Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Commentary: The writer's quest for that one true sentence

By Robert Garnett Years pass, sometimes decades, in which nothing of lasting interest is published. Ninety years ago, in October 1926, two classics appeared in a single week.

By Robert Garnett

Years pass, sometimes decades, in which nothing of lasting interest is published.

Ninety years ago, in October 1926, two classics appeared in a single week.

First came Winnie-the-Pooh.

Then came a radically original first novel by a young Midwesterner living in Paris. Among American novels of the past century, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises remains uniquely influential.

There is no better time to appreciate Hemingway's clipped, terse language than during the rhetorical bloat of an American election year, with Niagaras of twaddle and cliché tumbling into an oceanic puddle of verbiage.

"Zounds!" a Shakespeare character laments, "I was never so bethumped with words."

It was Hemingway's insight that English had grown genteel, formulaic, and glib; that mechanically chosen words and phrases, sliding easily onto the page, falsified experience and faked emotion. Shunning sentimentality and drama, genuine passion wastes no words.

"The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence," his contemporary Marianne Moore observed: "Not in silence but restraint."

The Sun Also Rises, like most Hemingway novels, is set in Europe.

An American journalist working in Paris, Jake the narrator loves an English femme fatale, Brett.

"Can't we just live together?" he pleads.

"Not with my own true love," she replies. For Jake has been emasculated by a war wound, they cannot consummate their love, and the highly sexed Brett has no aptitude for platonic friendship.

"And there's not a damn thing we could do," Jake says.

Their dilemma defies happy resolution.

What language to express a world without hope or illusion?

For five years Hemingway rose early, walked to a chilly rented room over a Parisian sawmill, and worked to find the answer. Slowly he developed his voice, reminding himself when discouraged that "all you have to do is write one true sentence."

Authentic emotion for Hemingway speaks in spare, taut rhythms. Leaving a dancing-club with Brett, Jake leads the reader out, step by uneventful step:

We left the floor and I took my coat off a hanger on the way and put it on. Brett stood by the bar, Cohn was talking to her. I stopped at the bar and asked them for an envelope. The patronne found one. I took a 50-franc note from my pocket, put it in the envelope, sealed it, and handed it to the patronne.

Aching with longing and despair, Jake disciplines his feelings into a tense, staccato beat, the tightly controlled language a tourniquet to stanch the bleeding.

It is Brett who breaks. "Oh, darling," she laments, "I've been so miserable."

Hemingway crafted a clear-the-decks language for that losing battle, life. Stick to concrete nouns and simple grammar. Adverbs are poison. Avoid poetic, literary rhetoric. Avoid figures of speech. In its 68,000 words, The Sun warns us to distrust words themselves.

Jake lapses into verbal rambles only when drunk. So tough and matter-of-fact is his usual language that the rare simile jumps off the page: Bret "wore a slipover jersey. ... She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey."

There's a lot to regret about Hemingway. His early self-discipline waned. After the 1920s he sank into celebrity, self-indulgence, and alcohol. He became a boaster, a treacherous friend, a nasty drunk.

The first print run of The Sun Also Rises was 5,000; a quarter century later The Old Man and the Sea appeared in more than five million copies of Life Magazine, and two years later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize. But by then he was a poor imitation of his earlier self.

A little earlier he had written (or signed his name to) an ad for Ballantine Ale: "We keep it iced in the bait box with chunks of ice packed around it. And you ought to taste it on a hot day when you have worked a big marlin fast because there were sharks after him," and so on.

After his death a "Bad Hemingway Contest" was inaugurated, a cheerful competition to spoof Hemingway's famously distinctive style. But the worst parodies had already been written by Hemingway himself.

He ended dismally - paranoid, psychotic, suicidal. At age 61 he blew off his head with a shotgun.

The wreckage of his final years cannot dim the achievement of The Sun Also Rises, however.

The writer's mission, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, is "to purify the dialect of the tribe." Hemingway did just that. We the tribe of English speakers and writers would do well to emulate his example and heed his advice: Write one true sentence.

He rewrote the ending of his second novel, A Farewell to Arms, 39 times before he was satisfied. Was there some technical problem? he was asked. "What was it that had stumped you?"

"Getting the words right," he answered, simply.

Robert Garnett is a professor of English at Gettysburg College.