Can one trust a sonata? Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace, pt 2

[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.

 Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:

1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.

Psalmanazar's Formosa

An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).

Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):

“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”

Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).

I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).

Newman In P Disgrace coverIn a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:

Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.

He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:

Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.

Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.

Ouch.

Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:

Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?

Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:

…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.

When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:

Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.

An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:

How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.

Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Moveable Feast’ – review part I

PART ONE (of two)

A Moveable Feast  (Vintage, London, 2000; first published
England and the US by Scribners, 1964) begins with this epigraph:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

Hemingway with his second wife Pauline, Paris 1927 (photo: WikiCommons)

Hemingway with his second wife Pauline, Paris 1927 (photo: WikiCommons)

The words were apparently addressed to Hemingway by his friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner.   The title has a Christian liturgical origin (Easter being the most notable example). Having converted to Catholicism shortly before marrying his second wife, Pauline, who came from an Arkansas Catholic family, Hemingway may have chosen this phrase because it resonates with her faith and his relationship with her – she appears only in the final few pages – rather than with his first wife, Hadley, who inhabits the rest of the story.  Given his tendency to abandon his wives before they dumped him (possibly a consequence of his painful experience of being dropped by Agnes von Kurowsky in Italy, 1919 – he based his character Catherine on her in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms) this seems a little disingenuous.

Hemingway (1899-1961) placed this epigraph at the head of A Moveable Feast, his memoir of life in Paris 1921-26 with Hadley.   In 1928 he had deposited many of his notebooks and papers containing his record of his sojourn in the city in two trunks in the basement of the Paris Ritz, and did not reclaim them until 1956.  According to a note in the text by his fourth wife Mary, who edited the manuscript after his death, he started work on what became A Moveable Feast in Cuba in late 1957, and continued working on it in America and Cuba again for two more years.  He finished it in 1960, but continued making revisions to the text.  It was published three years after his death in 1964 by Scribners of New York.  I have not yet read the revised edition published in 2009 by his grandson Sean.

Hemingway, Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, Austria, 1925 or early 1926 (Wiki)

Hemingway, Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, Austria, 1925 or early 1926 – interesting body language (WikiCommons)

I don’t find Hemingway the most likeable of characters.  He enjoyed big-game hunting and fishing, bullfights, boxing and projected a macho image of himself.  This book is highly engaging, however, mostly for its gossipy anecdotes about the expat writers and artists of ‘the Lost Generation’ in post-war Paris, and his lucid descriptions of living in the poorer quarters with Hadley and baby John (always known as Bumby, who was born in 1923), as a struggling young writer: ‘Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container’.  ‘Hunger was a good discipline’ is the title of one chapter, in which he claims he often skipped meals, taking circuitous rambles along routes that deliberately avoided restaurants or food shops.  He tells how they struggled to afford firewood, which had to be carefully rationed, as their food was.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Hemingway in dashing bohemian pose, Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

The picture of 20s Paris is delightful, if romantically fictionalised: goatherds drive their flocks through the city selling milk.   There’s an awful lot of description of meals taken on the rare occasions when they were in funds (often from winning after serious gambling at the horse race track), when they’d happily splurge in expensive restaurants.  But he paints a picture of life with Hadley in near squalor as happy and glowing in the warmth of their idyllic love, as this typically breathless sentence shows, with its characteristic paratactic syntax and patterned repetitions:

Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, not the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.

All of this is cast away at the end of the book when Hemingway callously embarks on an affair with their mutual friend Pauline.  He and Hadley divorced in 1927.  I’ll return to this rather unedifying finale to the book in Part II of this review: link HERE. For a link to my review of Paula McLain’s fictional treatment of the marriage of Hemingway and Hadley, The Paris Wife, click here

Although the poverty he claims that he and Hadley endured during the period covered by the book has subsequently been questioned by scholars, it does make for a fascinating narrative of bohemian, artistic Latin Quarter life in the 20s, well told by a master craftsman.

Buffalo velodrome 1905
Buffalo velodrome 1905

 

The book is teeming with carefully observed details, like the vivid description of the Belgian cycling ace, Linart,  zooming round the banked track at the Stade Buffalo, the velodrome at Montrouge, ‘dropping his head to drink cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed.’

Fitzgerald's picture at the Bar Hemingway, Paris Ritz

Fitzgerald’s picture at the Bar Hemingway, Paris Ritz

There are twenty short chapters (the book is only 182 pages long), mostly of only three or four pages; several of the most intriguing feature F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom he is presented as having a curious love-hate relationship.  In the longest chapter in the book we see the moment when they first met, in 1925, shortly after The Great Gatsby had been published – a novel Hemingway admired – in a café, of course (most of the narrative in this book takes place in cafés or restaurants; that’s where the artistic set lived, worked and socialised) – Hemingway reports how Fitzgerald abruptly asked him if he’d slept with his wife before marriage; with Hemingway’s usual tough-guy brevity and sardonic coolness he replies:

‘I don’t remember.’

‘But how can you not remember something of such importance?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.  ‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’…

‘Don’t talk like some limey,’ he said.

Fitzgerald then turned deathly pale, and Hemingway had to help him home.  He’s convinced that Fitzgerald was as heavy a drinker as he was, but is typically scornful that he couldn’t hold his drink as well as Hemingway himself says he does.  He also upbraids Fitzgerald for ‘whoring’ his talent by shaping and revising his stories to suit the lucrative magazine market, and portrays himself in the rather flattering light he favours:

I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent…Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do.

In an earlier chapter he says revealingly (if not exactly modestly) of his vocation: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.’  When Fitzgerald tells him Gatsby isn’t selling and that he has to write stories that will sell, Hemingway bluntly replies: ‘Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.’

He puts this into practice in nearly all of his best writing, including in A Moveable Feast, saying how he’d throw away anything ‘elaborate’, any ‘scrollwork or ornament’.  He relates his ‘new theory’ for short story writing:

[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

This book is also written in this trademark style: short, unadorned declarative sentences with few adjectives and largely simple vocabulary.  At their best these sentences are inimitably beautiful.  But what a shame Hem makes it so clear that he thinks so, too…

PART TWO link here: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and others