"Homage to Hemingway" by Julian Barnes Originally published in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
This is a three-part story. The first section is called “The Novelist in the Countryside.” The story begins in the early 1980s. An unnamed British writer — at this point a young writer with only one book to his name (but it did win a prize, after which his first wife left him) — is overseeing a type of writing retreat in Wales. Though he certainly wants to help with the chores, which are typically the students’ responsibility, and though he wants the students to find their own way, he is nevertheless confident in his abilities and feels he has wisdom to pass on to them.
The students bicker about writing, and one of the conclusions he draws is “Don’t try putting your own life into fiction. It won’t work.” Attempting to get this point across, he tells the story of a man he saw in Greece. The man had a beard and the machismo of Hemingway. The author, without much more to go on, assumed the man must have been attempting to mimic Hemingway, as some do.
He left it at that, hoping that his students would reflect on the assumptions we automatically make about people [. . .]. He also hoped that they would reflect back on life’s influence on art, and then art’s influence back on life. And, if they had asked, he would have replied that, for him, Hemingway, as a novelist, was like an athlete bulked up on steroids.
The next section, “The Professor in the Alps,” takes place a few years later. The writer, with more books under his belt, is more famous and has been asked to participate in a six-day writing course in the Alps. If he was confident as a writer before, he’s now full of swagger. He knows he doesn’t have that much to offer, but he’s become good at the public performance. Here he is speaking about what he’s learned about writing from Sibelius the composer:
“Seven symphonies, one violin concerto, orchestral tone poems, songs, a string quartet called ‘Voces Intimae’ — ‘Intimate Voices.’ Let’s take the symphonies.” Not least because he had nothing to say about the other works. “They start — the first two — with great melodic expansiveness. You hear a lot of Tchaikovsky, a bit of Bruckner, Dvorák, perhaps, anyway, the great nineteenth-century European symphonic tradition. Then the Third — shorter, just as melodic, and yet more restrained, held back, moving in a new direction. Then the great Fourth, austere, forbidding, granitic, the work where he most engages with modernism.” He’d stolen that phrase from an Austrian pianist who said in a radio interview, “No, Sibelius is not of much interest to me, except for the Fourth, where he engages with modernism.”
The author knows it’s a performance and eventually turns on part of one of Sibelius’s symphony, a good ten minute portion. He loves that he gets paid for this.
That comes off a bit harsh, though, as if the author were exploiting the system. In truth, the author is also a bit relieved to just listen to Sibelius. Later, when some of the students told him they enjoyed the music:
In another mood, he might have taken this amiss, and presumed they were saying they didn’t like something else — his way of teaching, his clothes, his opinions, his books, his life — but the music had delivered, if not a peacefulness, at least a quiet pause into his being.
His life, after all, is a bit of a mess. Beneath the performance, the man is vulnerable and a bit of a wreck. Where he once didn’t think much of Hemingway, he is starting to see more in the fiction that relates to his own life.
For completion sake, but without spoilers, the third part is called “The Maestro in the Midwest.” A bit later in life, the author is now teaching in the American Midwest, and he’s a considerably different presence. Hemingway is still there, perhaps more than ever. He sees that sometimes in the myth of the writer, the writer is also trapped.
In the end, I enjoyed this story, as I often do enjoy stories by Julian Barnes. But I’m afraid that “Homage to Hemingway” was a bit unsatisfying. I believe this is, in part if not in whole, because this story followed what I thought to be an excellent Alice Munro story where so much remained under the surface. Here, in contrast, so much of the material is fairly explicit, as well done as it is. Whatever the case, even though I found quite a bit of interesting character development and enjoyed watching the author change and contradict himself over time, I don’t believe “Homage to Hemingway” will remain long in my memory.