clean, well-lighted prose

For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.—Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway died 50 years ago this month.

He was a war correspondent who wrote a decent novel every few years and wrote a bunch of other stuff in between. The Sun Also Rises(1926) was at least a little hopeful. A Farewell To Arms(1929) was not.

For Whom the Bell Tolls(1940) is also about love and war, like practically every other book he wrote. But it is also about politics and about women, the gentle Maria and the gypsy Pilar. I liked that book. But I was in junior high and he was writing about sex.

After that he writes mostly about himself and it is all downhill.

The Old Man and The Sea(1952) was his most popular and over-rated novel, trading more on reputation than talent. Simple dialogue. Shallow symbolism. Stupid story. (That’s literary language for I didn’t like it very much.)

When he writes about himself he has nothing to say.

By 1954, he had survived two plane crashes and had wrecked four marriages. He was a hopeless alcoholic suffering from debilitating depression. His father committed suicide, his son committed suicide and he committed suicide.

I never wanted to be like him.

But I did want to write like him.

Sparse, understated prose. It seems more powerful than pedantry. I’ve been through ten years of college and graduate school and I still want to write short, clear sentences with telling details.

I was a Southerner and should have wanted to write like Faulkner, who could stretch a sentence into a page. Rich and smoky, that was Faulkner. I liked Faulkner, but didn’t want to write that way.

Lean and mean, however. That was Hemingway.

I wanted to be a minimalist too, although my own life is filled with hope and overwhelmed by grace. I first recognized the power of such writing in high school when I read A Clean, Well-lighted Place, a story Hemingway wrote in 1926.

James Joyce said this was one of the best short stories ever written, and that in it Hemingway had “reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do.”

I disagree. I think we want to reduce the veil between literature and eternity. And I’ve wanted to do it as simply as I can.

Everyone says the story is about loneliness and the fear of old age. But I think it is about a clean, well-lighted place.

There is a soldier with a brass number on his sleeve and an old man with a leather purse. There are two waiters trying to close the café. You can see the scene and hear the dialogue.

And you can see what Hemingway wanted but never had: a clean, well-lighted place where the shadows are held at bay. Add an unhurried and sympathetic waiter and perhaps then your nothingness will disappear. Perhaps sleep will come. Perhaps.

But when does hope appear?

In the light. Always, and only, in the light.

I wish he had understood that.

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About wally metts

Wally Metts is the daysman. He is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University and is a pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI. The father of four adult children, he and his wife Katie raise barn cats and Christmas trees in Michigan. His grandchildren call him Santa.

5 Responses to “clean, well-lighted prose”

  1. This post meant a lot to me but I am not sure why yet. There is something here beyond the most obvious. Your statement, “I think we want to reduce the veil between literature and eternity,” is a profoundly insightful one. It speaks of the yearning in every heart for God. We instinctively want to know that there is something more than ourselves. We know that because God has put that knowledge into every strand of DNA. Just as when Hemingway, “writes about himself he has nothing to say,” when we have no focus but ourselves, we are eventually consumed by the darkness that resides in our souls. There is no hope without the Light. This revelation gives purpose to our literature-both in the reading of it and in the writing of it. You have given me much to think about here. Thank you.

  2. I’ve never liked Hemingway. No, that’s not true. I loved Hills Like White Elephants in college but that may be in part because the rest of the class was so appalled by it’s subject.
    I do like you though. And what you weirdos filled with value and worth and thoughtfulness. And worth a 100 Papas.

  3. Oops. That was “what you write is filled with…” Silly iPhone had it’s own mind…

  4. I’m kind of shocked by your assessment of The Old Man and the Sea! I remember feeling utterly enthralled by it. I’ll have to read it again.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. the cheat sheet | the daysman - November 13, 2011

    […] Clean, well-lighted prose You can see what Hemingway wanted but never had: a clean, well-lighted place where the shadows are held at bay. Add an unhurried and sympathetic waiter and perhaps your nothingness will disappear. […]

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