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Justin Beplate

Talking Bull

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923-1925
Edited by Sandra Spanier, Albert J DeFazio III & Robert W Trogdon (Cambridge University Press 515pp £30)
Woodcut from the frontispiece of 'In Our Time', 1924

The second volume of Hemingway's Letters covers three formative years in the writer's life - from 1923, and the frank admission to one editor that 'I want, like hell, to get published', to the end of 1925, when, buoyed by the modest success of his short-story collection In Our Time and the machinations of influential friends, he plays off several major publishers for the rights to his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. These are the early years immortalised in A Moveable Feast, the years of getting known in the glittering expatriate circles of 1920s Paris literati, of forming and breaking those crucial alliances that would launch his career as a writer.

The first volume of the Letters, closes with a disastrous setback to Hemingway's literary aspirations - the theft of all his manuscripts, left unguarded by his wife, Hadley, in a suitcase at the Gare de Lyon - and the second opens with another, no less crushing blow: Hadley's pregnancy. Fatherhood was an unwelcome cramp on Hemingway's style, as the intoxications of European travel and bohemian life in the Latin Quarter gave way to the sober prospect of parental responsibility. Plans were made to return to Toronto, where the couple quickly settled into a new apartment and Hemingway started work as a staff writer for the Toronto Daily Star.

The pall of domestic drudgery dogs Hemingway's letters of this time. He wrote to Gertrude Stein with news of the baby's birth, adding, 'The free time that I imagined in front of a typewriter in a newspaper office has not been. There hasn't been any time free or otherwise for anything.' To Ezra Pound he complained, 'I can't sleep just with the horror of the Goddam thing. I have not had a drink for five days.' He begged his friend to throw him the lifeline of a letter from Europe. The complaints continued even after the family's move back to Paris. 'We have been experimenting with living with a baby etc,' wrote Hemingway to Pound, apologising for the lack of correspondence. 'Hadley sick in bed for quite a while, me for a few days, baby hollers etc. Have tried to write but couldnt bring it off.'

The letters to Pound - Hemingway's most important mentor in this period - are the highlights of this volume. Bawdy, humorous, linguistically playful, they were also opportunities for Hemingway to play up the braggadocio of the swaggering male. 'Christ how I want to get drunk with someone that knows what the hell I am talking about,' he writes at the end of 1923, before launching into a tirade against all 'the shits' (literary, artistic, journalistic, high- or low-minded) that stand in the way of 'a man who likes to drink and fuck and eat and talk and read the papers and write something': a no-bullshit male, in short, like Pound or Hemingway. The letters to Pound also show him pandering to the prejudices of the older writer, whose pro-Mussolini sympathies would later mutate into the notorious pro-Fascist propaganda of his war years. The objectionable girlfriend of a mutual friend is portrayed as a 'Bloomsbury Jewine' or, in a later variation, a 'Bloomsbury kike intellectual'; Lewis Galantière, critic and erstwhile friend, is a 'little Jewish boy and a fool'; and among the many virtues of bulls listed in one letter to Pound (they are not critics, do not ask for money, are not sentimental, do not frequent fashionable Parisian cafés) is the remarkable fact that 'Bulls are not jews'.

Pound was one of the very few literary friends Hemingway never fell out with. Otherwise, with the exception of James Joyce (and even he does not escape a bitchy aside about the incompatibility of physical valour and art), the friendships so assiduously cultivated until now - Sherwood Anderson, Robert McAlmon, Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos - would all fall apart under the strain of petty rivalries and personal betrayals, real or imagined, during the ensuing years. The bust-up with Stein was one of the most notorious and protracted of these, and would furnish some memorable material for the later, fictionalised memoirs of both writers. Stein, the self-appointed doyenne of high modernism, seems to have enjoyed playing the role of motherly sage to the impressionable young writer, but the role-playing could only last so long. If the letters in this volume do not give much away about the origins of the break, they do register its unmistakable effects. In February 1925 Hemingway is fulsome in his praise for all the 'swell stuff' Stein has written: 'She's the best head I know,' he wrote to his close friend Bill Smith. 'Never wrong ... Can always tell you whats wrong with your stuff when you dont know but only that it aint right. She's sure given me the straight dope.' By November, In Our Time having been published in New York by Boni & Liveright the previous month, the rift is already evident in a letter to Pound in which Hemingway complains of 'the way my so called friends have taken to regarding me as something fairly scabrous through the accident of having a book published by a so called regular publisher. It seems to have been the very worst way I could have betrayed them all. Referring to G. Stein, McAlmon et al.' Hemingway had recently turned on another valuable mentor of his early career by writing a florid parody of Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter, but in his correspondence with Pound he presents Stein as beyond parody: 'Stuff like Gertrude isn't worth the bother to show up. It's easier simply to quote from it.'

Robert McAlmon, who had accompanied Hemingway on his first two trips to see the bullfighting in Pamplona and whose Contact Editions had brought out Hemingway's first published work, Three Stories and Ten Poems, in August 1923, was yet another 'betrayer' to be disowned and dispatched. Like Stein, McAlmon had a sharp wit and relished skewering Hemingway's affectations of hard-boiled manliness, describing how his love for shadow-boxing was quickly replaced by 'shadow-bullfighting' on his return from Spain, and marvelling at 'the amount of imaginary cape work and sword thrusts he made in those days'. With Hemingway's move to the commercial publishers Boni & Liveright, McAlmon's usefulness was over. Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald that 'McAlmon is a son of a bitch with a mind like an ingrowing toe nail', recasting his earlier friendship with McAlmon as one fuelled by pity for his 'horribly unhappy English arrangement' (a reference to the marriage of convenience which the homosexual McAlmon had entered into with English writer Annie Winifred Ellerman).

If war was the formative experience of the first volume of Letters, in this volume we see the revelatory, almost religious power of bullfighting at work on the young writer's consciousness. It was in fact Stein who first steered Hemingway towards the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, and in early June 1923, flush from the spectacle of the great Nicanor Villalta y Serrés in the bullring, he would write to Stein that 'boxing looks paler and paler'. The intensity of the experience is evident from his letters. 'It's a great tragedy,' he explained to Bill Horne, 'and the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibly could.' In a letter to his friend Greg Clark there is a tone of boyish excitement - 'Gee I'd love to take you to a bull fight. You'd like it better than anything I'll bet ... I saw 3 matadors badly gored out of 24 bulls killed' - and a prediction that 'some very good stories will come out of it some day'. He was right, of course, though that day was closer at hand than even he may have realised.

In a letter to Fitzgerald near the end of this volume, Hemingway ventures 'the reason you are so sore you missed the war is because war is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.' In a sense Hemingway missed the war, too; he took away shrapnel wounds, but, as he assured Fitzgerald, 'I didnt see or get anything worth a damn out as a whole show ... because I was too young.' Bullfighting, with its compression of action and dramatic possibility, would give him a second chance and serve the same aesthetic ends. As he put it to Horne, 'It's just like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.'


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Justin Beplate is a lecturer in English at the Université Paris II.


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund