Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway
By GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ
July 26, 1981
recognized him immediately, passing with his wife Mary Welsh on the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris one rainy spring day in 1957. He walked on the other side of the street, in the direction of the Luxembourg Gardens, wearing a very worn pair of cowboy pants, a plaid shirt and a ballplayer's cap. The only thing that didn't look as if it belonged to him was a pair of metal-rimmed glasses, tiny and round, which gave him a premature grandfatherly air. He had turned 59, and he was large and almost too visible,but he didn't give the impression of brutal strength that he undoubtedly wished to, because his hips were narrow and his legs looked a little emaciated above his coarse lumberjack shoes. He looked so alive amid the secondhand bookstalls and the youthful torrent from the Sorbonne that it was impossible to imagine he had but four years left to live.
For a fraction of a second, as always seemed to be the case, I found myself divided between my two competing roles. I didn't know whether to ask him for an interview or cross the avenue to express my unqualified admiration for him. But with either proposition, I faced the same great inconvenience. At the time, I spoke the same rudimentary English that I still speak now, and I wasn't very sure about his bullfighter's Spanish. And so I didn't do either of the things that could have spoiled that moment, but instead cupped both hands over my mouth and, like Tarzan in the jungle, yelled from one sidewalk to the other: ''Maaaeeestro!'' Ernest Hemingway understood that there could be no other master amid the multitude of students, and he turned, raised his hand and shouted to me in Castillian in a very childish voice, ''Adiooos, amigo!'' It was the only time I saw him.
At the time, I was a 28-year-old newspaperman with a published novel and a literary prize in Colombia, but I was adrift and without direction in Paris. My great masters were the two North American novelists who seemed to have the least in common. I had read everything they had published until then, but not as complementary reading - rather, just the opposite, as two distinct and almost mutually exclusive forms of conceiving of literature. One of them was William Faulkner, whom I had never laid eyes on and whom I could only imagine as the farmer in shirtsleeves scratching his arm beside two little white dogs in the celebrated portrait of him taken by Cartier-Bresson. The other was the ephemeral man who had just said goodbye to me from across the street, leaving me with the impression that something had happened in my life, and had happened for all time.
I don't know who said that novelists read the novels of others only to figure out how they are written. I believe it's true. We aren't satisfied with the secrets exposed on the surface of the page: we turn the book around to find the seams. In a way that's impossible to explain, we break the book down to its essential parts and then put it back together after we understand the mysteries of its personal clockwork. The effort is disheartening in Faulkner's books, because he doesn't seem to have an organic system of writing, but instead walks blindly through his biblical universe, like a herd of goats loosed in a shop full of crystal. Managing to dismantle a page of his, one has the impression of springs and screws left over, that it's impossible to put back together in its original state. Hemingway, by contrast, with less inspiration, with less passion and less craziness but with a splendid severity, left the screws fully exposed, as they are on freight cars. Maybe for that reason Faulkner is a writer who has had much to do with my soul, but Hemingway is the one who had the most to do with my craft - not simply for his books, but for his astounding knowledge of the aspect of craftsmanship in the science of writing. In his historic interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review, (Hemingway) showed for all time - contrary to the Romantic notion of creativity -that economic comfort and good health are conducive to writing; that one of the chief difficulties is arranging the words well; that when writing becomes hard it is good to reread one's own books, in order to remember that it always was hard; that one can write anywhere so long as there are no visitors and no telephone; and that it is not true that journalism finishes off a writer, as has so often been said - rather, just the opposite, so long as one leaves it behind soon enough. ''Once writing has become the principal vice and the greatest pleasure,'' he said, ''only death can put an end to it.'' Finally, his lesson was the discovery that each day's work should only be interrupted when one knows where to begin again the next day. I don't think that any more useful advice has ever been given about writing. It is, no more and no less, the absolute remedy for the most terrible specter of writers: the morning agony of facing the blank page.
All of Hemingway's work shows that his spirit was brilliant but short-lived. And it is understandable. An internal tension like his, subjected to such a severe dominance of technique, can't be sustained within the vast and hazardous reaches of a novel. It was his nature, and his error was to try to exceed his own splendid limits. And that is why everything superfluous is more noticeable in him than in other writers. His novels are like short stories that are out of proportion, that include too much. In contrast, the best thing about his stories is that they give the impression something is missing, and this is precisely what confers their mystery and their beauty. Jorge Luis Borges, who is one of the great writers of our time, has the same limits, but has had the sense not to try to surpass them.
Francis Macomber's single shot at the lion demonstrates a great deal as a lesson in hunting, but also as a summation of the science of writing. In one of his stories, Hemingway wrote that a bull from Liria, after brushing past the chest of the matador, returned like ''a cat turning a corner.'' I believe, in all humility, that that observation is one of those inspired bits of foolishness which come only from the most magnificent writers. Hemingway's work is full of such simple and dazzling discoveries, which reveal the point at which he adjusted his definition of literary writing: that, like an iceberg, it is only well grounded if it is supported below by seveneighths of its volume.
That consciousness of technique is unquestionably the reason Hemingway won't achieve glory with his novels, but will with his more disciplined short stories. Talking of ''For Whom the Bell Tolls,'' he said that he had no preconceived plan for constructing the book, but rather invented it each day as he went along. He didn't have to say it: it's obvious. In contrast, his instantaneously inspired short stories are unassailable. Like the three he wrote one May afternoon in a Madrid pension, when a snowstorm forced the cancellation of a bullfight at the feast of San Isidro. Those stories, as he himself told George Plimpton, were ''The Killers,'' ''Ten Indians'' and ''Today Is Friday,'' and all three are magisterial. Along those lines, for my taste, the story in which his powers are most compressed is one of his shortest ones, ''Cat in the Rain.''
Nevertheless, even if it appears to be a mockery of his own fate, it seems to me that his most charming and human work is his least successful one: ''Across the River and Into the Trees.'' It is, as he himself revealed, something that began as a story and went astray into the mangrove jungle of a novel. It is hard to understand so many structural cracks and so many errors of literary mechanics in such a wise technician - and dialogue so artificial, even contrived, in one of the most brilliant goldsmiths in the history of letters. When the book was published in 1950, the criticism was fierce but misguided. Hemingway felt wounded where he hurt most, and he defended himself from Havana, sending a passionate telegram that seemed undignified for an author of his stature. Not only was it his best novel, it was also his most personal, for he had written it at the dawn of an uncertain autumn, with nostalgia for the irretrievable years already lived and a poignant premonition of the few years he had left to live. In none of his books did he leave much of himself, nor did he find - with all the beauty and all the tenderness - a way to give form to the essential sentiment of his work and his life: the uselessness of victory. The death of his protagonist, ostensibly so peaceful and natural, was the disguised prefiguration of his own suicide.
When one lives for so long with a writer's work, and with such intensity and affection, one is left without a way of separating fiction from reality. I have spent many hours of many days reading in that cafe in the Place St. Michel that he considered good for writing because it seemed pleasant, warm, clean and friendly, and I have always hoped to find once again the girl he saw enter one wild, cold, blowing day, a girl who was very pretty and fresh-looking, with her hair cut diagonally across her face like a crow's wing. ''You belong to me and Paris belongs to me,'' he wrote for her, with that relentless power of appropriation that his writing had. Everything he described, every instant that was his, belongs to him forever. I can't pass by No. 12 Rue de l'Odeon in Paris without seeing him in conversation with Sylvia Beach, in a bookstore that is now no longer the same, killing time until e six in the evening, when James Joyce might happen to drop by. On the Kenya prairie, seeing them only once, he became the owner of his buffaloes and his lions, and of the most intimate secrets of hunting. He became the owner of bullfighters and prizefighters, of artists and gunmen who existed only for an instant while they became his. Italy, Spain, Cuba - half the world is filled with the places that he appropriated simply by mentioning them. In Cojimar, a little village near Havana where the solitary fisherman of ''The Old Man and the Sea'' lived, there is a plaque commemorating his heroic exploits, with a gilded bust of Hemingway. In Finca de la Vigia, his Cuban refuge, where he lived until shortly before his death, the house remains intact amid the shady trees, with his diverse collection of books, his hunting trophies, his writing lectern, his enormous dead man's shoes, the countless trinkets of life from all over the world that were his until his death, and that go on living without him, with the soul he gave them by the mere magic of his owning them.
Some years ago, I got into the car of Fidel Castro - who is a tenacious reader of literature -and on the seat I saw a small book bound in red leather. ''It's my master Hemingway,'' Fidel Castro told me. Really, Hemingway continues to be where one least expects to find him -20 years after his death - as enduring yet ephemeral as on that morning, perhaps in May, when he said ''Goodbye, amigo'' from across the Boulevard St. Michel.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the author of ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' ''The Autumn of the Patriarch'' and other novels. This article was translated by Randolph Hogan of The Times cultural news staff.