The Letters of Ernest Hemingway

Andrew O'Hagan in the London Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_23 Jun. 06 21.42Good reporters go hunting for nouns. They want the odd verb too, but the main thing is the nouns, especially the proper ones, the who, what and where. The thing British schoolchildren call a ‘naming word’ was, for Hemingway, a chance to reveal what he knew, an opportunity to be experienced, to discriminate, and his style depends on engorged nouns, not absent adjectives. But at times it strikes you that the cult of specificity in Hemingway is a drug you take in a cheap arcade: lights flash on the old machines and a piano plinks overhead. One evening it came to me as a small revelation that he takes too much pride in the nouns. (And pride ruined him.) He never takes nouns for granted. He invests his whole personality in them, because nouns are the part of speech where a person gets to show off. Papa gets busted on the nouns because he can’t place them on the page without ego. Too often they are there to attract attention. To cause a sensation. To make a blaze. Hemingway will never say someone had a drink when he can say they had a vermouth.

You can have fun with this. In A Farewell to Arms, there are forty occasions when someone has a drink. It begins in Gorizia, where our hero, Frederic Henry (he’d better have his name; we’re going to be with him for a while), sits watching the snow falling while he drinks a bottle of Asti with a friend. Later, over too much wine and Strega, he explains to a priest his regret at not having gone to Abruzzi. The first time he is at the villa housing the British Hospital he is upstairs drinking two glasses of grappa with Rinaldi. He later tells a group of people about a drinking competition – on this occasion, red wine – he got into with a salesman from Marseille. At the dressing station, he sits with one of the medical captains. ‘He offered me a glass of cognac.’ A page after that, stuck in the dugout with a basin of macaroni, he is drinking from a canteen of wine. He has a swallow just as the mortar that will injure him lands in the dugout. ‘Bring him a glass of brandy,’ says the doctor who first treats him. (Rinaldi brings him a bottle of cognac that afternoon.) And when the priest comes to visit him he brings not any old bottle. ‘This is a bottle of vermouth,’ he says. ‘You like vermouth?’

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