Location: Luzia, a bar in Kreuzberg, Berlin
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Reading Hemingway negroni in hand is absolutely undoubtedly definitively a pretentious thing to do - but there are also passages in here that make your head spin and blood rush, and if you can heighten that then so much the better.
Five pages on the matador Maera, “so brave that he shamed the stylists that were not,” and his last year in the ring, knowing he was dying of consumption, when he fought bulls as though, “I thought that year he hoped for death in the ring but he would not cheat by looking for it.” My god.
So yes, I really liked ‘Death in the Afternoon’ (1932), an account of why bullfighting is art (and why writing is a lot like bullfighting) - even though it’s twice as long as it needs to be, and it’s not clear Hemingway’s quite cognisant of the target at which he jousts.
“I was trying to learn to write,” he writes early on, “commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death.” Hemingway is trying to write what’s there and nothing more - and this is hard: “I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing what you really felt rather than what you were supposed to feel and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things which produced the emotion you experienced.”
The tragedy of this book lies, perhaps, in the way he misses.
Or so argued Max Eastman in his review in the New Republic, ‘Bull In The Afternoon’ (1933). “It is not death that Hemingway writes about or travels to see, but killing. …He has got into it an enthusiasm for killing - for courage and dominating and killing. Hemingway cannot feel - he cannot even see - the hero of his ‘tragedy’ staggering towards death in blood loss and bewilderment.” The bull.
Yet ultimately Eastman so deeply and sympathetically eviscerates Hemingway’s book that it becomes something greater than Hemingway perhaps knew, as among, “...those confessions of horror which are the true poetry and the only great poetry of this generation,” who fought and lived through the Great War - “And it does not matter much whether Ernest Hemingway knows this fact or not.”
When they met in 1937, Hemingway punched him.