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In an interview for The Paris Review in 1958, Ernest Hemingway pronounced what has now become famous in short story theory: the principle of the iceberg.

“Surely.  If a writer stops observing he is finished.  But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful.  Perhaps that would be true at the beginning.  But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.  If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg.  There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.  Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.  It is the part that doesn’t show.  If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Although Hemingway was referring to the art of writing in general, his statement appears as particularly appropriate when considering the short story genre.  Indeed, with this metaphor, Hemingway expressed a technique central to the art of the short story, that of suggestiveness.  Because of its shortness, the short story often relies on this principle and is often characterised by ellipsis.  As a result, the reader becomes an active agent in the creation of the story.  This might leave interpretation more open, but might also result in misinterpretation or a less rich interpretation.

I had been curious to read the short stories written by the man who enunciated this principle for a while and to see how he put it into practice.  I finally managed to read a couple of his short stories this week and I must admit that they have left me perplexed (not in a bad way).  They seem at first to resist the notion of unity characteristic of many short stories following Edgar Allan Poe’s predicament, thus, perhaps, opening the path to a new generation of writers who have tended to experiment and even subvert the genre and its conventions.  I do not believe that Hemingway’s and Poe’s principles are mutually exclusive, on the contrary, but I find that Hemingway’s stories open too many doors to be actually characterised by Poe’s notion of unity.  This is my initial reaction to Hemingway’s stories and I think it could be because they appear as an expression of existentialist, somewhat abstract, reflections.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, which you can read here, is the first story I ever read by Hemingway.  It was published in 1933 in Winner Take Nothing.  Let me tell you something, if you find Beckett depressing, then do not go near Hemingway. 

The story is set in a café, in Spain, where two waiters are waiting for an old man to finish drinking so that they can close up and go home.  As they wait, the waiters discuss the old man’s suicide attempt the previous week and this prompt them to consider why he would rather sit there alone in a café rather than drink at home.  Significantly, the two waiters are differentiated by their age and the older one empathises with the old man.  He points out that the young waiter cannot understand:

“‘You have youth, confidence, and a job,’ the older waiter said.  ‘You have everything.’

‘And what do you lack?’

‘Everything but work.'”

The story points to the emptiness of life, particularly for those who lack “everything but work”.  This is also suggested by the repetitive prose and the extensive use of “and”, thus resulting in an enumerative style, which reflects the repetitiveness and mundanity of daily life.  Indeed, as the older waiter is on his way to a bar, his thoughts are about nothingness:

“It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.”

Thus, modern life is characterised by nothingness and things like “a clean and pleasant café . . . well lighted” become important as they seem to restore a certain order in a chaotic world.

Sobrino de Botin, restaurant frequented by Hemingway in Madrid

“A Very Short Story”, which can be read here, might be short in length but covers a few year relationship and how it ended.  It was published in 1925 in In Our Time.  In the space of a few lines, Hemingway recounts the love affair between a soldier and a nurse.  They meet during the war but never get married, not even after the end of the war when the soldier returns and goes home to find a job so that Luz can later join him.  However, Luz discovers that there is more than one man on earth and she breaks up the relationship.  Although she changes her mind later, the soldier never replies to her letter but we learn that “[a] short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.”

This story offers a grim but realistic view on relationships, particularly when one is young and during a time of war when there are fewer opportunities to meet someone.  It also challenges this idea of everlasting love and suggests that promises might be empty and result in nothing. 

I would have liked to spend more time reflecting on these stories, read more of them and read more about Hemingway as I was only familiar with the “iceberg principle” and The Old Man and the Sea, which I read so long ago I cannot remember it in detail.  However, I have promised to put this post up today and I would not like to have made an empty promise and offer you nothing, nada.

This post is part of The Classics Circuit tour on the Lost Generation held by Rebecca.  You can find links to all the posts presented as part of this tour here and read more on Hemingway and other Lost Generation writers.

This post is part of the America Lost Generation tour held at The Classic Circuits.  Visit the site to read more post on Hemingway and other lost generation writers.

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I was so looking forward to reading this book, but it was a big disappointment.  I had never read anything by Philip Roth, but was curious about him, so when I came across My Life as a Man, I thought “Why not?”.  The blurb was tempting, it seemed to be the kind of books I am into: a writer, a story-within-a-story and “meditations on the fatal impasse between a man and a woman”.  It seemed tempting enough.

The book begins with two “Useful Fictions” about Nathan Zuckerman, which are then followed by “My True Story”, a memoir written by Peter Tarnopol, who is also the author of the two preceding stories.  I usually like this type of multi-layered stories, but the style of writing left me cold.  Despite my best efforts at liking it, I did not manage.

Firstly, while reading “Salad Days” and “Courting Disaster”, the two useful fictions, I would often lose track of the narrator’s chain of thoughts.  I thought that it might have been done on purpose, and it probably was, as you later discover that their author is suffering from depression, although I do not think the word is ever used.  However, those stories are entertaining and, I was also anticipating the second section of the book, waiting to see where these stories would lead me.

My expectations were deceived.  The style remained more or less the same: long sentences and paragraphs, but I can deal with that and, at first, I was enjoying reading that section.  Then, it seemed that the narrator kept repeating the same story over and over and over again, only focusing on different people: his wife, his partner (after his wife’s death) and his analyst.  Yet, the only person he is talking about is himself.  The narrative is narcissistic, like him, and this word is actually repeated so many times that you cannot fail to understand this.  When I reached the last part of the novel, I had had more than enough reading about his failed marriage.  Then I saw that it is entitled “free” and I sighed with relief (I am going to be free at last!).  This part is actually my favourite of the book; maybe because I knew the end was close, but it seems fresher, with new elements added to the narrative, and the pace is faster.

I first thought I did not enjoy it because I was reading too slowly, only bit by bit.  I then realised that I could not managed reading it for longer periods of time; I was just growing impatient and fidgety or getting sleepy!

One thing I must say is that Roth is succesful at conveying the internal turmoil of his narrator, whose marriage keeps haunting him long after his wife’s death, but, for me, it became boring and annoying.  I have now learnt that the inspiration for this novel was Roth’s own unhappy marriage and that he admitted that the story was largely autobiographical.  This does not make me like the novel any more; it only makes me feel pity for Roth.

I like some narrative aspects of My Life as a Man, such as its self-consciousness and how it makes you think about the writing process, but this was not enough to raise my interest.  I have read a few reviews about it since finishing the book.  Some seem to think it is his worse book, others really like it.  I am not saying that I will never read another book by him again, but I will not rush to the bookstore to buy it.

Last night, with the wind howling outside, I sat down in front of the fire to read “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.  I had never read anything by Poe before (or I might have when I was younger, but in French and so long ago that I don’t really remember).  It was about time to read some of the stories written by the first author to discuss how the short story works and to set the principles that became the basis  short story theory.  According to Poe: “the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance.  It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting”.  Indeed, this principle becomes evident when reading his stories.  Every word seems to be down on paper in order to create a certain impression and very little is explained, which actually helps to the effect the story has on the reader.  They left me perplexed.

Both stories can be classified as gothic fiction and are concerned with characters who suffer from mental disorders.  Thinking about it now, I realise that the two stories also rely heavily for their effect on the incidences of sound, which adds to the creepy atmosphere.  I find “The House of Usher” great for the atmosphere it creates and its way of showing how the house reflects the mental state of its inhabitants until their fall.  However, I prefer “The Tell-Tale Heart” with its mad narrator who attempts to prove his sanity by explaining how he committed murder (because of the old man’s vulture eye) and finally confessed his perfect crime to the unsuspicious police officers because he was hearing his victim’s heartbeat.

For some reason, I find little to say about them and I think it is probably because their impact resides in the experience of reading them. 

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