Friday, September 25, 2015
F: 4:30 a.m. Okay, open for business. Papa, let’s talk a little more about the process of writing. You said yesterday that if your books didn’t sell, you always knew you had done your best. We got off on a tangent because I mentioned your lovely book The Old Man and the Sea. But I ought to have asked you about To Have and Have Not. We talked about this one a few years ago. That one wasn’t the best you could do.
EH: It depends on how you look at it. It was the best I could do in the circumstances.
F: Okay, I see the distinction.
EH: When you are being torn apart by your life, and you don’t have that calm center that you have to keep, even if it is the eye of the hurricane, how are you going to produce an Old Man and the Sea? Or a For Whom the Bell Tolls? You can only do that when you have a steady platform.
F: Yes, I get that as you say it.
EH: The world around you can be tearing itself up, and that won’t matter. Look at me writing For Whom the Bell Tolls from early 1939 to late 1940. Your own economic or social position can be precarious or shifting, and that won’t matter either. My life in the 1920s, and then both The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. Your physical and mental condition can be pretty shot up, and yet still if you have that crystalline hard place within you, you can produce. Across the River and Into the Trees, as an example, no matter what the critics said about it, and the pieces of Islands in the Stream, even if I never stopped juggling them. As long as you have that central stable point – I don’t know how else to describe it – you can work.
F: It isn’t about an externally tranquil existence, either.
EH: Hell no. Take Picasso, or Diego Rivera, even Scott [Fitzgerald] for that matter. As long as he was able to keep that central certainty it didn’t matter that he was married to a crazy woman or that they were living in the stupidest most uncentered way possible. And then when he did lost that point, well, he lost it and he was finished.
F: But he sort of regained it.
EH: He tried for a second act. Maybe if his stamina had brought him through it he might have pulled it off, but as I said in Islands, can you abuse a talent that long and that much, and get it back? Well, we’ll never know.
F: I’m going to try to resist side-trails here. What about Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa?
EH: Both of them issued from a calm central place. Neither one was disjointed or incoherent. The bullfighting book was a credible piece of scholarship that interconnected many subjects not usually thought of together – literature and life and toreros and politics and many things – but it had a center of gravity regardless whether the reader liked it or not. Regardless whether you, for instance, liked my bringing in the Old Lady as a sort of foil and then kicking her out of the book when her purpose had been served. You see what I’m saying? Tastes differ, and the objective quality of a book, if there is such a thing, may vary. But if the book has been written as well as you can, and you have been in that place, then no matter how hard you had to struggle, and no matter how well you succeeded or not, it was a success.
F: I think you’re meaning, sometimes you can succeed less than other times because you set yourself a harder task.
EH: That’s right. And the first book on Africa, the same thing. I was doing something, or trying to do it, between the lines, and if you missed that, the book is pointless and you don’t even understand why I started the story where and when I did rather than tell it chronologically.
F: But To Have and Have Not.
EH: Parts of that book work very well. But it fractured because I fractured, you could say. The timing was tragic, in the larger sense of the word. I don’t mean “sad” or “too bad” but tragic.
F: Go ahead.
EH: That was one time I got caught wrong-footed.
F: Interesting. Do you still find it hard to talk about?
EH: It may not have occurred to you, but just because you die doesn’t mean you automatically readjust your opinion about everything, and doesn’t mean you automatically know everything about yourself.
F: It doesn’t? I rather thought it did.
EH: No, not on this level, anyway. The “me” that still exists, exists as the one that was, plus any changes that have happened since. Maybe another level of me knows more about it, the way other levels of you know more than you do while you’re in the body.
F: Huh! Well, that’s a whole new idea to me.
EH: It is because in the back of your mind you still have the idea that as soon as you die you know everything and can do everything. Part of you knows better and part doesn’t. Our interaction with pointed, illuminated, 3D consciousnesses help us to progress – or they can help keep us stuck, it depends on the interactions, but they can help us move along in our understanding.
F: Quite a responsibility.
EH: One that each of you can choose to undertake. It’s something you can do. Catholics pray for the dead, it helps, particularly if they pray for particular deads, or if many people pray for the dead at a given time, like All Souls Day. But if you don’t pray (or even if you do, of course) you can communicate, and if your intent is to be helpful, know that it will help. It isn’t so much that you will need to know things either; it is more the helpful current of your focused intent.
F: Well, I’ll have to think about that. So about To Have and Have Not. Do you not want to talk about it, or not know how to think about it, or what?
[Pause to get more coffee.]
EH: I don’t object to exploring it – we did a few sessions ago – maybe three years ago, I don’t know if you remember – but making a clear statement about it isn’t so easy. Let’s see as we go along.
F: So questions will help?
EH: They may help. It will depend on the questions, won’t it?
F: Yes, I suppose so. Well, you said you got caught wrong-footed.
EH: Yes. I still have to reach to see how to explain it from the inside. I mean, the externals are obvious. I was living in the keys, I had a life I liked, I had at least found a way to live with Pauline – we had a modus vivendi that wasn’t entirely comfortable for either one of us, but it let us live together – and my routine let me write and have fun. Then came Spain, and politics and it started disrupting things. And there was a war, and not only was I concerned politically, I wanted to get back to living in all that intensity, instead of the comfortable life I had. And Martha, of course, but she was more the catalyst that finally set things boiling than the real cause of anything. That’s the externals. But it doesn’t show what was really going on that people don’t see. It doesn’t show why the man who started that book no longer existed by the time he had to bring it to fruition.
F: If you can keep going with this, I think you’re saying something important but I’m not sure it is something you don’t already know.
EH: You know your analogy about a person being a bundle of strands, and he can choose to lay down some and pick up others, and that’s how he changes? Well, if it’s a big enough change, he can wind up feeling strange to himself. He can wind up wondering who he really is, and having to find out as he goes along.
F: I see a little of it. You were an isolationist, for one thing.
EH: Well, let’s say I didn’t want us getting involved in any war unless it was absolutely necessary, and I certainly didn’t want us manipulated into war the way we had been in 1917. War is never a good thing. Sometimes you can’t get around it, and all right, then you have to win it. But it is never a good thing if you can avoid it. In the 1930s, remember, we were more accustomed to minding our own business, except in Latin America, and even there you could make a case that we were doing more good than harm, considering what we were dealing with. And we weren’t the globe-straddling giant in those days that we were after the war, in 1945 with everybody else defeated or exhausted and broke. So minding our own business came naturally. When Franco came along, I thought it was too bad, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t expected, watching the politics of the Spanish Republic. I was still centered on my own life, though it got harder when Mussolini got so obviously involved.
It’s hard to make a coherent statement. I had written two very different books, ahead of their time, so not as successful as my novels, so now I had to worry about the critics and the public maybe writing me off as a has-been. But I had a good story idea, and I thought I knew enough to tell it, and I was bearing in mind Max [Perkins]’s thought that nobody had ever written about the keys or the conchs. I have been wanting to write my book about revolution and revolutionaries and politics and crime and the islands, and here it all was if I could do it.
And, I wanted to write about the rich and the poor, and government and the private man, and how people had to scratch for a living, and how some people – like the vets – could be broken and defeated. It was a big tapestry and it should have been a big book. But you can’t perform that kind of operation unless you can keep it front and center, as I did a few years later with For Whom the Bell Tolls.
F: So what happened?
EH: I think we’d better leave that as a cliff-hanger, because your hour was up a good while ago.
F: Yes, but I thought I was going well.
EH: That’s always a good time to quit. We can pick this up any time.
F: All right. Our thanks as always.
Friday, September 25, 2015