by Robin Lippincott
In Joan Didion’s latest book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of previously published but uncollected essays, there is a piece about Ernest Hemingway called “Last Words.” As someone who has been an admirer of Didion’s work for over forty-five years and read everything she’s published, I have long been aware of her veneration of Hemingway, if unable to fully share it. Coming on the heels of Ken Burns’ long, three-part documentary about Papa H, about which I had many thoughts, one of which was, Where is the long, three-part documentary about a woman writer (Joan Didion, for example)? I was not looking forward to reading this particular essay, but dammit if Didion—and at least in part, Hemingway—didn’t win me over. But let me tell you what I mean.
Didion grabbed me from the get-go: She opens the essay by reproducing the beginning of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, after which she immediately proceeds to dissect it. Here’s the opening of the novel, followed by the beginning of Didion’s examination:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across
the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were
pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and
swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down
the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks
of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the
troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the
breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white
except for the leaves.
That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four
deceptively simple sentences, 126 words, the arrangement of which remains as
mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or
thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard
enough I might one day arrange 126 such words myself. Only one of the words
has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other 103 have one. Twenty-four
of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.” There are four commas.
There is much more, of course, as Didion goes on to—gloriously—unpack Hemingway’s use of commas, as well as his repetition of the words “the” and “and,” and closely examines his sentence rhythms, too. And what’s especially marvelous here is the reader’s awareness that Didion did, in fact, go on to arrange words into equally mysterious and thrilling sentences and paragraphs.
From there, one of the things Didion proceeds to do in the essay is to notice how much of Hemingway’s prose can be heard in George Orwell’s sentences, of which she provides several convincing examples: obviously, Orwell studied and was influenced by Hemingway. I have long revered Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and Didion’s essay serves as a reminder that, as she puts it, “This was a man to whom words mattered. He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them.”
In an interview with The Paris Review, Didion acknowledged that as a young writer she had typed passages of Hemingway’s prose, in an effort to learn how he did what he did. I was a young writer in a low-residency MFA Program when I first read that interview, and so I proceeded to do the same thing with the work of some of the writers I most admired: Didion was one, but I also typed parts of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, as well as paragraphs from Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, two novels I love and admire. The way I explained the value of doing this to myself at the time was that it would allow me to get inside the work, to examine its very innards, its guts. Here are short excerpts from each of those books:
She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed
for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron. . . . What a
strange, betraying apparition that was, madness, because never was any woman
less a wife or mother, less attached; not even a daughter could she easily appear
to be. . . No, she was glittering, somber and solitary, although of course never
alone, never. Stately, sinister and determined. . . . The creamy lips, the oily
eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her
presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and
the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a
–from Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick
You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.
Yet here I am, for the first time and yet again, alone at last on Orcas Island.
Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?
–from Pitch Dark, Renata Adler
With Hardwick, what’s remarkable is the placement of commas, but it is also the syntax, the word choice, and the well-placed repetition of certain words. Susan Sontag, another writer from whom I’ve learned a lot, wrote about the pleasures of the prose in Sleepless Nights in her essay “Where the Stress Falls,” which she calls—aptly and beautifully—a novel of “mental weather”:
Nothing new except language, the ever found. Cauterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay. It’s a matter of adjectives. It’s where the stress falls.
(Note that Sontag uses “more subtle,” instead of the more common “subtler.”)
As for the passage from Adler’s Pitch Dark: again, it’s her placement of commas—yes, but it is also this: Is Renata Adler not the Queen of Syntax? Consider how much less compelling the passage quoted above would have been in the hands of a lesser writer:
You are, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life, you know.
Yet here I am, for the first time and yet again, alone on Orcas Island at last.
Did I perhaps throw the most important thing away by accident?
I found then, as a young writer, and I still find these passages from Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Adler’s Pitch Dark just as mysterious and thrilling as Didion found the opening of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and I learned so much by typing passages from them.
What writers or books would you most like to learn from? Try typing exemplary passages from them, if you haven’t already. You might be surprised by the intimacy and the understanding that follows.
“I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.”
–Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
“Renata Adler should be required reading for MFA students.”
–Lorin Stein, former editor of The Paris Review
Robin Lippincott is the author of six books. He has been teaching in the Spalding MFA Program since 2001. He lives in the Boston area.