Sunday, March 26, 2017

Patti Smith / The Saturday interview

Patti Smith


The Saturday interview: Patti Smith


Patti Smith became a rock star by accident – it made her an icon. She wrote a book – it won a major award. Now, with an album on the way and a UK tour, she's as driven as ever

Aida Edemariam
Saturday 22 January 2011 00.10 GMT


W
hen, in the late 60s and early 70s, Patti Smith was working in bookstores in New York, often having to choose between art supplies and lunch, she stacked National Book Award-winning books on shelves, wrapped them up for customers, sold them. And as she did so, she told a rapt audience last November, choking up with tears, "I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf"; she hardly dreamed of having a National Book award of her own as well.

There were wet eyes in the house, too, and more than one person listening to her must have thought that there was a kind of rightness about the fact that the book with which she won the award last year, Just Kids, was about that time, and about the person, Robert Mapplethorpe, who experienced it along with her. He was the person who refused to "listen to me falter, question myself, question my abilities"; who held her fast to the idea that her art and her dreams mattered, and if she only could only hang on to them, they would win out.
He was, it must be said, working with willing material, in that she had outsize bravado, and despite their extreme poverty (when she first arrived in New York, she slept on benches in Central Park), an instinctive integrity: when she was still stacking books a couple of people "saw potential in me and offered me quite a bit of money to do records as early as 1971, '72, but not in my own way. They would have a vision of me – a pop vision, or how they could transform me, and the money didn't tempt me." Was there ever a moment when that was quite a hard choice? "No." The answer is sharp, immediate. "If somebody said I'll give you a million dollars, but you have to go against your own grain, you just have to do what I say – it would take me one second. I've never been tortured by something like that. Tormented more about what line to use in a poem, or the right word to use in a sentence. All I've ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful."
This is, in part, what gives her her singular presence. Her appearance, of course – the strong, masculine face and honey hair, all crags and straw, the dark toque and oversize coat somewhat incongruous in a boutique hotel in central Paris – but more her sense of wonder, her openness to the possibility of wonder in herself and others. It underlines in her an unexpected warmth and delicacy. The openness has always been a kind of survival strategy too: for all its fierceness – and after she recorded her debut album, Horses, in 1975 and found herself on the path to being a rock star, defiance – her career has been one of reverences, of chasing and collecting icons and relics and friends from whom she could learn the things she needed to proceed. It's a pleasingly unironic predeliction: "I'm not an ironic person," she once said. "I'm not always articulate, and sometimes I'm just crap, but I'm never ironic."

So, famously, Rimbaud, whose Illuminations she stole from a second-hand book stall when she was a teenager, and whose incantatory poetry and rackety life have compelled her ever since; Blake, whose everyday visions of angels, whose merging of language with "drawlings" (as she says the word) in a pale gold palette both she and Mapplethorpe loved and emulated; Jim Morrison, whom she saw on stage, and, watching him turn poetry into performance, thought simply: "I could do that." Her new album, which will be finished within the next month, was inspired by her reading of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita – but also by St Francis of Assisi, and by a visit to Dylan Thomas's home in Laugharne.
Or Sam Shepard, whom she met when he was in a band, who became her lover and taught her: "When you hit a wall" – of your own imagined limitations – "just kick it in." William Burroughs, whom she encountered when she and Mapplethorpe were living at the Chelsea Hotel; from him "I learned more about how to conduct myself, how to make the right choices in terms of – keeping your name clean. William said, 'If you keep your name clean, your name will be worth more someday. If you keep your name clean, it will always be of use.' And even though my name's only Smith, I have found it useful." It is instructive that when she fell in love and settled down, she did so with a man, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who she believed was cleverer than herself, who had things to teach her.
When he died, in 1994, leaving her a widow with two young children, it was one of the few times she felt properly lost. "That was a very difficult time in my life, when I had to decide what I was going to do, without him. But you know, when I have these moments, I just go all the way back to being 11 years old, when I knew who I was. Seven, 11 – I go all the way back there and then begin again, in my mind."
Smith grew up in straitened economic circumstances – her mother was a waitress and her father worked in a factory, assembling thermostats, jobs that provided just enough, and sometimes not enough, to feed four children. But there were always books, music, and as much art as they could afford. Her father "would take Socrates to the factory with him" and read Plato aloud over dinner, while her mother made meatball sandwiches; her mother had sung in nightclubs in the 30s, and loved opera, and the emerging glimmerings of rock'n'roll.

Smith, who was often ill – scarlet fever gave her hallucinations and, for a long time, double vision – daydreamed about being an opera singer. Not the swooning, romantic women's parts, but "the tenor parts, the young Gypsy-boy parts. Being in Verdi, Il Trovatore, being Manrico or something." Or she wanted to travel to the Great Wall of China or join the Foreign Legion; she was unimpressed to discover she was expected to be a girl, and especially a girl in the 50s in rural America, where you became a hairdresser or a housewife, "and the boys went to Vietnam or became policemen. A girl had these few choices, and the boys had these few choices. And I wasn't interested in any of their choices. I was interested in the whole world, that was not even spoken about. I had more communication with my dog than I had with my surroundings."
Increasingly, books became her world, and by extension, wanting to write them. "Everything else grew out of that. More than anything that's been the thread through my life – the desire to write, the impulse to write. I mean, it's taken me other places, but it was the impulse to write that led me to singing. I'm not a musician. I never thought of performing in a rock'n'roll band. I was just drawn in. It was like being called to duty – I was called to duty, and I did my duty as best as I could."
At 20 she discovered she was pregnant; the way she speaks about it now, eyes nearly closed, reveals more about the climate for discussing such things in America than anything about herself. "Well, it's, you know – that's a huge decision for any person, especially a young person. It was not a sacrifice, and it was not a decision I took lightly, and I didn't have the emotional or financial stability, or even the motive – or even what it took to raise a child. I had a good upbringing, and a strong understanding of the value of human life, but it still was … I just did the best I could, that's all. Who can say?" What is clear from her memoir, though, was that it dragged her out of childhood and gave her focus and direction: sitting on her bed working up the courage to tell her family that she was pregnant, and that she had found an educated, childless couple to take the baby, "an overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears … I would be an artist. I would prove my worth." She was dismissed from college; when she went into labour the nurses called her Dracula's Daughter and, almost fatally, as the child was in a breech position, ignored her. She will not say whether or not they have since been in touch.
Horses, as well as regularly being cited as one of the best debut albums ever, had a cover photo taken by Mapplethorpe that became an instant classic. "It was the most electrifying image I'd ever seen of a woman of my generation," Camille Paglia once said. It "immediately went up on my wall, as if it were a holy icon. It symbolised for me not only women's new liberation but the fusion of high art and popular culture." The trouble was, Smith's motivations were never to stand for anything but herself, particularly not any political movement, however worthy. She continued to explore wordscapes and the soundscapes that might make them live; her accidental career gave her choices, and the freedom to travel. But it didn't give her, eventually, the satisfaction or integrity she craved. So she left – she met Fred Smith, married him, and moved to suburban Detroit, becoming a non-driver (she is too dyslexic) stranded in a land of cars. "That's where he wanted to live," she told an interviewer some years ago. "He was the man."
Those who looked to her as a feminist pathfinder felt betrayed. They accused her of selling out, called her a "domestic cow", a phrase that clearly still stings. "I was still a worker. Some people said, 'Oh, well, you didn't do anything in the 80s – first of all, to be a mother and a wife is probably the hardest job one can have. But I always wrote. I wrote every day. I don't think I could have written Just Kids had I not spent all of the 80s developing my craft as a writer." She wrote for three hours every day, from 5am to 8, when her baby woke; having two children, and a husband, "I had to learn, really, how to rein in my energies and discipline myself. And I found it very very useful. I rebelled against it at first, but it's a good thing to have." They recorded an album together, which didn't sell; as well as publishing books of poetry, she has produced "many unfinished books, a few books that I finished in the 80s but never published, a crime book, a character study, a book of travels"; right now she is writing, simultaneously, "an extension of the book I wrote for Robert, and working on a detective story, and a sort of fairytale. I'm always working."
After her husband's death, she had to perform again, to support her children – and many people rallied to help her: her lawyer found her children a place at a progressive private school, Michael Stipe, who credits Horses with beginning his career, found her a house, Bob Dylan asked her to play with him, Ann Demeulemeester gave her clothes. Now, increasingly, she works with her children – her son is a guitarist and married to Meg White of the White Stripes; the evening before we met she did a gig with her daughter, a composer. They will do more of these gigs in the UK next week, one in St Giles Church, which she likes because they do good things for the homeless, and another at Aldeburgh, where she will improvise work based on WG Sebald's poem After Nature. She has spent the morning reading him, and "listening to Polly Harvey's new song – she has this new song, The Words That Maketh Murder – what a great song. It just makes me happy to exist. Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive. So I listened to that song all morning, totally happy." Her face lights up, her eyes shine. And I think that the joy she finds in these things, the searching for them, the openness to them, the wanting to do them herself, are, finally, so much more interesting than being held to any creed; more interesting, more inspiring, and far more profound.
Just Kids is published by Bloomsbury £8.99. Patti Smith will be in conversation with Geoff Dyer on Tuesday at the Royal Geographical Society, 7pm. See intelligencesquared.com/events
 This article was amended on 24 January 2011. The original said Patti Smith would perform at the Aldeburgh festival. This has been corrected.



Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why we’ll always be obsessed with – and afraid of – monsters


Why we’ll always be obsessed with – and afraid of – monsters

Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Fear continues to saturate our lives: fear of nuclear destruction, fear of climate change, fear of the subversive, and fear of foreigners.
But a recent Rolling Stone article about our “age of fear” notes that most Americans are living “in the safest place at the safest time in human history.”
It continues:
Around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is higher than ever, our air is the cleanest it’s been in a decade and, despite a slight uptick last year, violent crime has been trending down since 1991.
So why are we still so afraid?
Emerging technology and media could play a role. But in a sense, these have always played a role.

The title page of Cotton Mather’s ‘Wonders of the Invisible World,’ which describes the execution of witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons

In the past, rumor and a rudimentary press coverage could fan the fires. Now, with the rise of social media, fears and fads and fancies race instantly through entire populations. Sometimes the specifics vanish almost as quickly as they arose, but the addiction to sensation, to fear and fantasy, persists, like a low-grade fever.
People often create symbols for that emotions are fleeting, abstract, and hard to describe. (Look no further than the recent rise of the emoji.)
For over the last three centuries, Europeans and Americans, in particular, have shaped anxiety and paranoia into the mythic figure of the monster – the embodiment of fear, disorder and abnormality – a history that I detail in my new book, “Haunted.”
There are four main types of monsters. But a fifth – a nameless one – may best represent the anxieties of the 21st century.

Rejecting rationality

The 1700s and 1800s were an era of revolutionary uprisings that trumpeted a limitless future, when the philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment proclaimed that reason had the power to change the world. Emotion was pushed out of the intellectual sphere by scientific reasoning; awestruck spirituality had been repressed in favor of the Clockmaker God who set the universal laws into motion.
Of course, humans have always been afraid. But while the fears of the demonic and the diabolical characterized medieval times, the changes wrought by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution created a whole new set of fears tied to advancements in science and technology, and an increasingly crowded and complex world.
During this age of political upheavals and aggressive modernization, tales of Gothic horror, haunted castles, secret compartments and rotting corpses were the rage. The novels and stories of writers such as Horace Walpole, Matthew G. Lewis, Anne Radcliffe and Mary Shelley soon became bestsellers. These writers – and many others – tapped into something pervasive, giving names and bodies to a universal emotion: fear.
The fictional monsters created during this period can be categorized into four types. Each corresponds to a deep seated anxiety about progress, the future and the human ability to achieve anything like control over the world.
“The monster from nature” represents a power that humans only think they have harnessed, but haven’t. The Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, King Kong and Godzilla are all examples of this type. An awesome abnormality that we can’t predict and scramble to understand, it strikes without warning – like the shark in “Jaws.” While the obvious inspiration are real ferocious animals, they could also be thought of as embodied versions of natural disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
“The created monster,” like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, is the monster we have built and believe we can control – until it turns against us. His descendants are the robots, androids and cyborgs of today, with their potential to become all too human – and threatening.

James Cameron’s Terminator is a descendent of Frankenstein. stephen bowler/Wikimedia CommonsCC BY

“The monster from within” is the monster generated by our own repressed dark psychology, the other side of our otherwise bland and blameless human nature (think the Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll). When nondescript and seemingly harmless young men turn into mass-murdering killers or suicide bombers, the “monster from within” has shown his face.
“The monster from the past,” like Dracula, comes out of a pagan world and offers an alternative to ordinary Christianity with his promise of a blood feast that will confer immortality. Like a Nietzschean superman, he represents the fear that the ordinary consolations of religion are bankrupt and that the only answer to the chaos of modern life is the securing of power.

Zombies: A vague, nameless danger

Recently, our culture has become fixated on the zombie. The recent explosion of zombie films and stories illustrates how fear – while it may be a basic human trait – assumes the shape of particular eras and cultures.
The zombie emerged from the brutal Caribbean slave plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. They were the soulless bodies of undead slaves who stalked plantations grounds – so the myth went. But director George Romero’s pioneering films, like “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), generalized the figure into an unthinking member of a mass consumer society.

The theatrical trailer for ‘Dawn of the Dead.’

The central distinction between the traditional monsters – such as the Frankenstein monster, Dracula or Mr. Hyde – is that the zombie exists primarily as part of a group. Unlike earlier monsters, who all stand alone, even in a kind of grandeur, one zombie is barely distinguishable from another.
What might the horrific image of mindless hordes out to eat our brains represent in the 21st century? It could symbolize whatever we fear will overwhelm and engulf us: epidemic disease, globalization, Islamic fundamentalists, illegal immigrants and refugees. Or it could be something less tangible and more existential: the loss of anonymity and individuality in a complex world, the threat of impersonal technology that makes each of us just another number in an electronic list.
In 1918, German sociologist Max Weber announced the triumph of reason: “There are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play,” he wrote in “Science as a Vocation.” “One can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”
“The world,” he continued, “is disenchanted.”
Weber may have been a bit optimistic. Yes, we are committed, in many ways, to reason and analytic thinking. But it seems that we need our monsters and our sense of enchantment as well.




Thursday, March 23, 2017

Italo Calvino / Hemingway and Ourselves


Ernest Hemingway



Hemingway and Ourselves

by Italo Calvino



There was a time when for me — and for many others, those who are more or less my contemporaries — Hemingway was a god. And they were good times, which I am happy to remember, without even a hint of that ironic indulgence with which we look back on youthful fashions and obsessions. They were serious times and we lived through them seriously and boldly and with purity of heart, and in Hemingway we could also have found pessimism, an individualistic detachment, a superficial involvement with extremely violent experiences: that was all there too in Hemingway, but either we could not see it in him or we had other things in our head, but the fact remains that the lesson we learnt from him was one of a capacity for openness and generosity, a practical commitment — as well as a technical and moral one – to the things that had to be done, a straightforward look, a rejection of self-contemplation or self-pity, a readiness to snatch a lesson for life, the worth of a person summed up in a brusque exchange, or a gesture. But soon we began to see his limitations, his flaws: his poetics, his style, to which I had been largely indebted in my first literary works, came to be seen as narrow, too prone to descending into mannerism. That life of his — and philosophy of life — of violent tourism began to fill me with distrust and even aversion and disgust. Today, however, ten years on, assessing the balance of my apprenticeship with Hemingway, I can close the account in the black. ‘You didn’t put one over on me, old man,’ I can say to him, indulging for the last time in his own style, ‘you did not make it, you never became amauvais maitre.’ The aim of this discussion of Hemingway, in fact – now that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a fact that means absolutely nothing, but which is as good an occasion as any other for putting down onpaper ideas that have been in my head for some time – is to try to define both what Hemingway meant for me, and what he is now, what moved me away from him and what I continue to find in his not others’ works.
At that time what pushed me towards Hemingway was an appeal that was both poetic and political, a confused rge towards an active antifascism, as opposed to purely intellectual antifascism. Actually, to be truthful, it was the twin constellation of Hemingway and Malraux that attracted me, the symbol of international antifascism, the international front in the Spanish Civil War. Fortunately we Italians had had D’Annunzio to inoculate us against certain ‘heroic’ inclinations, and the rather aestheticising base to Malraux’ works soon became apparent. (For some people in France, such as Roger Vailland, who is also a very nice guy, a bit superficial but genuine enough, the Hemingway-Malraux double-bill was a formative factor.) Hemingway too has had the label of D’Annunzian attached to him, and in some cases not inappropriately. But Hemingway’s style is always dry, he hardly ever gets sloppy or pompous, his feet are on the ground (or almost always: I mean, I cannot take ‘lyricism’ in Hemingway: The Snows of Kilimanjaro is for me his worst work), he sticks to dealing with things: all features that are at the opposite extreme from D’Annunzio. And in any case, we should be careful with these definitions: if all you need to be called a D’Annunzian is to like the active life and beautiful women, long live D’Annunzio. But the problem cannot be framed in these terms: the myth of Hemingway the activist comes from another side of contemporary history, much more relevant to today and still problematic.
Hemingway’s hero likes to identify with the actions that he carries out, to be himself in the totality of his actions, in his commitment to manual or at any rate practical dexterity. He tries not to have any other problems, any other concerns except that of knowing how to do something well: being good at fishing, hunting, blowing up bridges, watching bullfights the way they should be watched, as well as being good at making love. But around him there is always something he is trying to escape, a sense of the vanity of everything, of desperation, of defeat, of death. He concentrates on the strict observance of his code, of those sporting rules that he always feels he should impose on himself everywhere and that carry the weight of moral rules, whether he finds himself fighting with a shark, or in a position besieged by Falangists. He clings to all that, because outside it is the void and death. (Even though he never mentions it: for his first rule is understatement.) One of the best and most typical of his tales in the 45 short stories in The Big Two-Hearted River is nothing more than an account of every single action done by a man who goes fishing on his own: he goes up the river, looks for a good place to pitch his tent, makes himself some food, goes into the river, prepares his rod, catches some small trout, throws them back into the river, catches a bigger one, and so on. Nothing but a bare list of actions, fleeting but clear-cut images in between, and the odd generic, unconvincing comment on his state of mind, like ‘It was a good feeling’. It is a very depressing tale, with a sense of oppression too, of vague anguish besetting him on all sides, no matter how serene nature is and how caught up he is in his fishing. Now the story in which ‘nothing happens’ is not new. But let’s take a recent example from nearer home: Il taglio del bosco (The Cutting of the Woods) by Cassola (all he has in common with Hemingway is his love of Tolstoy) which describes the actions of a woodcutter, against the background of his endless grief for the death of his wife. In Cassola the two poles of the story are the work on one side and a very precise feeling on the other: the death of a loved one, a situation which can apply to everyone, at any time. The format is similar in Hemingway, but the content is completely different: on one side a commitment to a sport, which has no other sense beyond the formal execution of the task, and on the other something unknown, nothingness. We are in an extreme situation, in the context of a very precise society, in a very precise moment of the crisis of bourgeois thought.
Hemingway, famously, did not care for philosophy. But his poetics has anything but accidental connections with American philosophy, linked as the latter is so directly to a ‘structure’, to a milieu of activity and practical concepts. The Hemingway hero’s fidelity to a sporting and ethical code, the only certain reality in an unknowable universe, corresponds to neopositivism which proposes rules of thought inside a closed system, which has no other validity outside itself. Behaviourism, which identifies man’s reality with the paradigms of his behaviour, finds its equivalent in Hemingway’s style, which in its bare list of actions, its lines of brief dialogue, eliminates the unreachable reality of emotions and thoughts. (On Hemingway’s code of behaviour, and on characters’ ‘inarticulate’ conversation, see the intelligent observations in Marcus Cunliffe, The Literature of the US (Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 271 ff.)
All around is the horror vacui of existentialist nothingness. Nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada,thinks the waiter in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, while ‘The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio’ ends with the conclusionthat everything is ‘the opium of the people’, in other words an illusory shelter from a general malaise. These two stories (both from 1933) can be regarded as the texts of Hemingway’s loose ‘existentialism’. But it is not on these more explicitly ‘philosophical’ statements that we can rely, so much as on his general way of representing the negative, the senseless, the despairing elements of contemporary life, right from the time of Fiesta(1926) with its eternal tourists, sex-maniacs and drunkards. The emptiness of the dialogues with their pauses and digressions, whose most obvious predecessor must be the ‘talking of other things’ by Chekhov’s characters when they are on the verge of desperation, reflects the problematics of twentieth-century irrationalism. Chekhov’s petty bourgeois characters, defeated in everything except their consciousness of human dignity, stand their ground as the storm approaches and retain their hope for a better world. Hemingway’s roodess Americans are inside the storm, body and soul, and the only defence they have against it is trying to ski well, to shoot lions well, establish the right relationship between a man and a woman, and between a man and another man, techniques and virtues which certainly will be useful in that better world except that they do not believe in it. Between Chekhov and Hemingway comes the First World War: reality is now seen as a huge massacre. Hemingway refuses to join the side of the massacre, his antifascism is one of those clear, indisputable ‘rules of the game’ on which his conception of life is based, but he accepts massacres as the natural scenario of contemporary man. The apprenticeship of Nick Adams — the autobiographical character in his earliest and most poetic stories — is a training course to help him tolerate the brutality of the world. It begins in Indian Camp where his father, the doctor, operates on a pregnant Indian woman with a fishing pen-knife, while her husband, unable to stand the sight of suffering, silendy slits his own throat. When the Hemingway hero wants a symbolic ritual to represent this conception of the world the best he can come up with is the bullfight, thus starting down the road towards the primitive and the barbaric, which leads to D. H. Lawrence and a certain kind of ethnology.
It is this jagged cultural panorama that is Hemingway’s context, and here we might bring in for comparison another writer who is often named in this context, Stendhal. This is not an arbitrary choice, but is suggested by Hemingway’s admission of admiration for him, and justified by a certain analogy in their chosen sobriety of style — even though this is much more skilful, Flaubertian, in the more modern writer — and by certain parallels inkey events and places in their lives (that ‘Milanese’ Italy they both loved). Stendhal’s heroes are on the border between eighteenth-century rationalist lucidity and Romantic Sturm und Drang, between an Enlightenment education of the sentiments and the Romantic exaltation of amoral individualism. Hemingway’s heroes find themselves at the same crossroads a hundred yean later, when bourgeois thought has been impoverished, past its best — which instead has been inherited by the new working class — and yet is still developing as best it can, between blind alleys and partial and contradictory solutions: from the old Enlightenment trunk American technicist philosophies branch off, while the Romantic trunk brings forth its final fruits in existential nihilism. Stendhal’s hero, though a product of the Revolution, still accepted the world of the Holy Alliance and submitted to the rules of his own hypocritical game, in order to fight his own individual batde. Hemingway’s hero, who has also seen open up the great alternative of the October Revolution, accepts the world of imperialism and moves amongst imperialism’s massacres, also fighting a batde with lucidity and detachment, but one which he knows is lost from the outset because he is on his own.
Hemingway’s fundamental intuition was to have realised that war was the most accurate image, theeveryday reality of the bourgeois world in the imperialist age. At the age of eighteen, even before America joined the war, he managed to reach the Italian front, just to see what war was like, first as an ambulance driver, then in charge of a canteen shutding on bike between the trenches on the river Piave (as we learn from a recent book by Charles A. Fenton, The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway(Farrar and Strauss, 1954)). (A long essay could be written on how much he understood about Italy, and how already in 1917 he was able to recognise the country’s ‘fascist’ face and on the opposite side the people’s face, as he portrayed them in his best novel,A Farewell to Arms (1929); and also on how much he still understood of 1949 Italy and portrayed in his less successful, but still in many respects interesting, novel, Across the River and Into the Trees; but also on how much he never understood, never managing to escape from his tourist shell.) His first book (published in 1924 then expanded in 1925), whose tone was set by his memories of the Great War and those of the massacres in Greece which he witnessed as a journalist, is entitled In Our Time, a tide which by itself does not tell us much, but which takes on a cutting ironic tone if it is true that he wanted to echo a line from The Book of Common Prayer: ‘Give us peace in our time, O Lord.’ The flavour of war conveyed in the brief chapters of In Our Time was decisive for Hemingway’s development, just as the impressions described in the Tales of Sebastopol were crucial for Tolstoy. And I don’t know whether it was Hemingway’s admiration for Tolstoy that led him to seek out the experience of war, or vice versa. Of course, the manner of being at war described by Hemingway is not the same as in Tolstoy, nor as in another admired author, who wrote a minor classic, the American Stephen Crane. This is war in distant lands, viewed with the detachment of a foreigner: Hemingway thus prefigures the spirit of the American soldier in Europe.
If the poet who celebrated British imperialism, Kipling, still had a precise link with his adopted country, so that his India also became a fatherland for him, in Hemingway (who unlike Kipling did not want to ‘celebrate’ anything but only to report facts and things) we find the spirit of America roaming the world without any clear motive, following the lead of its expanding economy.
But Hemingway interests us more not for his testimony of the reality of war or for his condemnation of massacres. Just as no poet identifies totally with the ideas which he represents, so Hemingway is not to be identified solely with the cultural crisis which is his context. Leaving aside the limits of behaviourism, that identification of man with his actions, his being able to cope or not with the duties that have been imposed on him, is still a valid and correct way of conceiving of existence, a way which can be adopted by a more industrious humanity than Hemingway’s heroes, whose actions are almost never a job — except in ‘exceptional’ jobs, such as shark-fishing, or having a precise duty in a struggle. We do not really know what to do with his bullfights, for all the technique they require; but the clear, precise seriousness with which his characters know how to light a fire in the outdoors, cast a rod, position a machine gun, that is of interest and use to us. We can do without all of the more flashy and famous sides of Hemingway, in return for those moments of perfect integration of man with the world in the things he does, for those moments when man finds himself at peace with nature though still struggling with it, in harmony with humankind even in the fire of batde. If someone one day manages to write poetically about the relationship of the worker with his machinery, with the precise operations of his labour, he will have to go back to these moments in Hemingway, detaching them from their context of touristic futility, brutality or boredom, and restoring them to the organic context of the modern productive world from which Hemingway has taken and isolated them. Hemingway has understood how to live in the world with open, dry eyes, without illusions or mysticism, how to be alone without anguish and how it is better to be in company than to be alone: and, in particular, he has developed a style which expresses fully his conception of life, and which though sometimes betraying its limitations and defects, in its more successful moments (as in the Nick Adams stories) it can be considered the driest and most immediate language, the least redundant and pompous style, the most limpid and realistic prose in modern literature. (A Soviet critic, J. Kashkin, in a fine article which came out in a 1935 issue ofInternational Literature, and which was quoted in the proceedings of the symposium edited by John K. M. McCaffery, Ernest Hemingway: the Man and his Work(The World Publishing Company, 1950) compares the style of those tales to that of Pushkin the novelist.)
In fact there is nothing more remote from Hemingway than the hazy symbolism, and religious-based exoticism with which he is associated by Carlos Baker in his Hemingway, the Writer as Artist (Princeton University Press, 1952, recently translated into Italian by G. Ambrosoli for Guanda). This volume contains extremely precious information and quotations from unpublished letters by Hemingway to Baker himself, to Fitzgerald and others, and it also has an excellent bibliography (missing from the Italian translation), as well as useful individual analyses, for instance of Hemingway’s polemical relationship with — not his adherence to — the lost generation’ in Fiesta; but the book is based on flimsy critical formulas, like the opposition between ‘Home’ and ‘Not-home’, between ‘Mountain’ and ‘Plain’, and it talks of ‘Christian symbolism’ in The Old Man and the Sea.
Less ambitious and less philologically interesting is another American book: Philip Young’s brief ErnestHemingway (Rinehart, 1952). Young too, poor soul, has to go to considerable lengths to prove that Hemingway was never a Communist, that he is not ‘un-American’, that one can be crude and pessimistic without being ‘un-American’. But the general outlines of his critical approach show us the Hemingway we know, attributing a fundamental value to the Nick Adams stories, and placing them in the tradition inaugurated by that wonderful book — wonderful for its language, the richness of life and adventure it contains, its sense of nature, its involvement with the social problems of its time and place – which is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
[1954]

“Hemingway and Ourselves,” a 1954 essay by Italo Calvino, collected in Why Read the Classics?