[Thursday, November 19, 2015]
F: 8 p.m. Okay, Papa, here’s something from Hemingway and Pound that may lead us onto a subject I have meant to discuss. “Hemingway went on to satirize [Glenway] Westcott in The Sun Also Rises as Roger Prentiss, who appeared in the novel’s first bar scene.” (p. 46)
Not that specific question, but a more general one. People have noticed that you put all sorts of friends and enemies into your books and stories, and many people assumed you did that out of malice. I rather think it wasn’t for that reason at all, though I am sure you enjoyed the process of skewering them. Comment?
EH: Any artist who lets his personal vendettas interfere with the necessities of his work is a fool. If the story doesn’t require or at least accommodate a given type of individual, you can’t just shovel it in, any more than you can throw in extraneous incidents or editorializing without distorting the fabric. Is that such a smart thing to do, when you could much more easily write malicious letters or tell titillating gossip? People allege all sorts of things that they wouldn’t if they knew the business they are discussing.
[Odd, now as I type I can hear / feel / sense Hemingway wanting to revise what he said, in this instance substituting catty for malicious. But I don’t think I’m going to give in to such impulses, or I’ll wind up spending as much time revising as he did!]
Now maybe somebody sets out to skewer an individual as the central part of the story or novel or poem. I can’t imagine it, but suppose you do. In such case you could say anything and portray him or her any way you want, no matter how extravagantly, because that person is the core and center of your work, no matter what it happens to be.
Or you can attack somebody by name, for good or bad reasons. Tolstoi describing Napoleon, say, or me being snide about Gertrude, that bothered you in Death in the Afternoon, or me drawing unfavorable portraits in A Moveable Feast. In any of these cases, your personal remarks may or may not belong; they may or may not be in good taste; they may or may not serve a good literary purpose – but regardless, they won’t be disguised attacks. They won’t be Polonius behind the arras, trying to – well, bad analogy, but you see my point.
F: Perhaps you should make it a little more explicit. What were you doing when you included accurate or exaggerated or distorted or partial portraits of various people you knew? In other words, give us the reverse of the side you just gave us.
EH: All right, that’s worthwhile doing.
Suppose you are drawing a scene, or in fact suppose you are drawing an environment. You are going to people that environment, and you want it to be accurate drawing. You draw what you know, and who you know. That is your friends, and those you come across in artistic and other circles, and your rivals and enemies. You draw people who irritate you and people you like and people who are semi-famous and people nobody will ever hear of or have any reason to hear of. You understand? If you want it to be real, what better models do you have than what you have experienced and lived among?
That doesn’t mean you draw them to life. Not only do you run afoul of the libel laws that way, potentially – you would hamper your attempts to create. It is a strange fact (at first glance) that to create true, you must change the factual particulars. Everybody’s biography – or their culture, their character, their fate – has in it things that serve as symbols of larger truths and things that may be said to be mere peculiarities of the individual. As artist, you must sift the wheat from the chaff, or you will dilute or distort your portrait.
That being so, there is no reason not to mix and match, to give this person some of that person’s traits or history or inclinations, if it serves your purposes to do so. If not, you can’t, or shouldn’t.
So judging strictly by what you know of me as a craftsman, can you see that people are off-base because they put the cart before the horse? I would never start with the intent of skewering somebody and then jam that incident or intent into a plot. I just wouldn’t. Who would? You might as well just shoot yourself as an artist
What I would do is take advantage of an artistic necessity for a certain type of character and use someone I knew – in whole or in part – and if a somewhat malicious rendering served the purpose, so much the more fun. But only if it served. Who that I disliked or hated would be important enough that I would let him spoil some world I was re-creating?
F: Yes, that’s very persuasive. And that’s enough for now, unless you have more to say on the subject.
EH: No, another half hour to your day is enough.
F: Tomorrow, then, probably. Till then.