Monday, October 27, 2008


The late Osvaldo Soriano is one of Argentina’s most celebrated contemporary writers. This is the story of how, oddly enough, our paths never crossed in the exciting and violent Buenos Aires of the 1970s or later on when democracy returned. But it’s also about how I got to know him all the same.

Funny thing, I’ve often thought, how Osvaldo Soriano and I never met. We were colleagues, contemporaries pretty much (he was born six years before me), and we haunted some of the same environments in the bad old days leading up to the 1976 military coup in Argentina — streets where hookers, sailors, printers and newsmen were about the only people stirring long into the wee hours of the night. And we started hanging out in those places in the same era, he having come to Buenos Aires from the Argentine interior and I from abroad.

I suspect we both got into journalism for the same reason, as a way of writing every day and earning a living at it. He did it all his life, despite his fame as a novelist, having been one of the founders of the controversial daily, Página 12, when he returned to Buenos Aires from European exile, where he had written for such noted publications as Le Monde, Libération and Il Manifesto. Some people go into journalism because they have a passion for the news. Others because they like telling people’s stories. These others are the ones people talk about when they say they never met a journalist who wasn’t writing a novel. In Soriano’s case it paid off big-time. From what I know about him — I became a huge fan of his from the very outset — I figure his enormous popularity surprised no one as much as himself. His novels have sold into the millions of copies (you can even buy them at Wal-Mart!) and have been translated into over a dozen languages. (And still the more asinine among critics are wont to discuss whether he was, in fact, a “good writer”).

Anyway, at about the time that Soriano was writing for Jacobo Timerman at La Opinión, I was sub-editing and writing for Editor Robert Cox at the Buenos Aires Herald. Our editorial departments were more or less around the corner from each other in the then-red light district, in the vicinity of 25 de Mayo and Tucumán and both of our papers printed at Alemann & Compañía, which was handy and one of the biggest printers of the day. It was a location that was a stone’s throw from the SAFICO Building on Corrientes and San Martín, where major international news agencies and correspondents had their offices, a few short blocks from the local agency Noticias Argentinas, and walking distance from the press offices of all major municipal and federal government offices. It was hard to go into any of the bars or cafés in that district without meeting up with a colleague or two. So you would have thought that we would have been almost bound to run into each other. But, as fate would have it, we didn’t. It was hard not to run into novelist, journalist, one-time radical Peronist and later fat-cat diplomat Jorge Asís, for instance, who was a sort of politically aggressive omnipresence on that circuit. But Soriano was a somewhat retiring, if friendly sort, from what I hear, and I was never really much of a joiner myself. I suppose we both spent a lot more time in front of a typewriter than some, even in the days before computers made it easier still to become a functional hermit.

I stayed on at the Herald and worked as a stringer for papers and magazines in the United States and Britain as well, and thus started building a career of sorts. It wasn’t on purpose. I mean, the ultimate goal was to become a novelist. It was just that, in the meantime, I was limited to the Herald if I wanted to write in my own language, and besides, once the military junta shut down La Opinión and locked up Timerman, there was basically no other place but the Herald to write a semblance of truth about what was happening in Argentina. The times grew frighteningly interesting and one year just kind of led to the next.

Soriano, for his part, graced the editorial departments of not only La Opinión, but also Primera Plana, Noticias, Confirmado and Panorama with his inimitable prose. But his leftist bent and his uncompromising objectivity made it dangerous for him to remain in Argentina after the 1976 coup d’état, and he made a decision to live in exile until the military returned to their barracks in 1983. He was off to Belgium and would later gravitate to Paris, where he would co-found Sin Censura with venerated exile Julio Cortázar. At the Herald, our news editor and my immediate boss, Andrew Graham-Yooll, made a similar decision at about that same time and was off to London practically overnight. I got bumped up the ladder to the news editor’s post and James Neilson was brought in as associate editor under Cox.

It was in this editorial management post that I started to get a chance to write regularly under a by-line and thus to become mildly well-known in certain circles. And so it was too that I got to know Soriano for the first time, without ever actually meeting him.

It happened one midnight (dreary) in 1978, as I was sitting at my desk, struggling with the first lines of an op-ed piece while waiting for the press to roll in our new installations on Calle Azopardo. Momentarily stymied, I decided to go through the day’s mail that was still piled untouched on the corner of my desk. I found the usual readers’ letters (which I dutifully separated and filed for future publication), some magazines, a few brochures (from merchants who wanted some free hype and which I put in the out tray for the advertising department), a couple of formal invitations to lunch and cocktails and, finally, a small rectangular package, the size of a book. It was addressed to my name in black marker, postmarked from Spain, had no return address and was wrapped in plain brown paper, as if to conceal some pornographic content.

Justifiably paranoid as I was in those days, given the constant threats the newspaper received, I sniffed the package, flexed it, shook it, picked at it, and tweaked it a bit, before finally deciding it was probably harmless. When I opened it, what I found was a rather thin little paperback book with a title as Argentine as tango itself: No habrá más penas ni olvido. So Argentine is that phrase from the classic tango, Mi Buenos Aires querido, that it is almost impossible to translate it correctly. I mean, one could try, say, No More Sorrow or Forgetfulness, but what the devil does that mean in English. It is only within the context of porteño lore — of immigrants far from home, of families separated by destiny and longing to be together once more, of perennial hope against a backdrop of barely veiled despair, of terminal melancholy turned outwardly to false cheer, of romantic abandon and unrequited love, of vengeance and remorse, of arrivals and departures, of European Americans with heartstrings stretched taut between continents — that those words make sense, even in Spanish. They would probably make sense in Italian…if they were spoken in America (especially South America). But in English, it’s like: Say what? Anyway, as a title for what was to be an incredibly succinct and immortal synthesis of something as Argentine as the phenomenon of Peronism in the 1970s, it could not have been more fitting.

I scanned the first few paragraphs and was immediately, irretrievably hooked. I kept telling myself, “One more page and back to the op-ed piece…One more page and I’ll go down to put the paper to bed…One more page and I’ll put this thing down! But it was impossible. It wasn’t until I felt the rotary press shaking the floor of my office like a small, benign earth tremor that I tore myself away from the plot and characters that peopled the story to go down and do my duty, plucking a copy of the latest edition of the Herald from the downstream end of the press and having a quick general look to make sure everything was okay before bidding the press crew good night over the din of the machinery.

Before I went to sleep only shortly before dawn, I had read half of the book and before I went in to work the next day, I had finished it. I was spellbound. Political analysts of all colors and nationalities were straining their intellects to the point of mental hernia to try and paint a clear if complex picture of the Argentine phenomenon. They were seeking some even vaguely objective definition of Peronism, attempting to explain in some feasible way what had gone so horrendously wrong that the country had stumbled headlong into total chaos, only to fall into the gnashing jaws of unbridled repression and ironclad authoritarianism. And by and large, they had failed miserably. But here was Osvaldo Soriano, high school drop-out, street-beat newsman and natural genius, who created the perfect allegory. He didn’t try to tell the story from the standpoint of the big picture, where cloak and dagger political intrigue made it next to impossible to get to the core of truth. Instead he took the demise of Peronism to a tiny town in Buenos Aires Province, where everybody knew everybody else, injected the poison of political avarice, added the catalyst of petty jealousy, sowed the seeds of gossip and doubt, and fanned the flames of a witch-hunt that would turn a quaint and even comic village into a tragic nightmare of civil strife, torture and murder. And so the question of what happened in Argentina in the ‘70s becomes graphically crystal-clear, with never a mention of any of the major players, except, of course, for the all-pervading, omnipresent name of Perón.

But even though the story could not have been more Argentine in every sense, it was, I realized, also brilliantly universal. As universal, say, as Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was an allegory on politics gone awry, a regime’s running rampant, movements placing themselves above the people in whose name they acted. It was about an ideal turned caricature, a political thought gone psychotic. It was about human foible — complacence playing into the hands of dictatorial design, rebellion providing an excuse for free-wheeling repression and about what happens when two extremes come full circle and see each other in near mirror image. It was about how no one wins, but how power is retained, at least for a time, by whoever swings the biggest club. But it was also about how moral victory can only belong to those who maintain their principles at all costs, even at the cost of their very lives.

The next day I told a fellow in the shop about the book. He was what one might call a closet Peronist revolutionary. He had been, rumor had it, a leftist activist before the 1976 coup. He and I often discussed politics while putting the paper to bed. He had read a lot and I asked if he had ever read anything by Soriano, since this was my first encounter with the author. He said he didn’t think so. Would I lend him the book to read?

“Sure,” I said, “but I want it back.”

“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’m a fast reader.”

The next night when I went down to the shop and said hello to him, he grunted, glanced over both shoulders to see if anybody was watching, reached into a dark little cupboard, where he also hid his little brown bottle of Bols Ginebra and retrieved the book from the darkest recesses. I couldn’t help laughing aloud when I saw that he had very carefully covered it in heavy black plastic sheeting, obviously to keep the title from showing through.

“Here, chief,” he said. “Get it out of here.”

“You didn’t like it?” I laughed.

“It was great,” he whispered, “but not worth dying for.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.

“You know the security guy at the front desk? He said that if I didn’t want the milicos to give me a ride in their truck, I’d better get that subversive book under wraps, because the author was a terrorist and the book was banned.”

I lost that copy of No habrá más penas ni olvido in a move some time back, but for all of the years that it remained in my library, right up to the beginning of the ‘90s, it wore that black shroud. That cover, like the book itself, was a symbol of those times and of the exile from which Soriano so aptly described them.

In the early 1990s, several years after I quit my post as managing editor of the Herald and went free-lance, I had the honor and pleasure of sharing an office in Buenos Aires with a brilliant journalist and writer by the name of Claudio Iván Remeseira. We did a lot of talking, mostly about fiction and writing, when we should have been working (for a living) and in the course of those conversations, Soriano’s name came up. I ended up telling Claudio the story about how Soriano’s work first came into my hands. He thought it was a great story and that a guy like Soriano would probably like to hear it. I said that chasing after a big name like Soriano (he was indeed big by then) seemed so sophomoric and unprofessional. He would surely think I was a jerk.

Years later, when I had already moved from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, and when Remeseira was about to pursue his own brand of self-imposed exile in New York, he again approached me on the subject, saying he had told my story to a guy who sort of knew Soriano and the fellow had said he was sure Osvaldo would be delighted to hear it. I said I’d think about it, because to me, hermit that I tend to be, it just seemed like an extroverted, off-the-wall thing to do. Remeseira managed to get me Soriano’s home phone number and I promised that the next time I was in Buenos Aires I would give the best-selling author a call. I did, repeatedly, always getting an answering machine with the voice of his French-born wife on it. Some time later, I met up with Remeseira in Buenos Aires and casually mentioned over drinks that I tried Soriano on numerous occasions and none of my calls had been returned.

“Haven’t you heard?” he asked. “Soriano’s got lung cancer. He’s only seeing a few close friends. They don’t think he’s going to make it.”

Even this seemed like another of his universal images, a passage from his last book, Piratas, fantasmas y dinosaurios (Pirates, Ghosts and Dinosaurs), the book’s first image, in fact, where he writes: “Every New Year’s Eve, I remember, if only for an instant, the last one my father lived. He was wrapped up in a threadbare robe, on the doorstep of the house he rented in Santo Tomé. There was still a butt between his lips, but by now it was killing him. He raised his arm to wave good-bye to me as firecrackers and colorful roman candles burst around him. We had quarreled, I think, because I hated the holiday season as much as he did and couldn’t figure out what stupid custom made us get together to toast one another and wish each other things in which neither of us believed...”

It seems to me a universal portrait. His father’s. My own father’s, some years later when he was dying of that same disease and I couldn’t help hating myself for having quarreled with him so often. Perhaps it’s every man’s father’s image and every man’s son’s. In the end, a self-portrait as well.

An early version of this article was first published in Spanish and English on the website of Aleph Translations A second Spanish translation was published in the Summer 2006 Edition of the Argentine literary magazine, Lilith (Yr. 2 No. 5). All rights reserved by Dan Newland

  • Photo Caption - Osvaldo Soriano

Sunday, October 19, 2008

When a Fiction Is Not a Lie

One day I was in the computer store here in town buying some new gadget or other for my system and in walks this guy I know called Pedro. His name isn’t really Pedro but if I used his real name some of you might recognize him and this is a story about truth, not accuracy.

So anyway, in walks Pedro. Now, I don’t know Pedro from here. I know him from Buenos Aires, where we both worked in the newspaper business for many years. It seems that at a certain point in our careers, both of us made a similar decision, to leave that crazy 24-hour-a-day, up-to-the-minute life behind and seek a happier, healthier, more contemplative life in this mountain community. So we met up here once by accident, when I first came here fifteen years ago, and had coffee together and talked about old times, and talked about maybe doing something together some time, and that was that, as far as any relationship went. We’d bump into each other now and again on the main drag (Calle Mitre) or on the only other main street in town (Calle Moreno) and nod or shake hands and say hello, but nothing more.

But on this particular day, Pedro came into the computer store where I was sitting talking to the owner’s wife, Laura, and was all but effusive in greeting me. So much and so uncharacteristically so that I stood to shake hands with him but then sat back down, thinking he would walk on by to go down to the repair shop to see Laura’s husband, Toto, because that’s whom he had asked for when he came in. But instead, he hovered there beside my chair, trying to make conversation so that I finally felt a little uncomfortable to remain seated and stood up. It seemed odd to me, because, as I say, it wasn't like we had ever been close or anything. But it was like he had something on his mind.

Finally I realized what it was when he said, “So, are you writing, Dan?”

“Always trying, Pedrocito,” I said. “You?” There’s a saying that it’s hard to find journalist that isn't a frustrated novelist and we had talked, that time over coffee, about our aspirations in that direction.

“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “I’m a novel.”

“Great! What’s it about?”

He looked a little apologetic and said, “Well, I don’t exactly know yet.”

I didn’t say anything but gave him a look like...huh???

“See, the thing is,” he went on, “I’ve started it several times and never seem to get to the end.”

“What’s wrong,” I asked, “don’t you have it worked out in your head?”

“Not that, exactly,” he said slowly, pondering the question. “See, it’s more like I know what my theme is and I know the scenes I want in the story, but mostly what I want to do is write a good piece of juicy fiction that’s exciting and fun to read. I mean, the kind of novel I like to read.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, I’m not sure I can make it convincing?”

“Why’s that?”

“It's like, after so many years of journalism, I can't lie.”

My eyes opened up wide as saucers and I looked at him like asking what the heck he was talking about, but bit my tongue instead.

“I mean, don’t you feel like that?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t know if I can be convincing because, after all, you have to lie when you write fiction. I just can’t seem to do it convincingly.”

I couldn’t take it anymore and said, “Whoa, wait, stop right there. Didn’t you work for a major mass circulation daily?” He nodded. “And didn’t you often have to write from the angle the editor told you to write?” He flushed a little and nodded again. “And were you always in agreement with that angle.”

“Well, uh, yes, I was. That's why I worked for that paper.”

I rolled my eyes and looked at him dubiously.

“Well, maybe not always in complete agreement.”

“And writing what you weren’t in agreement with, wasn’t that lying?”

“Well...I mean not really lying...”

“Come on, Pedro...and how about when you worked in that politician’s press office?”

“Oh I agreed with that guy.”



“So you mostly didn’t lie when you wrote his press releases.”

Pedro got redder but I think it was because he was repressing a desire to bust me one in the nose.

“So what’s your point?” he asked.

“The point is,” I said, “that fiction isn’t lying.”

“But it's all made up.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it a lie. In fact, fiction, good fiction, speaks to the very heart of truth. Nowhere should you lie less than when you’re in complete control of the content of what you say and in fiction, good fiction, there are no intermediaries. It's just you and the blank page. And if what you put down there doesn’t convince you, of all people, then the only person you’re lying to is yourself. See what I mean?”

“I suppose, but still...”

“Look, Pedro,” I went on, “I got out of mainstream journalism because I was tire of lying. Or at least of not telling the whole truth, of telling stories that were conditioned to the medium, to the editor, to the publisher, to the readership. Fiction is the only place where I can tell a reasonable facsimile of 'the whole truth', if such a thing exists.”

“Interesting,” he said. “But hey, look at the time! I’ve got to run. Laura, okay if I nip down and see Toto? Good! Here, Dan, here’s my card. Let’s get together and talk more about this over coffee some day.” And with that he hustled past and down to the shop in the basement of the store, as if he were fleeing from a dread disease.

He hasn’t called. Neither have I. I doubt he really has any interest in talking any more about this. You either get it or you don't.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Hemingway Is Still the Man

Recently, while browsing though the stacks in a major bookstore in the heart of Buenos Aires, I overheard one man talking to another as they made their way out of the store. Both were office types, dressed in suits that had the look of being their daily uniform, both wearing the latest fashion in “power ties”, both flashing the latest model cell phones, both apparently up to the minute on what was “in” and what was “out” and both with an evidently irrepressible urge to share their views on the subject of “inness” and “outness” as a means of establishing their own very “in” nature.

I was already in a foul mood, because in the couple of years since I had last been in this store, it had gone from being a traditional, old-time, culture-oriented emporium of literary wealth to being, well, for lack of a better term, “a sign of the times”. When I was first a working journalist on the streets of Buenos Aires back in the 1970s, this enormous bookstore had specialized in both Spanish-language and English-language literature, with the two top floors — one of which was a sort of half-floor to which you gained access via a staircase/escalator in the middle of the ground floor — were generously stocked floor to ceiling with classic, modern and contemporary authors from all over Spain and Latin America, with special attention being given to Argentine writers, and with the basement being given over entirely to English-language writers from Shakespeare to Philip Roth and everybody in between. There my wife and I had acquired an eclectic collection of writers that included such unlikely bedfellows as Virginia Woolf and Erica Jong, Henry David Thoreau and Norman Mailer, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Miller, Margaret Drabble and Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich and Paul Theroux, John Updike and Carlos Castaneda, Ray Bradbury and Truman Capote, Doris Lessing and Charlotte Bronte, etc., etc. Now, however, I found that the basement had been taken over by international books on computer technology and bestsellers translated into Spanish, while upstairs, the Spanish-language literature, what was left of it, had all been crammed into the front third of the store to make room at the back for a coffee shop a la Starbuck’s and the half-floor up the middle staircase was now the cashier’s counter and a section devoted entirely to music and movies on CDs and DVDs. When I asked what had become of the English books a clerk said, “Oh, they moved them over there,” pointing to the opposite wall of the ground floor, where after much searching I finally found a bookcase about two feet wide and five feet tall containing a handful of bestsellers of the type and approximate quantity that you might find displayed next to the cash register in an airport drugstore cum newsstand.

So anyway, as I say, my mood was already less than receptive when I heard one man turn to the other on their way out the door and say, “You know what writer I really don’t like?”

“No, who?”


“Oh? Why?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t like the guy. I just don’t think he’s very good.”

And I thought to myself, “I wonder what keeps me from walking over there and kicking the bejesus out of you?” And then I laughed to myself, thinking that this probably would have been precisely Hemingway’s own reaction. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not a person had a right to like or not like a writer’s work. It was about the cavalier way the guy dismissed as “not very good” one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Why Does He Matter?

What makes Hemingway matter from a literary standpoint is what has always made major artists matter. Namely, his originality. His influence on contemporary writing has been so all-pervasive that it would be hard for the casual 20th-21st-century reader to imagine contemporary pre-Hemingway prose, and therefore, it may be hard for such a reader to imagine why Hemingway is so important, since, if he or she didn’t know what came before, they wouldn’t know the difference.

The fact is that Hemingway was the first to actually achieve what a lot of writers were dabbling in at the time: true literary economy. Economy of words is much talked about and little understood. It doesn’t mean simply being laconic. It is not about skimping or being miserly. Nor is it a question of being abstract. It is all about choosing words accurately. It is about writing without beating around the bush. But in the hands of Hemingway, this essential tool of contemporary prose mutated into a unique style, one that permitted him to attain a kind of stark, masculine beauty in his descriptions – something akin to a well-built boat, a sturdy yet elegant Amish farmhouse or a piece of austere Shaker furniture, something of such clean, simple lines that it dazzles the reader with its “plainness”. And when this starkness is applied to the violence – both latent and overt - that often plays a part in Hemingway’s stories and novels, it becomes the basis for a singularly disturbing image, one that delivers the violent act stripped of emotion, cold-blooded, like a glimpse at the split-second between life and death that offers no choice, only fate.

Among Hemingway's most virulent detractors was another of the most extraordinary writers of the 20th century, Truman Capote. Openly, even demonstratively gay, Capote once referred to Hemingway as being “closet everything” and “a hypocrite”. But there is a certain sense that his very evident, almost boisterous dislike for the other famous writer was born of hurt feelings. After a truly bitter childhood, in which his genius shone through against all odds, Capote reached renown at a very young age and was the darling of the New York cocktail circuit when he was still in his twenties. He went in a few short years from being a failed copy-boy at The New Yorker to being one of the iconic magazine’s most famed writers ever. He was used to being the whiz kid and probably would have liked nothing better than to have the legendary Hemingway, who was a quarter-century Capote’s senior, praise his work from the outset.

Capote once acrimoniously admitted that he had never met Hemingway “but I hated him”, saying that he couldn’t understand why this famous writer of 50 “was always kicking me in the teeth” when Capote was barely in his 20s. True, when Nelson Algren published his raw novel called The Man with the Golden Arm, about a heroin-hooked poker-dealer and ex-con trying to go straight, Hemingway came out in praise of the work saying that “all of you Truman Capote readers” had better “grab your coats and hats and leave the room” because “here comes a true writer”.

However, to be fair, Hemingway had high praise for Capote’s bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s and said publicly that he had enjoyed reading it. But by that time Capote was so down on Hemingway that he rejected the praise as just “more of his hypocrisy”. It is probably fair to assume that Hemingway would also have applauded In Cold Blood, had he not already blown his brains out by the time it was written. Hemingway could be witheringly direct in his criticism, even of people he liked, but he had such high regard for truth that he was seldom unfair and there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who knows anything about writing that In Cold Blood is not only shockingly original but also an astoundingly well-written book.

Be that as it may, just as Norman Mailer would probably never have been willing to admit that his The Executioner’s Song owes much to Capote and In Cold Blood – Mailer bitchily scorned the book as “journalism”, not literature, and then turned around and used the reportage-as-novel genre perfected by Capote in his own novelesque book on convicted killer Gary Gilmore – it is unlikely that Capote ever would have recognized his own debt to Hemingway, revealed in the powerfully naked prose he applied in writing that book and his later short work, Hand-Carved Coffins.

‘Papa’ and Friends

In point of fact, Hemingway clearly had a history, even among his friends, such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Irwin Shaw and Sherwood Anderson, among others, of being, at times, outspoken and even downright cruel in his commentaries on both their work and their private lifestyles and, at others, effusive in his praise of them as people and artists. But there can be little doubt of his influence, particularly in American literature, on nearly all who came after him, and even on many of his contemporaries.

A case in point is the elusive and reclusive J.D. Salinger. Seldom, if ever, has there been a more original and meticulous storyteller in American literature. And yet, Salinger apparently had no problem in admitting the debt he owed to “Papa” Hemingway (a moniker Hemingway hung on himself from the time he was barely middle-aged). It is a little-known fact that Salinger met Hemingway during World War II and is understood to have corresponded for a time with him. Salinger was in his twenties during the war, while Hemingway was well over forty and quite famous.

Hemingway had more or less been goaded into signing on as a war correspondent with Collier’s magazine after his journalist wife, Martha Gellhorn, basically let it be known that he could sit on his duff in the warmth of the tropics if he wanted to but that she was going to Europe to report on the war. Actually, Hemingway wasn’t inactive in the war effort. A man of action as well as intellect, he had converted his yacht, the Pilar, into a well-armed patrol boat and he and his crew were commissioned to scour the waters around Florida and Cuba for enemy subs that might attack U.S. shipping. It has been suggested that they were probably doing more drinking, fishing and playing with weapons than patrolling, but the quasi-naval task was a real one. Anyway, his male pride willed out and he took the contract with Collier's so as to compete directly with Martha, making this his third war (and third wife), following his involvement in World War I and the Spanish Civil War.

Salinger was attached to Army Intelligence, where his proficiency in both French and German made him useful to the Army as an interpreter for the interrogation of prisoners of war. He was also among the first troops to enter the liberated Nazi concentration camps. He obviously lived one of the darkest sides of the world conflict and was deeply scarred by it, having received treatment for what now is called “combat stress condition” but what back then was known as battle fatigue. And there can be little doubt that his brilliant, longish short story, For Esmé with Love and Squalor about a stressed-out World War II NCO who is profoundly moved by the tender intelligence of a young girl, is largely autobiographical. At any rate, his meeting and establishing a relationship of sorts with Hemingway must have been one of the high points of his years as a soldier. As a matter of fact, in a letter that he sent to Hemingway in July 1946, the year after the war ended, Salinger would say that their talks together were among the few positive memories he retained from the war years.

Nor was that meeting by chance. Salinger is said to have arranged to meet Hemingway on finding out that the writer would be accompanying the Normandy invasion. By the way, that turned out to be a traumatic experience for Hemingway: not the combat, which, by all accounts, he veritably thrived on, but the fact that he was forced to watch the whole thing from a landing craft, because the authorities wouldn’t permit him to land with the troops. What made this twice as traumatic was that Martha Gellhorn was on the shore covering the story, having disguised herself as a nurse to get past the ruling about correspondents having to watch the action from a “duck”.

It was during the post-Normandy-landing push into Germany that Salinger was able to conjure up the meeting with Hemingway. And, indeed, they seemed to hit it off from the outset. Salinger must have impressed Hemingway as “a good kid” because the young and aspiring writer appears to have seen “Papa’s” best side. He would later indicate that he had been impressed by Hemingway’s friendliness and modesty (not traits he was always best known for) and that he had found him a much gentler person than the image of the gruff, belligerent hard case that he was always portrayed – much to his pleasure – as being. Salinger even managed to get Hemingway to read some of the stuff he was working on at the time, and Hemingway was quoted as saying that the young New York writer had “a helluva talent”. One of the things Hemingway saw was “a play about a character called Holden Caulfield”, which Salinger was then calling Slight Rebellion Off Madison. He was hoping to see it produced eventually, he indicated, and to star in it as Holden. What Hemingway was holding in his hands there, deep in the combat zone in the most decisive battles of the war in Europe, was the seed of one of the most influential and controversial pieces of literature of the Post-War Era: namely, Salinger’s coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Broad Influence

But Hemingway’s influence was certainly much broader. James Joyce praised Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place as “one of the best stories ever written”. A number of “beat generation” writers of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were very obviously influenced by the Hemingway legacy to contemporary literature, most notably, beat icons like Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). His impact on post-war pulp fiction and crime novels is also apparent, with popular author Elmore Leonard being just one self-confessed example.

Other writers who have admitted or been pointed to as Hemingway-esque include Charles Bukowski (sometimes known as the Poet Laureate of Skid Row), Chuck Palahniuk (author of the award-winning Fight Club), Hunter S. Thompson (author of The Rum Diary, who so modeled himself on Hemingway that he even ended up committing suicide by shooting himself in the head) and Robert Ruark (sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Hemingway”), among many more. But it would be challenging to find any late-20th-century writer (especially male writer) who has not been directly or indirectly influenced by the rules of word-economy set down by Hemingway.

I recall in my earliest experiences as a professional writer, when I was an apprentice newsman, my then boss and mentor saying that when he was starting out, nearly 20 years before, “We all wanted to write like Hemingway: ‘He sat by the window. The light streamed in.’ Clean, clear sentences like that. And it still makes sense.” And he was right. He still is.

Hemingway himself once said that the best lessons he learned about writing, he learned as a cub reporter by having his copy tossed back to him by savvy deskmen who had marked out all of the extraneous crap with a soft pencil. In a public argument with the rather wordier William Faulkner, Hemingway made this point again. Faulkner apparently made a crack about Hemingway’s not knowing any words of more than two syllables and Hemingway came back to say that he knew all of the words but that it was no use using a twenty-dollar word where a five-dollar word would do. Still, when both were sober and in less belligerent moods, Hemingway was heard to say that Faulkner was “the best of the best” and Faulkner to admit Hemingway’s extraordinary contribution to literature.

Economy without Loss

People have frequently mistaken economy of words as espoused by Hemingway as tantamount to often “leaving out the good stuff”. But that, at least as written by Hemingway, has never been the case. To copy Hemingway well, if anybody ever could, would be to achieve a potent extract, an undiluted form, a way of saying everything in the most concise, exact and full-bodied way possible.

And as if that were not enough, Hemingway is as much remembered as an American icon as he is as an outstandingly unique writer. He was bigger than life, a true adventurer who lusted after every earthly activity and excelled at it all. A man who was in his element in the midst of danger, perhaps the most un-vicarious writer to ever touch pen to page, a man who could write about most of the human dramas that have ever inspired a story from first-hand experience. And this, as well as his writing, has made him one of the most unforgettable and deservedly admired literary figures of the last century.

In the last lines of his non-fiction book about bullfighting entitled Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway writes: “There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly in the only heritage he has to leave.”

These are two relatively wordy sentences by Hemingway’s austere writing standards. And yet, they say more than many other well-known writers could have expressed in pages of copy. They also reveal an understanding of the essence of life and its fundamental rules that many well-known writers have never managed to achieve. This, then, is precisely the essential legacy that Hemingway has left us, both as a writer and as an American icon. And it is why Hemingway is still The Man.

  • Photo caption: Hemingway in a 1939 picture taken at a lodge in Sun Valley, Idaho. (public domain).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Me an’ Hem

When I first met up with Hemingway, I was eleven-and-a-half years old. I didn’t actually meet him. He had already been dead for a couple of weeks or so by then. But you could say that that was when he first came to life for me.

I was visiting my Grandma Myrt. It was summer and I had ridden my bike over to her house. Just to visit. I did that frequently, rode over to the house of one of my grandmothers or the other when I didn’t have anything else to do and it was still too early to go to the public swimming pool or to tool around town on our bikes with one of my neighborhood friends or with my cousin Greg. Other kids slept in on summer mornings when there was no school to worry about. But I liked to get up and see that new day stretching in front of me, full of possibilities and promise.

Grandma Myrt was an early riser, like her daughter, my mother, Reba Mae, and I had inherited that trait. Dad and two of his brothers had a restaurant called the Teddy Bear and Dad opened at 6 a.m. for the breakfast crowd. Grandpa Vern was superintendent at Greenlawn, the town’s main cemetery and started work at seven. Mom and Grandma always got up around five to see them off and to start the day’s chores. They seemed optimistic about it always, the women, I mean — the men always seemed grim — with their cups of black coffee right there handy on the kitchen counter and their radios on low, tuned to the local AM channels from Dayton and Lima, or to WOWO, the big voice of the big Midwest, out of Fort Wayne, across the West Ohio line in Indiana. And I never wanted to miss that magical time when working people rose to meet the dawning of a new day. In fact, on summer mornings, I took finding out what the day had to offer almost like an occupation, getting up, having my breakfast and getting out into the world like a man with a mission.

On this particular morning, a beautiful July summer morning, with a spanking new blue sky and some sparkling dew still on the grass, I decided to pedal on over to Grandma Myrt’s to hang out and talk to her for awhile, “but don’t make a nuisance of yourself,” Mom warned, “because Grandma’s busy”. It probably wasn’t much more than 9 a.m. when I arrived, but for a woman that got up with the chickens, that was mid-morning, and when I rapped on the back screen door and then strode across the enclosed back porch and into the kitchen, she was just pouring herself a second cup of coffee. Two in four hours might seem like slow coffee-drinking to some country folk but Grandma Myrt had this habit of making it last. She called it “letting it rot”. It involved pouring a big mugful of black coffee for herself at about a quarter to six when Grandpa Vern got up and setting it on the shelf in the cupboard. And as she took care of her morning duties, she would go from time to time to the cupboard and take a sip of java from the cup. Obviously, the longer she took between sips the cooler the coffee got, until, finally, it would be stone cold. But she didn’t seem to mind drinking cold coffee, as long as it was piping hot to start with. That too, I inherited from her — not from Mom who always drank hers hot enough to skin hogs — and I can still make a mug of coffee last hours while I’m working at my desk.

Anyway, what immediately grasped my attention on this morning, after Grandma had said, “Why hullo, honey!” and given me a hug and offered me a glass of milk and one of the sugar cookies she had made, was a magazine that was lying on the kitchen table, and which she had apparently been perusing. I recognized the masthead. It was Life and in those days, when television was a relatively new — if wildly popular — medium and print media still reigned supreme, it was hard to go into a Midwestern home that didn’t have a copy of the major “picture book” magazines like Life or Look, with their captivating, artful photography, on coffee tables, or in the living room magazine rack, or on a “library shelf” in the bathroom. But at Grandma Myrt’s it was odd to see a magazine — or anything else, for that matter — out of place and that’s probably what drew my eyes to it.

Although the house was on the edge of town, it was a big country barn of a place, with all of the inviting simplicity of country life and all of the clean, tidy look of the old German farms in the area. There was no big library of any kind in the house. Books cost money and my grandparents didn’t have much of it. What books there were, were Grandma’s and she kept them tucked away upstairs in her room. Grandpa had learned to read as a grown-up and liked cowboy novels but I suspect that once he had read them he passed them on to Grandma’s younger brother Jessie, who was way poorer than her but had scores of adventure novels and magazines, kept in neat stacks along with his arrowhead collection and other paraphernalia on a big table in the living room of the tidy but tumbledown house he shared with my great-grandmother. Grandma, on the other hand, had a really good education for a rural woman born in 1900, having graduated from high school with a vocational certificate that was sort of equivalent to the normal school diplomas that some of my grade school teachers had. She had a love of learning and reading, which she passed on to Mom and Mom to my older sister and me. And she was always looking up where any of her grandchildren was at any given time —in the United States or in the world — in her geography books, or reading to us from books of tales by Andersen or Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. And then too, we had a good public library in town. But there was a magazine rack in the living room and both she and Grandpa were partial to “looking at” magazines, as they said. It’s just that you were never going to find either books or magazines strewn around there. A place for everything and everything in its place: Their house was an illustration of that adage.

The cover of the magazine lying on the linoleum table top showed a huge head shot of an aging man with a still powerful face, big-boned, grey-bearded, uncommonly intelligent-looking, sensitive, yet every bit as intimidating as my own Grandpa Vern's face - and, believe me, Grandpa could look a hole right through you. It was a cover I would see many times after that, a classic, a collector’s item, the famous cover story of July 14, 1961, that Life published to honor, perhaps, it's most famed contributor ever.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Ernest Hemingway, honey,” Grandma said.

“Who's he?”

“Oh, a very famous American writer.”

And then she told me a little about him, about The Old Man and the Sea, about some other books. But mostly she told me about his being bigger than life, an American icon. Although she didn’t say he was an icon because people didn’t call other people icons back then. She said he was a hero, an adventurer, like somebody out of a storybook. I asked if she knew him and she laughed and said no but that he was so famous that it was as if just about everybody knew him. It was really sad, she said, a big strong man like that taking his own life.

And, of course, that launched us on a discussion of a grave we had seen once in a cemetery in some other town — we sometimes "looked up" old relatives in west central Ohio cemeteries when she and Mom and we kids would go on a Sunday afternoon drive — that had a wrought-iron fence around it and of how she had told me that in some places they did that, fenced off the graves of suicides, because they didn’t figure a person that took his own life was fit to lie in hallowed ground with the rest of the Christians.

But when she said she had to get busy with her chores, I asked her if I could have a look at the magazine and she gave me permission “if I was very careful with it”. And I sat quietly on the back steps of the house studying the pictures and reading the text, understanding what I could of it and trying to get as deep into the scenes as I could. So that when Grandma Myrt finally said, “Your Mom just called and said you’d best be getting home for lunch,” I was already hooked on Hemingway and was feeling a distinct loss, sad that I had missed out on knowing him, sorry I never would, that there would be no chance, even if, someday, I too became a famous writer.

That was the point at which I decided I really wanted to be a writer, stopped playing around pretending to be one and started trying my hand at writing little stories and puttering around with plotlines and reading more and more. I had done a lot of reading when I first learned how and now I returned strongly to the habit, going to the library with my studious sister, Darla, and asking her to recommend books that she had read when she was my age.

The following year or the year after, I really can’t recall exactly, I saw Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, the 1962 film directed by Martin Ritt. It was based on Hemingway’s famous Nick Adams series. This was a collection of short stories that he wrote over the years whose main character was an adventurous young man called Nick Adams, who was obviously the writer’s surrogate. The screenplay was put together by Hemingway’s long-time friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner (Papa Hemingway), and the cast included Richard Beymer (of West Side Story fame, as Nick), Paul Newman (as the punch-drunk fighter from Hemmingway’s The Battler), Diane Baker (as Carolyn), Corinne Calvet (as la Contessa), Ricardo Montalban (as Major Padula) and Jessica Tandy (as Mrs. Adams). The cast also included such heavyweights as Eli Wallach, Dan Daily and Susan Strassberg.

The film got badly panned by the most elite of critics, despite its five Golden Globe nominations. It was a time of growing interest in the psychological novel and in the film thriller, and critics that were busy learning psycho-babble probably found it naïve. But those stories were “boy’s life” tales at their finest and that picture brought them to life in my early-adolescent mind. I wanted to do exactly what Nick Adams had done: run away from home and go off to see the world. Following the lines of the short stories, the film has Nick riding the rails until a mean-spirited railroad agent heaves him off of a freight train. He then meets up with a has-been fighter (Newman) and a booze-sodden advance man for a traveling burlesque show during his journey in search of a job as a newspaper reporter. But after getting laughed out of a newsroom he finally ends up volunteering for duty as an ambulance driver in the Italian medical corps during the First World War, where he is severely wounded. While recovering, he falls in love and has his first real romance with a Red Cross Nurse (the part played by Diane Baker), before returning home a hero and bent on pursuing his writing career now that he has something to write about — all based, of course, on the real earliest adventures of Hemingway himself.

It was the summer after seeing that picture that a friend and I started climbing an apple tree onto the roof of the shelter house in the picnic grounds at Harmon Field, our town park. We would sit there after dark talking and smoking filched and stolen cigarettes, while listening to the freight trains that rattled and blew through town at practically all hours of the day and night, imagining the exciting places they were going and dreaming of riding along. That was also the year that I started gradually working my way through every one of Hemingway's books, buying them with money I earned selling papers and cookbooks, cutting lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow or working as an usher at the local movie theater. And by the following year, when I had turned 14, I was not only writing short stories but had started working on a novel, a cross between Moby Dick and the Nick Adams series, about an irascible retired sea captain and a young man that becomes his only friend. I would work on that book in fits and starts clear through high school, before promptly ripping it up and throwing it into the trash after showing it to my English 101 professor in my freshman (and only) year at Ohio State and reading her comments.

The point is that I cut my teeth on Hemingway and although hundreds of other authors came after him in my life, my real, first, deep and serious interest in writing grew out of not only reading him, but reading about him. And that, I think, is how it should have been, because Hemingway made a difference in American literature, marked a before and after, set a standard for concise, stark, yet beautiful writing that has influenced the writing of just about every American male author who has come since and a lot of foreign authors as well.

Hemingway matters, and later I’ll talk about some more reasons why. But as far as I myself go, although I have developed a natural style of my own over the years, me an’ Hem are bonded for life. "

  • Photo caption: Dan (background) and kid brother Jim by Grandma Myrt's back steps, July 1961.

Monday, July 21, 2008

So Why Blog?

Somebody who thought they were clever once asked a group of eminent writers this question: “Why write?” And, you’ve got to hand it to whoever it was, because they got an amazing variety of answers from a truly amazing variety of celebrated scribes.

My favorite one of all came, not from my favorite author (I’m not nuts about everything he writes, although I am fascinated by certain things he writes), but from someone obviously bored with justifying his own profession, apologizing for his obsession, making excuses for something that should be as unquestionable as the color of a person’s eyes, or a person’s limp, or a person’s stutter, something as indubitable as why anybody does anything as their life’s work: namely, John Updike, who said simply, “Why not?”

From as far back as I can recall, from even before the time I was literate, when I would scribble on a Golden Rod tablet pretending I was, I wanted to be a writer. And as I've gotten older, I’ve started thinking that maybe it really is like more than a few writers have said: something you’re born with. If not the talent, at least the need, that all-consuming desire to spill your guts – or speak from your heart – on paper.

Or on the computer screen, as it were. Writers my age have had to get used to that...thinking of the screen as paper, I mean. It took me a long time to give up my typewriter. Until, that is, I grew to see the logic that if Gutenberg hadn’t come up with his printing press, books would have been a rarity and that not getting “computerized” out of “artistic obstinacy” was a little like fighting for the right to perpetuate the use of the quill pen. But once I did, largely because work forced me to, I embraced the cybersphere wholeheartedly, and the fact that computers and the Web exist has been, I now readily admit, the only reason I have been able to enjoy the lifestyle I have led for the past 15 years.

Speaking of which, I make my home – when I’m not hanging out in the City of Buenos Aires or traveling back to the States to reunite my past with my present – in Patagonia. That’s a vast region in the Southern Cone of South America that spans the southernmost reaches of both Argentina and Chile. My little corner of it is on the Argentine side of the mountains, in what is known here as “the lakes region” where my wife and I live with our seven dogs and six cats.

In 1988, a friend of mine, Gabriel Griffa, then-publisher of the now-renowned Argentine magazine, Apertura, called me and said that he and his partner, Marcelo Longobardi, who was editor-in-chief at the time, wanted to talk to me about a story. I had given them a little hand with tips and contacts when they were first starting out, since I had a decade’s head start on them in both years and journalism, and Griffa just sort of kept me close by from then on. Anyway, this time Marcelo did the talking. He said they were re-launching the magazine. Up to then, Apertura had been a sort of eclectic "book", a “whenever-it-comes-outly”, with a bit of politics, a dash of art, a dose of macroeconomics and a spattering of entrepreneurial case studies. As the Spanish saying goes, it covered a lot and grabbed onto little. But it was lively and interesting, and reflected intelligence, budding professionalism and uncommon enthusiasm and promise. Now, the idea was to turn it into a business magazine, of the type of Fortune, BusinessWeek or Forbes, but in an inimitably Argentine style. It would be a regular bi-monthly at first, and whenever ad revenues allowed, it would go monthly. The first cover story was to be on The Future, and what Longobardi proposed was that I write the section on the future of news coverage.

I pointed out that I didn’t write in Spanish. Longobardi said he didn’t see why not, since I was fluent in the language. I said fluent was one thing but writing professionally was another. How about, I suggested, if I write it in English and then give it to somebody to translate.

“I’d rather,” he said, “you wrote it in Spanish and we’ll correct it here afterward.”

“Do I get a look at the final draft before it goes to press?”



So I struggled to write my first professional piece in Spanish. I was fairly happy with the result, considering. And I was even more pleased when Marcelo said: “We corrected very little…practically nothing.”

“What about my American style. It’s nothing like how Spanish-language journalists write.”

“Actually, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said, “a Yankee style in Spanish.”

Anyway, the content, more than the style was my problem. I didn’t really have a clue where news coverage was going, although my guess was, to hell in a handcart. But in the end, I took a sci-fi view and latched onto the then-incipient Internet and, at some stage in the article, made the point that someday soon, guys like me, who made their living doing research, commentary and translation, were going to be able to do that job from just about anywhere, even from a log cabin on top of a mountain. When I wrote that, it was just a thought that crossed my mind, a fleeting fantasy from the fevered mind of someone who had been trekking around Patagonia every chance he got for well over a decade. I didn’t really think seriously that within the next five years, I would be doing exactly that. But life’s funny that way, and here I am, installed in this cabin, considerable portions of which I’ve built myself, since 1993, working with clients all over the western world via Internet, while administrating 70 acres of natural forest on the fringe of a 2 million-acre national park in my spare time.

So why this blog? Well, as Updike would say, why not? But I can’t say anything that flippant about it, since I have to admit that I had to do a lot of thinking about it before I made the decision to start this blog. Who was I, I asked myself, to publish anything as grand-sounding as “a writer’s log”. My ultimate goal in life was always to be a madly popular fiction writer and, up to now, that dream has failed to come true in any decisive way. But then, in one way or another, as a newsman, editor, feature-writer, op-ed commentator, editorialist, travel writer and translator, I have been making my living in writing and publishing for the past 35 years. I mean, writing, in one form or another, is my day job, which is more than quite a number of really good writers can say. So if that doesn’t give me the credentials to talk about writing and writers from an expert standpoint, then I don't know what would.

Here I am, then, and here I’ll stay, until I don’t have anything to blog about anymore, which could be a very, very long time.