- Hemingway and French Writers
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris begins as his films customarily do, with music, and the selection for this one, Sidney Bechet's "Si Tu Vois Ma Mère," could not be better chosen. The song is an emblematic one for a story of Americans abroad, as this perfectly "French" tune was written by a mixed-race American who worked in Paris. One can imagine a New Orleans second line shuffling to this piper's call, yet the same notes are equally at home along the banks of the Seine. In its wistfulness there is instant familiarity, with Bechet's distinctive soprano sax bringing something of the warmth of a Parisian rain to the song. The sax calls the tune, and the clarinets follow in step. But midway through, the order is reversed. The instruments echo the tune, but who follows whom, and whose mother is whose? [End Page 126]
In similar fashion, Ernest Hemingway, an American who would boast that he learned his (limited) French from newspapers, would write a number of perfectly French stories. And at some point, a number of French writers began to write, in some cases, perfectly Hemingwayesque stories. The reasons for this cross-pollination, as Ben Stoltzfus explains in Hemingway and French Writers, are many. To truly understand the process, we must come to appreciate such concepts as littérisation, Hemingway's running score-keeping with various of his Continental influences and competitors, the political tumult of the times, and the finer points of existentialism (and even freestyling post-structuralists), not to mention Hemingway's engagement with the philosophical discourse of French literature. And we might also refocus a by-now familiar narrative so that the spotlight shifts from the "lost generation" (i.e., the expatriates) to what they found as arrivals (and sometimes arrivistes) to a period of Gallic artistic ferment with deep roots. Needless to say, the scope of the book is ambitious, and it proposes a classic comparative framework in a conceit that is more visual than musical: the "colors and nuances" of Hemingway and the French authors to whom he is compared "are highlighted as they shift, blend, and refract according to the angle of vision and the quality of light brought to bear on the subject" (160).
Stoltzfus does not describe his own angle of vision, but it is surely an interesting one. A retired professor of French literature, comparative literature, and creative writing, Stoltzfus is also the author of several well-regarded novels. We might not be surprised, then, to learn that the "subtheme" of this book (which is more accurately described as a collection, however thematically well-united, as many of the pieces were previously published), is "the craft of writing." Indeed some of the best moments of Hemingway and French Writers occur with the felicity of Robert Paul Lamb's Art Matters, demonstrating a deep understanding of the importance of craft grounded in the very close reading—combined with a personal angle of vision—endemic to those who teach Hemingway's stories repeatedly. Stoltzfus brings as well a unique signature to the appreciation of craft by employing the language of French theorists (principally Jacques Lacan) to the analysis. For example, he draws on Roland Barthes's notion of encratic language to show how Hemingway, following Flaubert, breaks his own rules in using "grandiose" adjectives precisely to reveal their hollowness. Stoltzfus's training in not just French literature but French culture is evident in his overview of Hemingway's Paris, which moves beyond the familiar cast of characters to introduce readers to people and events that [End Page 127] readers are less likely to have encountered before—such as poet Léon-Paul Fargue, or the extended life of Alfred Jarry's surrealist play, Ubu Roi. It is the difference between taking the bus tour or opting for the walking tour with a guide who has the true gen.
Because very many of the essays posit the French connection in terms more theoretical than actual, Stoltzfus does not always provide the tangible...