Day: April 8, 2014
They teach the greats in English class but nobody writes like that anymore. Fitzgerald? Too much doom and subtext. Chekhov? Roundabout and talky. Joyce? Who has the patience. Hemingway? Well, back up a bit. Hemingway was actually the father of modern literature. While others took chapters to warm up, explore characterization and slow-start their plots, Hemingway’s sparse make-every-word count style served as a bridge away from the rambling tomes that preceded him. He was the first to chop the unnecessary, to hone till he found his “one true sentence”. Today’s writers are closer to Hemingway, than Dickens. Here’s why.
What you didn’t say counted more. He was the master of the right word. He saw the power in the few. Unlike Proust who could writhe on the floor for hours pulling and pushing words from his brain, Hemingway’s short stories prepared him to get the most out of the smallest space. He turned away from overblown, dense styles like Melville and went to work as a newspaperman writing copy for the Kansas City Star. He learned to be succinct and to shoot for clarity. He adapted the Star Style and adhered to the guidelines without fail.
Hemingway’s Star Style, 1915
•Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
•Eliminate every superfluous word as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.
•Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.
•Don’t say “He had his leg cut off in an accident.” He wouldn’t have had it done for anything.
•”He suffered a broken leg in a fall,” not “he broke his leg in a fall.” He didn’t break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.
That’s the house in Key West. I step into the little writing studio out back near the salt water pool. I’m told by the guides who give the tours that Hemingway and his wife, I think #3 had frequent fights over the pool. It was a pain to clean and haul the sea water in. I imagine as I walk the grounds, Papa strides to his studio at dawn, locks the world out until noon, heads into town over to Sloppy Joe’s for a few. I wonder at how he is able to live life to the fullest with his hard-drinking, womanizing reputation. And I know he heads to Bimini next for big game fishing, and the evening will end, perhaps 90 miles away at the Tropicana. I see him get up and do it all over again, with a massive hangover, knowing how his story will end, but focused on the now, while still cranking out the greatest novels ever written.
Then I look at the Star Style.
#1. Use short sentences.
I’m cheating a bit in my title. I do realize but I love a good mystery. Take the romantic tragedy of Madame Butterfly. The story is a classic opera. A few movies. Has inspired several books, including my own, The Secret Life of Concubines. Even Madame Alexander made a doll in her likeness.
But I want to know. Who is Cho-Cho-san?
The story is simple enough. Pinkerton, the naval officer arrives on a ship. Meets a beautiful girl, Cho-Cho-san. They fall in love but Pinkerton leaves her behind, and she waits and waits and waits and waits with unshakable faith, he’ll be back.
But it doesn’t go the way she wants. Enter the tragedy part.
Pinkerton returns. He’s surprised to see Cho-Cho-san is not alone, she has a child. A son who is her whole life. In the words of Malcolm McLaren, Pinkerton’s a bounder. He married a Yankee girl. Which can only spell total devastation for Butterfly. She goes ballistic when she learns he has not returned for her as promised, and…he’s brought his wife. They want her child. Butterfly is destroyed.
It’s a wonderful story, and Puccini’s opera is one of my favorite. But was Madame Butterfly real? Depends on who you ask.
Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant went to seek his fortune in the Meiji era. He worked the tea trade, and ended up on Nagasaki where he opened his own doors. He was half-adventurer, half-international investor. He took an active role in the Boshin War that toppled the shogunate and built the first western house on the island. He won and lost fortunes a few times over but Glover was first and foremost an industrialist, instrumental in aiding Japan’s rise out of feudal darkness.
He met and married Madame Tsuru. They had a son, Thomasburo. Not much is known about her, accept an old photograph where she is wearing the famous kimono adorned with butterflies. No historical evidence exists that she went by the name Ocho-san (Butterfly). Not a shred, other than the kimono. Historians have deduced that Madame Butterfly was a fabrication of the Nagasaki Tourist Board, even going so far as to rename Glover House, the “Madame Butterfly House.”
Who was Cho-Cho-san?
Who inspired one of the greatest Italian operas?
A publicity stunt. An old photograph and a whiff of history. I wonder if Puccini knew that. Somehow, I don’t think he’d care. I don’t care either, I should but it’s a great story. Right?