Thursday, 10 March 2016

Hairy Arms and Icebergs

I’ve never much wanted to read Hemingway, having always been put off by the macho image and the bullfighting and hunting, etc. Didn’t think someone like that would have anything to say to someone like me. Then on one of my regular charity shop browses for bundles of books to keep me going, I came across ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and thought at 75p I might as well give it a go. It was entirely opposite to my expectations. I warmed to the central character, I found much of it tender and touching and the violence was never glorified in any way – quite the reverse. I had a few weeks of wishing I’d discovered him earlier, wishing he turned up in charity shops more frequently (I have difficulty affording new books at the moment) but then I had a brainwave – birthday coming up: ask Mother for some Hemingway. So I did, and she duly obliged with three more novels. I’ve just finished ‘Fiesta’ and absolutely loved it, even though a good proportion of the book is in Pamplona, there are bulls, they die – though one manages to gore a man to death in passing. And you know what? I get it. I get what Hemingway was saying about bullfighting, why it’s there, what it means. I get it in the spirit of the literature. I am not someone who would ever go to a bullfight, and I would happily sign petitions and demonstrate against the vile ‘sport’ – but in terms of the book, I absolutely get it.

A similar thing happened to me in my teens when I was going through a John Masters phase. I’d read a lot of the Indian novels, but then came across the Spanish one: ‘Fandango Rock’ which is very much a bullfighting novel. I hated the idea of bullfighting, but Masters really understood what it was all about and took it to the heart of his novel and made it work. It’s years and years since I read that book, and I possibly won’t read it again ever because I think one outgrows Masters at some point. He is very much an author to be read in one’s teens; fabulous storytelling, great characters, authentic settings, and sex scenes that are erotic rather than cringe-making, so he’s perfect when you’re fifteen or sixteen. He is also very full on with his prose – it’s rich and gorgeous. Very different to Hemingway, with his iceberg style – and that doesn’t mean he’s cold. Far from it. It’s referring to the fact that most of what is really happening is under the surface. Hemingway was a journalist first, so he reports what happens in a clipped and clear way. It’s left to the reader to work out what the real story is, and there will be much, much more beneath the surface than above, hence the iceberg analogy. He’s supposed to have pretty much invented this, apparently. I disagree. I reckon if anyone invented it, it was Jane Austen, because she does exactly the same thing. She tells you what people said and what happened. She doesn’t do a Bronte and delve deep into their emotions and pour them out gushingly in purple prose. Now, I love Charlotte Bronte in particular, but I sometimes find her completely unreadable because she will explain every last feeling in as much detail as she possibly can. Austen and Hemingway don’t do that, and the result is you are more likely to choking back the tears at the end of ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Fiesta’ than you are at the end of the infuriating ‘Villette’, and that’s because there is SO much going on underneath, you are left exhausted, whereas you feel with Charlotte Bronte, she’s the one who’s left exhausted at the end of the novel rather than the reader.

I have a thing I do with authors I love – unless they are hideously ugly, and I can’t bear to look at photos of them, I like to draw their portraits. It’s partly a sort of ‘thank you’ letter to them for the books, and partly self-indulgence, and that irresistible strange alchemy that happens when you study someone’s face and draw them. By happy coincidence, we were doing portraits in my art class this morning. (By ‘my’ I mean the one I attend. I don’t teach it. Wouldn’t know where to begin.) So I thought, yes! Hemingway! Today’s the day. Ideally when I draw someone who I haven’t met, I watch film of them on YouTube and make a composite drawing from various images I find online, but I was short of time so thought I would simply pick a photo I liked and work from that. There’s a great one of him actually engaged in writing. I thought I’d get the basic outline in before I went to my class so that I wouldn’t waste time there trying to get it right. Glad I did, because the method we were being taught this morning would have been incredibly difficult to get right for me – it involved careful measurement and ratios and all that stuff. Now, for me, there are three ways to get a likeness. Best – you trace it. Next best – grid it. Third best – entirely freehand. I wouldn’t even consider doing the careful measurement of, say, an eye, and then seeing how many eyes fit into the distance between the right nostril and the Adam’s apple. So I listened to the teacher giving the explanation and demonstration of this method, and her encouragement to follow it, and as usual, I went my own way, and was thoroughly relieved I’d thought to trace the outline first so I knew my proportions were broadly correct. Then it was simply a question of sitting down with my favourite Conté pencil and getting on with it. This sort of thing takes far longer than you expect, and men with hairy arms – well, you can get locked into those hairs. I have a thing about men with hairy arms. I am very fond of such things. I spent far too long enjoying his arms – but I did also get his eyes, glasses, head, nose, mouth, bit of beard, etc, broadly shaded. Still a long, long way to go. The question is, will I be able to resist finishing this one off until next Thursday? We have another portrait session then to carry on with what we started this week. If I succumb to temptation, which is highly likely, I’ll finish him on Sunday if not before, and then I will have to think of someone else to draw. Actually, that’s probably not too much of a hardship. I could always do him again.

I have become ridiculously fond of Ernest Hemingway. 

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