he was misunderstood) and he *was* a great writer, despite what Faulkner said (he had a go at Hem for not using longer words. ‘I know the ten dollar words,’ said Hemingway, ‘but the short words are the good words.’ (Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing but making it look like direct speech.)

    I don’t know if you’ll even see this comment, it’s buried a bit, but NICE BLOG. I’ll be back…

  2. Well I did see your comment. Thank you, Jenny. Glad we found each other. Twitter is useful for something, eh?
    I love that thing about the two dollar (or was it five dollar?) words and the ten dollar words. And Hem’s right, of course. Big fan of Hem the writer, but he sounds as if he was unpleasant to his wives (perhaps not so unusual in a male writer of genius, unfortunately), and treated many other people very badly too, and most of all he treated Scott Fitzgerald with disdain, and I find it very difficult to forgive that, as a lover of FSF’s work (and sympathiser with his problems).
    I found your blog too. And I’ll be going there.
    Phil

  3. Funny, I am more sympathetic to Hemingway’s impatience with Fitzgerald rather than Scott’s situation, eg his perceived (by Hemingway) weaknesses, with Zelda etc. This is probably because I’ve read more Ernest stuff than Scott stuff particularly biographic stuff which I can’t get enough of. Yes he was unpleasant to his wives but I wonder if that was a surprise to them… I see him as flawed but not horrible and I think he had some very good qualities, eg he was quite tender with his sons. But yes, a difficult man.

    Very nice to find a local appreciator of such things and thanks for following my wordpress. I’ll follow yours too once I work out how to…

    • Looks like we’re about to have a problem then.

      Nah, joking. Point taken. I suppose part of the Ernest mythologising – which he must have participated in too – means that his negative side is also seen through the prism of mythology, and that makes him seem almost inhuman. Which can’t be right. It’s a fascinating life, and I must confess I haven’t read enough about it yet.

      Always interested in people who share views about reading and writing. (Must confess to not completely understanding how all this works, either.)

  4. Yes he did create that larger than life reputation, deliberately I think. I guess there are all types, and while he has the name of being a big-time bastard, I just wonder if it’s entirely deserved. But his reputation helped him sell books and he encouraged people to think of him that way. I’m not saying there’s nothing in it, he sent terribly scathing letters to Fitzgerald and treated some people who’d been very good to him very badly. I see him as flawed, and openly flawed people are more interesting (to me) than those who seem really decent.

    Yes I love talking about this stuff. Hope you have a good weekend.

    • Oh yes. Agreed. I’ve always rejected the assumption that talented people must also be somehow saintly or even wholesome. I prefer to find they are/were flawed. Makes the talent seem more real or something.


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