Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Moveable Feast’ – Review Part II

PART TWO: for part 1 of this critique, click HERE

Fitzgerald invites him to accompany him on a trip to Lyon to collect the open-top car that he and Zelda had been forced to abandon there because of the bad weather; Zelda had bizarrely insisted the car remain a makeshift convertible after the original roof had been damaged and removed.  Fitzgerald misses the train, probably because he was drunk, and Hemingway is furious with him.  When he eventually shows up at Hemingway’s hotel in Lyon, they spend a strange evening in which Hemingway unwisely (maliciously?) plies him with alcohol.  Soon Fitzgerald insists he’s dying; Hemingway is unsympathetic; he’s probably right in thinking he’s just drunk – but he had already developed the opinion that Fitzgerald was both a heavy drinker and unable to hold his drink.

There’s a great deal of warm humour in his account of this scene: when Fitzgerald insists they send out for a thermometer to check his temperature, room service returns with an enormous device not intended for clinical use, and Fitzgerald wonders with some trepidation into which orifice his friend intends inserting it.  This good humour pervades much of the book, making it an enjoyable read for the most part, despite the swaggering self-aggrandisement Hemingway indulges in, and the generally rancorous portrayal of Fitzgerald, whose talent he clearly envies.

Gertrude Stein with Bumby (John) Hemingway in Paris (WikiCommons)

Gertrude Stein with Bumby (John) Hemingway in Paris (WikiCommons)

There’s warmth too in most of the other portraits of the writers he encountered in Paris.  He’d gone there in the first place partly because it was a cheap place to live, but mostly because he shrewdly gauged that he was more likely to advance his literary career in the city that was at the heart of world artistic creativity at the time.  He is generously mentored by the guru of modernism in Paris, Gertrude Stein, who is the subject of several early chapters.  Mostly his account of her and her salon is grateful and fond in tone (she was always ‘friendly’ and ‘affectionate’ towards him, at first anyway): he recounts how he learned a lot from her about technique, such as using rhythm and repetition – both of which became characteristic features of his own prose.   He gleefully tells of her opinionated, often acerbic gossip about famous writers and artists like Sherwood Anderson, Picasso and Apollinaire.   But it’s apparent towards the end of their friendship that they fell out seriously.  And he can’t resist mentioning several times that Gertrude excluded Hadley from all their conversations (he doesn’t mention making any attempt to do something about that at the time).

Ezra Pound's head, by Romanian artist Gaudier-Brzeska, a piece that Hemingway admired when he saw it in Pound's apartment in Paris (WikiCommons)

Ezra Pound’s head, by Romanian artist Gaudier-Brzeska, a piece that Hemingway admired when he saw it in Pound’s apartment in Paris (WikiCommons)

Ezra Pound was the other most notable modernist writer in Paris at the time, and he also took great interest in the ambitious young Hemingway’s precocious talent, and helped him considerably.  Nevertheless Hemingway frequently portrays himself as a superior masculine figure, for example teaching Pound to box, and finding him a poor pupil.

He’s a bit of an expat snob, too.  He haunts the Closerie des Lilas, the nearest ‘good café’ when he and Hadley lived above a sawmill (in central Paris!) at the rue Notre-Dame des Champs; he does much of his writing in this café, whereas earlier he’d rented a room to work in.  He doesn’t try to conceal his scorn for posers:


People from the Dome and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas.  There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came.  In those days many people went to the cafés at the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail to be seen publicly.


The Lilas was a former haunt of poets, but the only one he ever sees there is Blaise Cendrars, who Hemingway doesn’t mention had abandoned writing modernist poetry in 1925 and became a famous avant-garde novelist.

In an amusing passage which is perhaps intended as self-deprecatingly ironic in its

vLa Closerie des Lilas in 1909 (WikiCommons)

La Closerie des Lilas in 1909 (WikiCommons)

depiction of his bad-tempered reception of interlopers who pester him when he’s trying to work there, he recreates a scene in which a second-rate writer has the gall to criticise his prose style as ‘too stark’.

‘Too bad,’ I said.

‘Hem, it’s too stripped, too lean.’

‘Bad luck.’

‘Hem, too stripped, too lean, too sinewy’.

I felt the rabbit’s foot in my pocket guiltily.  ‘I’ll try to fatten it up a little.’

‘Mind, I don’t want it obese.’

Sisley, The Seine at Argenteuil. Hemingway enjoyed taking meals at the Pêche Miraculeuse overlooking a Seine vista that reminded him of this artist's riverscapes (WikiCommons)

Sisley, The Seine at Argenteuil. Hemingway enjoyed taking meals at the Pêche Miraculeuse, an open-air restaurant overlooking a Seine vista that reminded him of this artist’s riverscapes (WikiCommons)

He’s joined there on one occasion by Ford Madox Ford, about whom he’s quite rude(but about the Vorticist painter and writer Wyndham Lewis he’s venomous, finding him ‘evil’): he says that Ford gloats after claiming he’s just ‘cut’ Hilaire Belloc, and recalls that Pound had advised him never to be rude to Ford for ‘he only lied when he was tired’, and that he was a good writer with ‘domestic troubles’.  Hemingway tries hard to remember this, he says, but the ‘heavy, wheezing ignoble presence of Ford himself…made it difficult.’  Maybe he just doesn’t get Ford’s English mentality; in a hilarious Wildean exchange that follows, when Ford explains that it’s necessary as a gentleman to cut a ‘cad’, Hemingway asks if one should also cut ‘a bounder’.  ‘It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder’, Ford retorts.  ‘Is Ezra a gentleman?’ Hemingway asks.  ‘Of course not,’ Ford said.  ‘He’s an American.’ What about Henry James?  ‘Very nearly’, replies Ford.  And Hemingway himself?  ‘”You might be considered a gentleman in Italy,” Ford said magnanimously.’

Despite the macho posturing, then, this is an amiable book, charming at times, often very funny, though one learns very little that is trustworthy about Hemingway himself or his relationship with Hadley – though he writes of her with passion and affection.  This makes his subsequent abandonment of her at the end all the more difficult to understand, and the unflattering, ungallant way in which he tells of the affair with Pauline and ensuing separation and divorce is hard to stomach; he talks nastily of the ways he was innocently beguiled by rich people, one of whom must be Pauline, who he says used ‘the oldest trick there is’:

It is that an unmarried young woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband.  When the husband is a writer and doing difficult work so that he is occupied much of the time and is not a good companion or partner to his wife for a big part of the day, the arrangement has advantages until you know how it works out.  The husband has two attractive girls around when he has finished work.

Having begun the affair with Pauline he returns to Austria from Paris, where he’d been with her on his own, having left Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, and describes seeing Hadley waiting for him on the station platform; this passage seems both lyrically fine but also mealy-mouthed : ‘She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully…’

Notre Dame from the east (WikiCommons)

Notre Dame from the east (WikiCommons)

And so he leaves Paris, to which he says there is ‘never any ending’, and ‘the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.’

Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.  But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.


For my review of Paula McLain’s novel based on the marriage of Hemingway and Hadley, and its demise – The Paris Wife – click HERE

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

Berlin: meze, the Wall and reconciliation



Hasir restaurant

Hasir restaurant (photo: Hasir website)

There’s me, my wife and son – all English; his wife and her parents – Chilean; and her Turkish-German friend.  We’re in Hasir on Oranienburgerstrasse, one of a small chain of excellent Turkish restaurants in Berlin, eating meze.  It was just before Christmas a couple of years ago.

This is Mitte, the heart of former East Berlin.  Before the Wall came down in 1990 this was the dour sector of the city; now it’s more vibrant than the commercial West: the excesses of Potsdamer Platz and the Ku’damm shopping street.

Our dinner party typifies the multicultural diversity of the new Berlin.  Son and daughter-in-law are DJs who make music in a studio in the former Tempelhof Airport.  Up the road from his flat we stop for a coffee in an Italian cafe, where they make a wicked mozzarella and tomato ciabbatta sandwich, and coffee as good as anywhere in Berlin.

He leaves for work, so I continue my dérive alone into four-lane Bernauerstrasse, which used to mark the border between East and West.  This is the History Mile of the Berlin Wall.


Berlin wall

Berlin Wall memorial strip

On the left is a graveyard, and a row of rusting girders, vertical remnants of the Wall, now a stark memorial to that divided time.  The former ‘death strip’ between Brunnen and Gartenstrasse has been preserved.  The Berlin Wall Memorial is in the middle of this section.  Sixty meters of the   strip were preserved.  The memorial grounds are beside the Visitors Centre by the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. Plaques announce how the barrier grew more imposing over the years, the people who died attempting to cross it.  Dogs patrolled the death strip, wires attached to their collars and to the perimeter wire, so they could run freely alongside the wall, but not away from it.

Berlin wall with church

Berlin wall with church

I walked on through the outdoor exhibition and crossed over to the Documentation Centre, which houses a fascinating guide in pictures, film and text to the history of the Wall.   Climb to the viewing platform where you can see over the whole area, picturing how it would have looked.  A whole terrace of apartment blocks was demolished to create the strip.  In 1985 the DDR dynamited the Versoehnung (Reconciliation) Church there to facilitate their expansion plans for the wall; a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1894, it stood in the death strip in the Soviet sector – since 1961 its congregation had been unable to gain access to it.  A modern chapel has been built on its site.

Destruction of the church

Destruction of the Reconciliation Church (photo: website of the Reconciliation Chapel)

It’s a cruel history which Berlin presents in sombre openness.  This is maybe what makes it such a stimulating city; its diverse, talented inhabitants seem aware that life in Berlin requires something special from anyone who enters it: be inquisitive, keep your eyes open, and you will feel what it is to be fully human – flawed, inclined to be dangerous, capable of being sublime.

Next day the snow has fallen.  Miniature snow-ploughs keep the pavements clear; bigger ones keep the streets passable.  A fire-engine arrives over the road; we watch entranced as a fireman is hoisted to the full extent of the hydraulic arm.  He reaches up and knocks from the eaves of the three-storey building a huge icicle.  Berlin won’t risk pedestrians being flattened by ice-fall.  Nowadays it’s an efficiently caring city.




Lars Iyer, ‘Spurious’ – a review

Lars Iyer (photo from Bomblog website)

Lars Iyer (photo from Bomblog website)

Lars Iyer, Spurious  (Melville House, New York: 2011) paperback, 188 pages.

I bought and read this book in response to glowing reviews by people I respect like John Self (on his Asylum book blog) and Sam Jordison at the Guardian (‘a brilliant, engaging read’).  Although I’m mostly in accord with their positive views, I finished it with decreasing enthusiasm and, by the end, a fair amount of…well, boredom.

It’s certainly an engaging, curious and highly individual work.  It doesn’t conform to most of the conventions of a novel: there’s little plot to speak of – the spread and growth of damp and spores in Lars’ flat, perhaps, and occasional gin-fuelled dérives with his pal W., perhaps (there are several in jokes about the Situationists; many more – too many – about other philosophical, literary figures).  The largest part of the book consists of raucous dialogues between the character called Lars, who like his namesake the author lives and teaches in the NE of England (Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle), and his ‘frenemy’, the acerbic W. – we never learn his full name.  W. lives in Plymouth where he seems also to have a fitfully rewarding academic career.  These dialogues are almost entirely narrated as reported speech by the impassive Lars:

I am something to explain, W. says.  He has to account for me to everyone.  Why is that?  I don’t feel I have to account for myself, W. says, that’s what it is.  I’ve no real sense of shame.  It must be something to do with my Hinduism, W. muses.

This appears on the first page, and typifies the oblique style and muted, absurdist tone.  Most of what W. says to Lars, as reported by Lars, anyway – he’s not the most reliable of narrators – is cruelly insulting.  He frequently singles out Lars’ stupidity, obesity and all-round uselessness; this is apparent from page 1, just a few lines on from my previous quotation:

‘You’re an ancient people, but an innocent one, unburdened by shame’, W. says.  On the other hand, it could simply be due to my stupidity.  I’m freer than him, W. acknowledges, but more stupid.  It’s an innocent kind of stupidity, but it’s stupidity nonetheless.

This kind of love-hate relationship with its banter, this deadpan, relentless insulting (which is usually placidly accepted by Lars) has been likened by most critics to the clownish antics of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett (photo: Wiki Commons)Samuel Beckett (photo: Wiki Commons)

Iyer himself, in an article in the Guardian in 2012, acknowledged his debt to Nietzsche, quoting his statement: ‘In your friend you should have your best enemy’.  Such a friend, Iyer continues, should be one who ‘badgers, bothers, enrages, and insults you’, and he claims to detest the blandly spurious ‘kidult’ friendship promoted on platforms such as Facebook.  And that probably explains this book’s title.

There are nine other literary pairs of ‘frenemies’ that Iyer identifies in that article (in addition to Vladimir and Estragon); all are clear influences on Spurious – here are some of them:

Don Quixote and his ‘comic foil’ Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: picture from Wiki Commons, from an engraving by Gustave Doré, 1863

Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: picture from Wiki Commons, from an engraving by Gustave Doré, 1863

In the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser the pianist prodigy Glenn Gould sends his less gifted fellow music student Bertheimer into a downward spiral of misery ending in suicide after Gould labels him a ‘loser’, and plays with inimitable virtuoso skill.

Thomas Mann’s Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain, ‘the former embodying the positive, hopeful ideal of the Enlightenment, and the latter, the more chaotic, order-threatening aspects of fascism, anarchism and communism. The two men debate furiously, and end up fighting an improbable duel, foreshadowing the coming clash of ideologies that would tear the continent apart.’

The cutting, nihilistic sharpness of W.’s invective is mildly amusing for a while: ‘You always have administration to fall back on’, W. says. ‘You never really experience your failure’.  The back-handed compliment is compounded in the next sentence: ‘With neither a fear of unemployment nor a fearful skill as an administrator, W. is alone with his failure, he says.  It’s terrible – there’s no alibi, he can’t blame it on anyone’.  After this uncharacteristic, Kafka-esque flash of self-criticism W. returns to his usual theme: ‘You’re like the dog that licks the hand of its master.  You’ll be licking their hand even as they beat you, and making little whiny noises.  You’re good at that, aren’t you – making whiny noises?’

Nearly 200 pages of such pessimistic, one-sided badinage has limited appeal for me:

We were disgusted with ourselves.  We were mired in self-disgust, our whole circle.  We hung our heads.  If we could have hung ourselves at that moment, we would have done so.

Yes, it’s inventive, clever, thought-provoking and idiosyncratic.  Look at the whimsically studied development there from ‘hung our heads’ to ‘hung ourselves’, and the other patterned repetitions here and in much of the dialogue, presented (as in the quotation above) in staccato bursts of short sentences or paratactic, loosely linked sentences of greater lengthy.  But I think it’s just too damn up itself to be fully successful in literary terms.  It’s an intelligent curiosity, well worth reading, but ultimately sounds too few notes too frequently.  Its origins as a blog are also apparent: it’s got an episodic, non-linear structure, and lapses too often into repetition.

The most interesting aspect of the text for me was the more profound, less quirky forays into philosophical debate, presented with the bleak wit of Lars and W.’s literary hero, Kafka, and their cinematic hero, the Hungarian Bela Tarr:

Of course, I should take my life immediately, that would be the honourable thing, W. says.  I should climb the footstool to the noose…But it would already be too late, that’s the problem, W. says.  The sin has already been committed.  The sin against existence, against the whole order of existing things.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924); photo - Wiki Commons

Franz Kafka (1883-1924); photo – Wiki Commons

Iyer is to be congratulated for producing such a daring attempt at a shaggy-dog story based on the principle of turning apocalyptic-messianic pseudo-philosophical musings by a pair of smug, self-styled idiots into Nietzschean, angst-ridden comedy:

We know we’re failures, we know we’ll never achieve anything, but we’re still joyful.

Iyer’s competitive chums are capable of beautiful lyric episodes:

We’re only signs or syndromes of some great collapse, and our deaths will be no more significant than those of summer flies in empty rooms.

There are some genuinely funny (but weird, absurd) passages, like this one, where W. has been viciously berating Lars for not reading the chapters he’d sent him for comment:

‘You didn’t read chapter five’, says W., ‘with the dog’.  He was very proud of his pages on his dog, even though he doesn’t own a dog.  ‘You should always include a dog in your books’, says W.  It’s a bit like his imaginary children in his previous book, W. says. – ‘Do you remember the passages on children?’  Even W. wept.  He weeps now to think of them.  He’s very moved by his own imaginary examples, he says.

He wants to work a nun into his next book, he says.  An imaginary nun, the kindest and most gentle person in the world.

It’s for sentences like these that I think Spurious is worth a look; but be prepared for some longueurs and donnish, highbrow namedropping among the comical repetitions.


Typically enigmatic cover image of 'Spurious'; photo from the Guardian website

Typically enigmatic cover image of ‘Spurious’; photo from the Guardian website



Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

I was enjoying the late summer sunshine in my front garden, sitting on the driveway in our fancy new double seat with a table in its middle, when I noticed a bee crouching on the tarmac a few metres away.  It was as big as a mouse.  A small mouse.  Its body was a beautiful deep tawny colour, with a black band across the middle, like a unistripe tiger.  It seemed sluggish, unwilling or unable to move.  I was concerned that our visitors, due to arrive any time, would run it over when they drove through the gates.

I returned to the Guardian, and a curiously tedious piece by Jonathan Franzen on Karl Kraus, which seemed to be more about Franzen.  I remembered the bee, and it was no longer there.  I looked around – it had moved down the drive and was just by the open front door, examining a fallen dead leaf.

It crawled slowly on to the leaf, and relaxed there.  It looked like a life-raft.  The bee turned around and tucked its head under the curled edge of the leaf.  It seemed to fall asleep.  My wife returned from her bike-ride into town and I showed her the bee.  She wondered if it was ill or dying; maybe it had stung somebody, she suggested, and was moribund.  It was certainly not very vivacious.

Photo: RHS website

Photo: RHS website

I read the rest of the review section of the Guardian.  Twenty minutes must have passed.  I noticed the bee walking slowly back up the drive.  It stopped halfway up.  The wind had dropped and the sun was beating down warmly.  The bee seemed to bask.  It rubbed its furry body with a long black back leg.  After a few minutes it took off like a helicopter and flew vigorously away, sluggish no more.


I looked them up online: it was possibly a bumblebee, judging by the images I found (as posted here).  I discovered the phenomenon of the ‘Zombee’: honey bees that have been parasitised by the Zombie Fly Apocephalus borealis.   They behave as if intoxicated, displaying zombie-like behaviour such as nocturnal departures from their hives on a ‘flight of the living dead’ (from a depressing website called ZomBee Watch).

I don’t think mine was a zombee, though I feared for his state of mind until he took off so brashly.

A review of James Salter, ‘All That Is’: Opera and Tortoises

The English edition (from the Guardian website)

The English edition published by Picador (from the Guardian website)


I’ve been an admirer of the literary works of James Salter for some time.  I began with A Sport and a Pastime (1967), about a passionate affair in 1950s France.  Light Years (1975) traces the decline of a marriage.  In both novels, the style is a mix of Hemingway’s  concision, blended with baroque poeticism.  In his latest novel (his first in over thirty years, though he has published short fiction, memoirs and non-fiction in that time) that was published this spring in his 87th year, Salter has largely reduced the prose voltage to suit the protagonist.

A Sport aap cover via Millions

Philip Bowman, born like Salter in New Jersey in 1925, is introduced in chapter one as a young naval officer heading for Okinawa towards the end of World War II; here’s the opening sentence: ‘All night in darkness the water sped past’.  No apparent attempt to create a jaw-droppingly memorable line.  But that sentence is typical of what follows: the two foregrounded adverbial phrases emphasise the long, terrifyingly inexorable voyage to potential oblivion for the crew.  By making the water the agent of the verb, there’s a slightly skewed perception introduced, for it is the ship which is speeding Bowman to his destiny.  This displaced or strangely angled point of view is appropriate for the initially naive Bowman, a bruised soul with a quiet, almost innocent approach to life in the early chapters.

In that sense this is a bildungsroman: Bowman at the novel’s end is in his 60s, at ease in exalted literary circles, no longer entirely bemused by the ways and wiles of women, sexually confident (though emotionally scarred by divorce, betrayal and abandonment by previous partners).

There isn’t much of a plot in the conventional sense; what we get is numerous episodes related across 31 short chapters, many of which condense numerous scenes and cameo performances from a large cast of minor characters.  Drifting almost invisibly through most of these scenes is the increasingly confident figure of Bowman, whose capacity and appetite for life are never entirely diminished by the frequent disappointments it puts in his way.  He graduates from Harvard and enters unobtrusively into the ostensibly gentlemanly pre-war, pre-corporate sphere of publishing.  He spends most of the novel as an editor for the house owned by Robert Baum and his finance partner.  Baum has a caustic awareness of the vagaries of best-sellerdom: on his wall is a framed letter from a colleague editor, describing an ‘utterly worthless’ book he’d rejected – ‘It sold two hundred thousand copies’, says Baum; ‘I keep it there as a reminder’.

Against this backdrop of the conflicted sensibilities of the editors, working in the shark-tank of commercial publishing (the idea, says Baum, is to ‘pay little and sell a truckful’ – though he describes his firm as ‘literary’ in principle), Bowman’s character fits neatly.  Salter is mostly interested, though, in his amorous life.  He falls ill-advisedly for a girl called Vivian from landed Virginia society; she’s all horse-riding, hunting and money, but Bowman is smitten by ‘a riveting face that God had stamped with the simple answer to life’.  I know I began by saying he’d toned down the flashy style, but these touches of Scott Fitzgerald-like grandeur still bedeck the narrative.  The clash of cultures and humiliating denouement of this marriage show American class consciousness in all its raw nastiness. 

Bowman’s judgement in women, one would expect, can only improve.  It does, but not straight away.


Photo: Guernica online magazine

James Salter.  Photo: Guernica online magazine


As he ages he goes through several more intense, scarring affairs.  Each time the woman seems to be destined to be the love of his life; each time love eludes him.  The cruel betrayal towards the end of the novel is matched by Bowman’s transgressive, callous revenge (in a chapter called, with chilling cruelty, ‘Forgiveness’).  I was about to say this response of his was uncharacteristic, but it’s not; we don’t really get to know what motivates Bowman’s actions – he’s not depicted as self-aware, though his musings on life, death and love are frequently presented.

As the novel closes he seems to have found a muted but triumphant peace; he still believes in love, but accepts it’s ‘now likely to be too late’.  But here one of my reservations about the novel becomes felt: some readers have found Salter’s fiction tends towards male-oriented, even chauvinistic portrayals of relationships.  In All That Is there is an unedifying preoccupation with how women look, and how their looks fade as they age, while Bowman continues to be praised by women right through to his 60s for his attractiveness.  He also has a slightly unsettling, voyeuristic interest in women much younger than himself.  His final partner is thirty years younger than he is; she’s ‘desirable, life-giving’ and had ‘slipped through the net, the fruit that had fallen to the ground’ – an unfortunate set of metaphors.

On the other hand, Salter is quoted in Numero Cinq magazine as saying: ‘I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.’

Salter is noted for the carnality and sex in his novels, and there’s some of this in All That Is.  Usually it’s not likely to qualify him for the Bad Sex literary award; it’s difficult to avoid prurience or cliché in such scenes, but he mostly succeeds in surprising us with his mix of lyricism and wry humour; in one such moment he describes Eddins with his new lover:

The bold, Assyrian parts of him were brushing her lips, stifling her moans.  Afterwards they slept like thieves…He loved everything, her small navel, her loose dark hair, her feet with their long, naked toes in the morning. Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery, and when she cried out it was like a dying woman, one that had crawled to a shrine.

That Assyrian reference, the ‘thieves’ simile and the ‘shrine’ are clunky, but in context Salter just about gets away with it: the woman has a thing about ancient Egypt; after their first sexual encounter she says ‘in Egypt I would be your slave’.  Unfortunately there’s that slight touch of chauvinism again, the separated, appraising male gaze.

Descriptions are sparse, but when they appear they glow with life; here he writes of the Maryland coast:

On an inlet nearby he had seen a white goose that lived with the ducks there. Whenever a plane passed overhead, the goose looked up, watching and talking as he did.  He watched it all across the sky.

Salter at his best eschews fancy vocabulary and pyrotechnical imagery; this passage consists almost entirely of words of one or two syllables, more like Carver than Fitzgerald.  What distinguishes it as Salter is the curious ambiguity of the pronouns; who is talking and watching – the goose, or the man?  It turns a monochrome snapshot into an almost mystical experience.

The dialogue is often superb.  Early in his marriage to Vivian, Bowman upbraids her for her domestic negligence (another touch of sexism?):

‘Vivian, why don’t you spend a little time cleaning up the place?’

‘It’s not my ambition.’

Her use of the word, whatever that meant, annoyed him.

This isn’t a perfect novel, then; its pace is sometimes slow to the point of tedium, and the focus on such a reserved, apparently unreflecting man’s trials, repeated sexual conquests and reversals results in a narrative that isn’t always entirely successful.  The digressions into Eddins’ similarly fraught, occasionally tragic amatory life are entertaining but somehow don’t fully cohere with the rest of the novel; maybe Salter would have been better off making the slightly more vivacious Eddins his protagonist, and Bowman secondary.   But the novel is ultimately worth reading, if only for the beautiful brushstrokes in the prose (I’ve tried to quote a few here): the evocation of romantic visions in old Europe of which Salter is so fond in his other novels; the conflicting appeal of country and city life, and the tiny miniatures of the minor characters (Bowman’s genial uncle Frank; the publisher in England, Wiberg, with his ‘eighteenth-century face’) that often compress into a few words or sentences what would take lesser authors a whole chapter or novel to convey.  Here in a meeting with one of Bowman’s clients and his wife, for example, by focusing on Bowman, Salter  sketches impressionistically and tellingly his preoccupations and ambitions:

Although there was little evidence of discord between them, there must have been some, but from the pair of them Bowman felt a strong pull towards connubial life, joined life, somewhere in the country, the early morning, misty fields, the snake in the garden, tortoise in the woods.  Against that was the city with its myriad attractions, art, carnality, the amplification of desires.  It was like a tremendous opera with an infinite cast and tumultuous as well as solitary scenes.

Bowman, like the rest of us, just needs somebody to love and to love him.  Maybe his penchant for opera and tortoises explains why he has such a hard time realising that ambition.

The American cover (photo from LARB website)

The American cover (photo from LARB website)



Townley’s dogs

Townley's dogs

Townley’s dogs

© Trustees of the British Museum: the Townley Collection – Wolfson Gallery, Room 84

This is a Roman marble statue of a pair of dogs – a bitch (probably a greyhound) caressing a dog, nibbling his ear, dating probably from the 2nd century.  I thought it rather charming when I came across it on the ‘explore’ feature of the British Museum website.

It was acquired by a certain Charles Townley (1737-1805; also spelt Towneley) in 1774 from the Scots dealer/agent, archaeologist and painter Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), who had carried out excavations at Monte Cagnolo, or Dog Mountain, near Civita Lavinia (modern name Lanuvia), Lazio in 1772-73.  Hamilton, who came from a prominent family after whom the town of Hamilton, Lanarkshire is named, recognised the significance of this archaeological site’s name, and found there other similar marble pieces, as well as a sphinx with the body of a dog, and two statues representing the tearing apart by hunting hounds of Actaeon; he supplied Townley with several other ancient pieces of artwork during his digs in the Lazio area.  Hamilton was a colleague of Piranesi, and advised the young sculptor Canova.

Bust of Townley by Joseph Nollekens, 1807. Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Townley by Joseph Nollekens, 1807. Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum also preserves a 13-page letter written by Hamilton to Townley (one of over 120 such examples written over a 25-year period), in which he describes these excavations – p.3 of that letter is displayed on the BM website.

Hamilton letter to Townley, BM website

Hamilton letter to Townley, BM website

In this letter Hamilton suggests that the site was the home of the emperor Antoninus Pius, who reigned AD 138-161, but this is now believed to be inaccurate, and the precise date of the statue’s creation is unknown.

Also on the BM website is Hamilton’s list of marbles found by him near Rome since 1769, many of which he indicates were acquired by Townley.

Townley was a wealthy English gentleman, with a country house (called Towneley Hall; Charles favoured the alternative spelling) near Burnley; he was an antiquarian and collector of antiquities, who made three Grand Tours to Italy.

Zoffani's portrayal of Townley's sculpture gallery, 1782

Zoffani’s portrayal of Townley’s sculpture gallery, 1782. Wikimedia Commons


Pratincoles and Gobemouches


Gobe-mouches or Papamosques gris (source: Wikipedia)

Gobe-mouches or Papamosques gris (source: Wikipedia)

Gobemouche, n.

OED online – Etymology:  < French gobe-mouches ( < gober to swallow + mouche fly) flycatcher (bird and plant), credulous person.  In French gobe-mouches is the form employed for both singular and plural…

 One who credulously accepts all news, however improbable or absurd. Also attrib.

 First citation 1818; Most recent is from 1884.

Michael Quinion’s excellent World Wide Words site/newsletter first brought this word to my attention; he has a fuller discussion of the origins and meanings of this word there.  He explains that it probably extended from its ornithological usage to signify a rather credulous, simple person who goes through the world with an open mouth, ready to ‘swallow’ any story, however ridiculous.  There may also be a connection with a Gaelic word for beak or mouth from which English derives the colloquial ‘gob’ for mouth.

According to the French version of Wikipedia, gobe-mouches is a bird species of various genres, family Muscicapidae  in the order of Passeriformes, which includes passerines – this includes more than half of all bird species.  Sometimes known as perching birds or songbirds, the passerines form one of the most diverse terrestrial vertebrate orders, with over 5,000 identified species.  There’s also a species of Polioptila called  gobemoucherons.

Only four species of gobe-mouches are found in Europe :  grey, black, collared and dwarf; cf certain Stizorhins or Horizorin (formerly ‘gobemouche’) de Dohrn

Horizorin of Dohrn by Joseph Smit (Wikipedia)

Horizorin of Dohrn by Joseph Smit (Wikipedia)

Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers) are mainly small arboreal insectivores.  There are 274 species worldwide of which 23 species occur in France.  One such is the Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis), a rare vagrant in western Europe.

Back to the OED online, and citations for this word, among which I noticed this:

1844   A. W. Kinglake Eothen v. 67:  ‘ The gobe-mouche expression of countenance with which he is swallowing an article in the National.’  Alexander William Kinglake · Eothen; or, Traces of travel brought home from the East · 1st edition, 1844.

Alexander William Kinglake (1809 – 1891) was a travel writer and historian.  He was born near Taunton, Somerset; in 1856 he abandoned his legal practice in order to devote himself to literature and public life.  Eothen was a very popular work of exotic orientalism, in which he described a journey he made about ten years earlier in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  I read this so long ago I can hardly recall it; must have another look and maybe report back here.

In my notebooks I found another curious ornithological term which I feel compelled to share:

pratincole, n.

OED online again (slightly abridged): Etymology:  < scientific Latin Pratincola, former genus name (G. H. Kramer Elenchus vegetabilium et animalium per Austriam inferiorem observatorum (1756) 382) < classical Latin prātum   a meadow) + incola   inhabitant.   Compare scientific Latin Hirundo pratincola, adopted by Linnaeus ( Systema Naturæ (ed. 12, 1766) 345) as the taxonomic name of the collared pratincole….

  Any of several long-winged, fork-tailed, plover-like birds of the Old World genus Glareola (family Glareolidae), closely related to the coursers, which resemble swallows when in flight and are found near rivers and marshes.

Small pratincole, Glareola lacteal (Wikipedia)

Small pratincole, Glareola lacteal (Wikipedia)

First cited 1773.  One eye-catching citation is this:

1866   Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900, author of Lorna Doone):  Cradock Nowell xlvii,  ‘A woman’s perception flies on the wings of the pratincole.’

My Chambers dictionary has this: ‘a bird akin to the plovers, with swallow-like wings and tail.’  I like that ‘akin to’: as if written by a Victorian rector.  Wouldn’t plover make a great slip of the tongue error for lover.  As in ‘I want to be your plover’…

According to Wikipedia they are unusual, being waders, for hunting their insect prey on the wing like the swallows they slightly resemble; they can also feed on the ground.  They are distributed across S. Europe and Africa, through Asia to Australia.

Naumann, Glareola p.; Glareola nordmanni (Wikipedia)

Naumann, Glareola p.; Glareola nordmanni (Wikipedia)

The above image is taken from Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (Natural history of the birds of central Europe) of 1905.  Pratincoles’ status in UK: ‘accidental’ (BTO website; 1 sighting per annum).  Shame: they’re quite pretty little birds.