Julian Barnes: “Homage to Hemingway”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Julian Barnes’ “Homage to Hemingway” was originally published in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Julian Barnes: “Homage to Hemingway””

  1. Trevor says:

    By the way, I left it out of the post above, but the three-part structure and the title were inspired by Hemingway’s own story “Homage to Switzerland.” You can listen to Barnes read “Homage to Switzerland” here at the Guardian’s short story podcast.

  2. Shelley says:

    As a writer, after reading your review, I think I’d be better searching for Hemingway in Midnight In Paris….

  3. Oh, Trevor, I’m so sad – I loved this story! I told this little story of my reading it while having lunch and the waitress saw me smiling and nodding. I loved how it dawned on me slowly what he was doing (I’d never read the original “Homage to Switzerland”). But it also painted a portrait of the guy, not doing so well either at love or work, and finding a substitute (maybe a poor one) in these classes he teaches. And the last couple of lines curled my toes!

    I have to confess I’m very fond of writer stories, maybe because there’s such a prohibition about writing them (unless you’re Julian Barnes or Richard Russo or Kevin Moffat).

    I will remember this one a long time – maybe to make up for it not sticking with you very long. ;)

  4. Trevor says:

    Karen, I think some of it may have been my own state of mind when I read the story. I like Barnes, and the story itself is well done — for whatever reason I failed to connect with it on this go around, even though when I wrote about it I realized I liked it a bit more than I initially thought. So there’s hope!

  5. Ken says:

    This is exactly the type of story I enjoy-reflexive, playful, literate, witty. I think that after the masterful realism of Munro this was a nice contrast in that it’s all about writing and the writer. Barnes’ parallels and dialectical pairings are pretty much on the surface, but he’s not trying to bury them either. Here he’s not just being amusing and also creating pathos but also literally carrying on a discourse with us: How do life and art intertwine and related questions. It needs to be there on the “surface.”

  6. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Trevor, for the link to Barnes reading Hemingway.

    I also enjoyed this story – but my initial reason was a little shallow: I like stories about writing workshops. These stories, if you’ve been to such a workshop, can be revealing, or riveting, or even electrifying, as the case may be.

    But beyond that personal interest, I also liked the way the story tries three times to arrive at what it wants to say, the way life tries, repeatedly, to arrive at what it wants to say. I like the the way the story re-uses the same frame and yet is still fluid. I like the way narrator reflects on teaching as much as he reflects on writing, the way he reflects on himself through the lens of his reading of Hemingway, and the way, in the end, the story as much about reading as it is about writing.

    I feel, though, that the story struggles, somewhat, with its occasion, it being written, perhaps, almost as an assignment to honor the anniversary of Hemingway’s death.

    But I was struck by this: the narrator comments to us, toward the end, that “if anyone insulted a novel, a story, a poem that he loved, something visceral and volcanic occurred within [the writing teacher].”

    One of his workshoppers had complained about Hemingway, saying, “I just don’t see what he’s got to say to us.”

    In reply, the writing-teacher talks “about what hating a writer might mean. How far and how long do we punish thought-crime?”

    (That is pretty strong! And yet all of us readers react to some authors that strongly!)

    He talks about Auden struggling with Kipling, and he talks about his own process of revision regarding Hemingway. Some writers, the writing teacher says, are read for the wrong reasons and also misread for the wrong reasons, although he does admit that some are “unrescuable.”

    What I really like about this story is the way the narrator wonders about the role of the reader. To the student who says, “I just don’t see what [Hemingway’s] got to say to us,” the writing-teacher snaps back rudely, “Then listen more carefully.”

    Well, I like that. I have been that (stubborn) reader who reads or mis-reads an author, for the wrong reasons. The armchair reader has that leeway, I suppose, but once the reader takes a stand – then listening very carefully seems a natural responsibility.

  7. Aaron says:

    I’m with you all on this one: writers will relate to it, readers will appreciate the craft of it, but ultimately, it’s a bit of a thud. (http://bit.ly/pwO6DF) I’d go further in saying, too, that the very publication of the story in a major literary magazine tarnishes the point the Maestro is whinging about, in that works like this can no longer be published. (Or maybe it makes the point, in that it’s been published, but many of us insist that we don’t care, particularly in comparison to Munro’s stunning and far more subtle piece from the week below.)

    @Karen, only one thing about your note surprises me, and that’s the “It dawned on me slowly” part: part of what frustrated me about Barnes is that he didn’t trust the readers to be familiar with Hemingway (which is fair, I’m not, and I wouldn’t have gotten this), and so explicitly spelled out the points of his story all the way to the end, in which the Maestro confesses that this is the story he’s written. I like to discover things, and I don’t appreciate that this story is more of a lecture, in that there’s meant to be only one way to interpret it.

    Betsy points out that the Maestro says “Then listen more carefully” — I’d argue that part of what makes a story into *art* is that need to listen, and that ability to miss something.

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