It is a moving tale of love and grief and the devastating moments that change the course of your life and relationships forever. Its narrator, Leo Hertzberg, is an academic art historian residing in New York. The story follows 25 years of his life when he befriends an artist, Bill Weschler, and tracks their lives alongside each other. The story is bookended so we understand it comprises Leo’s reflections on his life as an old man.
I am grateful to my sister for introducing me to author Siri Hustvedt, and once I discovered this American author, there is no end to where I see her. Of Norwegian descent and speaking Norwegian as her first language, Hustvedt’s latest work, The Blazing World (2014), in a world first, was turned into a performance by Copenhagen theatre company, Mungo Park, currently performed at Avenue-T until June. Then, on Friday in my neighbourhood on Nørrebro, a small international bookshop, ARK Books, launched the Ark First Edition, a small, hand bound book, in only six copies, with two previously unpublished texts, one by Hustvedt and the other by her author husband Paul Auster. Like meeting old friends unexpectedly on the streets, really.
Since I have been back in Denmark I have noticed things about the Danes that I would probably not have had second thoughts about had I not lived half my life away from this small country. Some are great, like the love of the bicycle for transportation – which I simply took for granted during the first half of my life, but had to shelve in hilly Brisbane with its high density of bike-hating drivers. Some are less charming, like the absolute rudeness of cyclists to each other and to pedestrians – like not stopping for the red light to let a pedestrian cross, riding out right in front of the unaware pedestrian on the foot path or on the pedestrian crossing or blocking the footpath with rows and rows of parked bikes.
Orlando (1928) is a short work of fiction, highly acclaimed and thought to be the most accessible of Virginia Woolf’s works. Frankly, I found it tedious and long in the tooth. It took me forever to read, getting lost in long passages of description. I had to look hard for the insights and gems.
After enjoying Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, I decided to read the book that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 – The Old Man and the Sea. The library had it, not in English, but in Danish as a sound book. A number of cardinal sins already committed right there – a book should be read in the language in which it was written and listening clearly is a different experience from reading.
Santiago is the old man living in Cuba as a fisherman, but he is out of luck. For 85 days he has not caught anything and the boy, Manolin, is no longer allowed to go to sea with him. Santiago goes out on his own and catches a large marlin. He is dragged further out to sea by the large animal and it takes three days before it dies and Santiago can return to Cuba. He ties the fish to the skiff and raises his sail for the passat winds to blow him home, victorious. However, the blood from the dead fish attracts sharks and Santiago fights a brave fight firstly to protect his catch and secondly to protect his own life. He returns to the shore in one piece, but the marlin is reduced to its skeleton.
Much has been written about this story’s meaning – it is a much studied and analysed novella. Hemingway is quoted as saying:
No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. … I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
I was mesmerised by the rhythm of Hemingway’s writing (or perhaps the reader’s voice?) The writing has a certain calm and patient quality. The story is a slow and patient battle between two proud creatures – Santiago and the marlin. While Santiago wins through his perseverance, they are both beaten by the sharks. Santiago’s time waiting on the sea brings with it lots of monologue, reflection and introspection as well as description of the natural environment in almost spiritual tones.
With my friend’s warning that Hemingway was a male chauvinist ringing in my ears, I was struck by a particular view of the sea that Santiago explains. Though others might refer to the sea in male terms, especially when it shows its unrepentant fury, Santiago considers the sea a woman because like a woman the sea cannot help what happens, it just happens. No women – aside from the sea – feature in this novel. However, this way of equating the nature of the sea with the purported helplessness of a woman to determine her own destiny is an inexcusable infantalisation of women.
Perhaps this view is Hemingway’s response to the gradual liberation of women through his lifetime, which may have made his philandering and womanising more difficult. Juxtapose this with my other reading, Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures on Women and Literature she gave in 1928 at Cambridge University. Her basic tenet is that for women to write literature she must have her own money and her own room, quite literally. And that women need access to education. This is at a time when women still largely were property of men, first their fathers, then their husbands and a time when the Oxbridge universities were entirely male dominated and largely closed to women, expect for select faculties. Yet, Woolf reflects, if one only knew women as described by men in literature, one would imagine them to be even greater than men.
At the time when Hemingway was developing a writing career in the cafés of Paris, Woolf stood up for women in the halls of Cambridge and called out the reasons why only few women were able to do what he was was.
If through the 20th century all men retained Hemingway’s ossified view of women as helpless creatures unable to determine their own destiny, then gender equality would still be a major battle in the Western world. It still is in some places – even in the Western world – but when girls are given access to education, they excel at traditional male subjects and in 70% of countries exceed the performance of boys. It is only a matter of time before this excellence and excess will show in the centres of power.
In Denmark, it seems the first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Smith, is much maligned for being a woman, just as Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was. Gillard famously admonished the leader of the opposition in her Misogyny speech – reflecting perhaps that we have some way to go still before women are judged for what they do, rather than their gender.
For the first time, in my home state of Queensland, a woman has taken a party from opposition to victory in a state election. She has also included a record majority of women in the Cabinet room with eight out of 14 ministers being women. Time will tell whether people will judge her on her performance or on her gender. I hope for the first, perhaps against hope?
As I settle into my reverse expat experience of my home country here in Copenhagen, I picked up Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), written about his time as a young, poor writer in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and son.
I have never read a word of Hemingway before and my knowledge of him was quite vague and second hand. But he kept cropping up as someone to read for an example of simple language and so I plunged in. I was not disappointed.
It is an easy read, though sometimes the narrative is fractured, as memoirs can be. From time to time the short book reads like elaborate name dropping. Gertrude Stein here, James Joyce there, a bit of Picasso and a dim view of Scott Fitzgerald, the person, and his mad wife Zelda. He names streets, cafés and hotels and I want to go to Paris to experience the artist community he is part of. This was a time, Hemingway claims, when there was no official uniform for the artist uniform and one could wear what one pleased, when sitting in cafés all day long, bent over a notebook with a pen, nursing a café creme while the waiters swept and cleaned up.
In this novel the gems about establishing a writing practice may be mere wall paper to most readers. But these were the bits that I found most interesting. Hemingway realises that his obsession with winning at the races interferes with his writing practice because to earn a living that way one must know much more about horses and acquiring that knowledge takes time away from creating good writing from which to earn a living. Perhaps my equivalent is the temptation to find a ‘real job’ to supplement our savings (and to be easily able to explain what I do with my days), but this too would take time away from writing. I repeat to myself: I am a writer.
Hemingway’s clearest writing advice is to work until something has been written and stop only when you know what is going to happen next. If stuck, he would remember:
Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. (p12)
By truest sentence he meant a sentence that he knew or had seen or heard someone say – a simple, declaratory sentence. He called elaborate writing scrollwork or ornament that could be discarded.
At some point Hemingway’s writing practice involved leaving the flat to go to the local café to write, hoping that he would not meet anyone to disturb his flow. His wife would also go out and leave their young son in his crib with the cat, F Pussy. While this would have social workers well concerned in this century, it seemed accepted practice then. Until the flat got too cold for the baby to stay in during winter. Then the family went skiing in the Alps.
Hemingway also advises to stop working and stop thinking about the work between working, so as to let the subconscious work on it. He would then be able to listen to the conversation of other people and to notice things. Using his writerly sense.
For someone so poor, Hemingway consumed an inordinate amount of coffee, meals and wine in the cafés of Paris. But maybe those cafés were affordable and had a different business model to cafés in Copenhagen nearly 100 years later. Daily coffee and lunching in the plentiful cafés in my local neighbourhood would soon deplete our savings. But also, Copenhagen coffee is not that good: I have come to realise how spoilt for good coffee we are in Brisbane. Rather than the smooth drop with well frothed milk and a touch of real chocolate sprinkles that I know from my favourite Brisbane coffee joint, John Mills Himself, a Copenhagen cappuccino is a crass affair with none of the sweetness. And expensive too – about twice the price I pay in Brisbane.
In my attempts to write, I have tried to establish a writing practice. Sometimes, I leave the flat to write, not because the flat is cold, but because I need to get out. I might sit in the foyer of the Black Diamond, the Royal Library building on the canal front, where I listen to the conversations of students on progress of their thesis, the hearing of their disputation or their new love. If there are other writers and artists around, they are not wearing a recognisable artist uniform.
I also leave the work to do other stuff – my husband and I visit galleries and museums and we walk the streets of Copenhagen, noticing architecture, nature, people and graffiti. With my writerly sense.
But I need more discipline to write enough every day. Or I feel as useless as Hemingway did on an escapade with Scott Fitzgerald – a day wasted not writing.