A Young Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction. His minimalistic stylistic innovations won him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and are still influential almost a hundred years later. Not only that, but his first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, established him as a major force in literature and some consider it his best work today. I recently read two volumes of a Hemingway biography, The Young Hemingway and The Paris Years by Michael S. Reynolds, and was struck by just how motivational a figure Hemingway was. Even if you dislike his social views or his larger than life persona, there’s a lot to learn from his discipline and early failures.

After serving in World War 1 as an ambulance, driver falling in love with a nurse, he returned to his family in Illinois and tried to piece back his shell-shocked life. Overseas, he had mentioned to the nurse that he was a writer, and he was determined to professionally publish something so that his lie would become reality.

But as their relationship fell apart, he continued writing and sending off his stories to places like the Saturday Evening Post. Although he wrote voluminously, all were rejected. They were, for the most part, non-autobiographical tales written in imitation of the popular writers of the day like Kipling and Sherwood Anderson and bad poems. He also started a novel based on his life in the war and with the nurse and worked on it intermittently. At the same time, he found work as a journalist, honing his skills for papers, but he considered this hackwork.

Eventually, he found another girl, Hadley, married her, and soon after attracted the attention of Sherwood Anderson. He advised the young writer to go to Paris, where the cost of living was a lot less, and where many artists were shacking up. He gave them a couple of letters of introduction to people like Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and then the couple was off in 1922.

Hadley had a trust fund that would have enabled them to live, albeit just above the poverty line, with no work, but Hemingway refused and kept doing journalism, and traveled to Germany and Turkey and Greece to cover stories. All the while he kept writing–until tragedy struck.

While traveling, Hadley was supposed to meet him, bringing with her a valise filled with his stories, but somehow, somewhere in the crowded train and station, she lost it. Hemingway was heartbroken: other than on story (Up in Michigan) and some juvenilia he had outgrown, every story he had written along with his novel had vanished. He revised Up in Michigan a bit, but due its sexual content, it took a while for it to see print.

But the good news was soon after he finally got a book deal. It was not a glamorous publishing house, in fact, it was practically a vanity press printing, and the book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, sold less than ten copies in Paris. His next book, in our time, received similar press. And although he was starting to make a name for himself in literary circles in Paris, few magazines would take his work. His first big story publication, Indian Camp, was published in The Transatlantic Review, where he sat on the editorial board. Another short story collection followed, entitled In Our Time (with capital letters this time), and while it won praise from critics, the day when Hemingway would be able to earn decent money from his writing was still a few years away.

His break out novel came out in 1926, 8 years after 1918 when he had returned to Illinois and begun toiling away almost everyday. Although he is falling from critical favor now, he still provides a good lesson on staying motivated. If you don’t quit writing, one day you’ll see publication. Just don’t get discouraged when it takes you multiple years.

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A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

Book Review: Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano

Not the definitive Modiano novel, but my library had it so I thought why not. This is Modiano, chronicler of the dark Occupation, reporter of the Holocaust, and speaker for those who no longer can, doing a children’s book. And it has nice, whimsical pictures, like something out of Roald Dahl. (Plus the short length doesn’t hurt!)

The story, if you can call it that, is about a grown ballet teacher reminiscing about her childhood in Paris, after her mother had immigrated to the US and it was just her and her father. Her father and his snobbish partner run a shady company that Catherine doesn’t know much about. All she knows is that various loose ends with it are the reason they can’t join her mother. So her days mostly consist of her going to school, going to her dance class, and doing homework in her father’s warehouse.

And, heads up, the rest of this review will have spoilers, as most of my problems with this book are there.

For fans of Modiano, this is a decent outing, with some memorable characters and scenes. However, in typical fashion, he answers very few if any of the questions he asks. This is less a narrative than a series of memories, few of which build on each other, and as a result, it’s missing something, some impetus to drive things along. There is hardly any conflict in the book. Sure, her and her dad want to go to America and Catherine would like to see her mother again, but so little of the mother is seen it takes a backseat to the relationship between Catherine and her father. And between them there is no conflict. At a party where her father is trying to make business contacts that he thinks will finally get them to America and fails, Catherine feels bad for him, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing between them.

Catherine herself does very little. She has her dance classes, and at one point she makes a friend who invites her and her father to the party mentioned above, but that whole arc just reads like it’s there to remind readers they want to leave France. The friend soon moves away, the people the father meets do not help them, and it is never mentioned again after. One day the father is suddenly free to leave and they then leave.

That’s it. Nothing is answered, which Modiano can pull off in his adult books, but here for a book meant for kids…well, I can’t see any kid being happy with this book. Even girls into ballet might find the dancing bits fun, but would definitely think the rest of the story an enigma. The lack of narrative-drive hurts it. Although the main conflict should be about them getting to America, it reads more like a meditation about her father’s mysterious job, but Catherine herself doesn’t actually dedicate too much time pondering over what it might be he does—it’s tough to imagine a child getting invested in this.

I’ll give this book two ratings. I’m not super well-versed in children’s lit, but I did spend a summer at a children’s fiction publishing firm, so this first rating is for kids. I really can’t see too many kids liking it for the story itself, although, again, those pictures are awesome. One star for kids.

As a fan of Modiano, I’ll be a bit more generous. It has all the hallmarks of his writing, and while they end up being much less satisfactory here than in his other books, it’s still decent fare. If you’re a fan of Modiano’s writing, it is worth a look. You can blaze through it in 45 minutes, so you’ll be done long before you decide you don’t like it. Three stars for fans.

A Young William Golding

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

Today, the focus is on William Golding, best known for LORD OF THE FLIES. The information comes from John Carey’s excellent biography, THE MAN WHO WROTE LORD OF THE FLIES. Though now viewed as something like a one trick pony, Golding wrote a number of other novels (many of them have fallen in stature since release, but in his lifetime later works such as DARKNESS VISIBLE and TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH received wide acclaim), a couple nonfiction pieces, some plays, and exactly one collection of poems.

That collection, aptly but boringly entitled POEMS, came remarkably early in his career, with the book published when he was 23 and most of the content written during his college years. His next published work, LORD OF THE FLIES, would not be released until 20 years later.

What happened in the interim?

Golding was still writing, mentioning in a letter from the late 1930’s a novel he was at work on, though it is unknown if he ever finished the draft. Short stories and poems also flowed from his pen, but few if any were picked up.

Golding began to work on larger projects after the war. The first, SEAHORSE, was a nonfiction account of sailing while also training for D-Day. While his other nonfiction works are mostly collections of essays, lectures, or travelogues, this is a straight biographical account.

His next two would be novels, though still drawing on his life experience. CIRCLE UNDER THE SEA features sailing as a prominent theme in the story of a man trying to discover treasure on an island. And, although he wrote in the evenings, Golding needed a day job, settling on being a teacher. His next novel, SHORT MEASURE, is a drama set in an English boarding school, and was considered by publishing houses before ultimately getting rejected. None of them have been published, even posthumously.

For anyone doubting themselves, just remember, Golding wrote at minimum three and a half extended prose pieces, along with a good amount of poetry and miscellaneous works before his first novel hit the market. He was 43 years old. Whatever one thinks of Golding, whether he is a one trick pony or a stain on the Nobel (I disagree with both thoughts), it is impossible to deny that he let rejection halt his dreams.

Book Review: Radish by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, controversial Nobel Prize winner, started writing soon after enlisting in the Chinese army in 1976 and published A TRANSPARENT RADISH, here simply titled RADISH, in 1984. It is one of his first published works, and it does feature some flaws typical of early books, but fans will see the writer who would soon publish RED SORGHUM stepping up to bat here (a classic he published just two years later).

Already Mo Yan’s unbridled prose energy is present here (though slightly more reigned in than in later works) and the usual themes of food and hunger waft through the text. The plot centers around a scrawny, sickly mute boy, Hei-Hai, trying (and usually failing) to perform the tasks assigned to him by a work brigade. The other main characters are the blacksmith he works under, a mason, and the maiden Juzi, who meet each other through Hei-Hai and become embroiled in a love triangle.

The novella is mostly character driven, and for that it suffers. In a book of this length it’s difficult to fully describe characters, leaving the main characters more archetypes with one or two distinguishing details than fully formed, and some side characters are one dimensional and don’t appear nearly enough. Those new to Mo Yan, beware that he does not have a kind view of humankind. His fiction is a cruel world where miserable things happen to almost everyone and even the characters the reader is supposed to root for have awful qualities. If you need a sympathetic character (or an uplifting ending), Mo Yan might not be for you.

Still, the plot never flags. I was never on the edge of my seat but I also ever wanted to put it down. I have heard that after the Nobel Prize, some high school students in China are now required to read this, and after reading, despite the flaws, it is not hard to see why. English readers, however, might get less out of this than a Chinese reader, due to cultural differences. The descriptions of the work brigade would obviously resonate more with those familiar with Chinese culture.

Interestingly, little of the magical realism that Mo Yan is famous for is present here. Other than a brief appearance by a “transparent radish,” there is nothing, and those not expecting it might be thrown off by the sudden appearance of a see-through vegetable. By the end of the text, though, the metaphor of the radish makes sense. I highlight this not because it is a negative, but rather because it hints at an early Mo Yan more grounded in reality than his later metafictional, mystical works. Considering a lot of his novels revolve around those elements, what would a realistic Mo Yan be like?

Overall, RADISH very obviously an early work, but its pros outweigh its cons by a good margin. It is probably not the best place to start exploring Mo Yan or his country’s literature, but with its cheap e-book price, anyone already acquainted with those will find something interesting here.