NEXT day I called for Ernest. He was carrying a bag containing the boxing gloves and his gym shoes, and I had in my hand a pair of those French rope-soled espadrilles as we loafed along the street. And I remember we talked about the Irish novelist, Liam O’Flaherty, whose book, The Informer, I had liked very much, and who had written a novel called Mr. Gilhooley. Ernest agreed that The Informer was a fine book, but in Mr. Gilhooley, O’Flaherty had made a mistake; he had started thinking too much.
A writer always got into trouble when he started thinking on the page. He permitted the reader to see that the character was being forced to do the author’s thinking. I began to be charmed. Walking so slowly, engaged completely in each other’s opinion, I could see that Ernest had the same firm tone, the same utter conviction he had five years ago. It was as if no time had passed; nothing had happened to either one of us. I argued with him, Wasn’t he rejecting a whole aspect of life? Surely he would agree that a metaphysical problem could be part of a man’s life. Maybe so, but he shook his head grudgingly; he distrusted metaphysics, all abstract thought. The job of the writer was to deal in what was concrete, what a character could , feel, and taste and touch, and his thinking should go along with this immediacy of things. No, that last phrase is wrong; he couldn’t have talked about “the immediacy of things.” Just the same, in those days he didn’t use the strange dumb-Indian talk he palmed off years later on interviewers. He expressed himself rather slowly but very accurately. A character, a pure intellectual, he went on, doing his thinking on the page, well, it was pretty hard for the author to keep out of it. The story should be the thing. Shaking his head, he clammed up, wouldn’t go on talking about metaphysics; he distrusted the whole speculative process. But I had taken law. I had studied the philosophy a little and I liked arguing about ideas. If we were two Christian gentlemen and artists out for a stroll in Paris we ought to have been able to talk, say, about Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism. But Ernest had an artist’s, not a philosopher’s, interest in art. To this day someone will say, “Hemingway didn’t seem to have much of an education.” By this, I suppose, the academic critic means Ernest hadn’t taken his own formal academic drill. But as the philosophers themselves are aware, the artist kind of knowing, call it intuition if you will, could yield a different kind of knowledge beyond rational speculation. Anyway, Ernest read everything.
We had come to the American Club, where Ernest seemed to be at home. We went downstairs and into a back room that had a cement floor. In one comer of the room were some mats and the parallel bars. This was the room the members evidently used for a little gym exercise. In an adjoining room was a billiard table. Some fellows were playing. They paid no attention to us. Ernest and I stripped down to our shorts and shirts. I tied on my espadrilles, he put on his gym shoes. We began to box.
In the back of my mind were all the stories I had heard of Hemingway’s skill and savagery. That one story Max Perkins had told me about Hemingway jumping into the ring and knocking out the middleweight champion of France with a single punch made me feel apprehensive. And the way he had looked down his nose at Larry Gains! Ernest was big and heavy, over six feet, and I was only five foot eight and fat. Whatever skill I had in boxing had to do with avoiding getting hit. Admittedly I had a most unorthodox style, carrying my gloves far too low, counting on being fast with my hands. Moving around, crouching, bobbing and weaving, I waited for a chance to counterpunch. I was a little afraid of Ernest. All the lore and legend of the pros seemed to be in his stance; and in the way he held his hands, his chin down a little to his shoulder, he made an impressive picture. Watching him warily, I could only think, Try and make him miss, then slip away from him. All I did for the first three-minute round was slip away. Resting a minute, we chatted affably, then went on with it.
Suddenly he rushed me, loomed up over me, big and powerful, got me in a corner where I crouched lower and lower, all covered up like a turtle in its shell. Then he stopped, smiling. “Look, Morley,” he said patiently, “never crouch that low. It’s impossible to punch from that angle,” and there he was, giving me kindly instructions. As I listened I was dreadfully humiliated.
I’m not trying to box with him, I thought with disgust at myself. I’m trying to defend myself against all the wild legends I’ve heard—against the man who tried to make something out of big Larry Gains. Yet all winter long I had been boxing with my friend Joe Mahon, who, just as big as Ernest, had been the international intercollegiate heavyweight champion. Concealing the disgust I felt for myself, I assured Ernest he wouldn’t find me doubled up, almost on my knees, in the corner again.
I soon found out I could hit him easily. Seeing that I was carrying my left far too low, he would half jab with his left then try the right, but his timing was way off. I would draw him closer by feinting a step backward, inviting him to move in with his long left, then step in and beat him to the punch with my own left. His right, coming at me correctly, was too slow. I was catching him on the mouth or jaw. As the round progressed I became at ease and sure of myself. I could see that, while he may have thought about boxing, dreamed about it, consorted with old fighters and hung around gyms, I had done more actual boxing with men who could box a little and weren’t just taking exercise or fooling around. Since I could see this for myself, it didn’t matter to me that he would never believe it.
How did he take it, my left flicking all the time at his mouth and nose? One of the legends I had heard was that he grew savage when hurt and had to kill. It was plainly nonsense and dreadfully unfair to him. That day he took a punch on the nose like any good college boxer; he took it with grace and an appreciation of the aptitude of the man who had landed it. It may have been that he felt he had helped me, got me going with the instructions about not crouching too low. He certainly had; he had hurt my pride. He couldn’t have known my thoughts.
When we had called it a day and were taking a shower, he was extraordinarily happy and full of good spirits. We went out for a drink.
The small cafe had only three tables on the sidewalk. We talked for a while about sports. For some reason I had assumed that he had been good at football and baseball, so I talked about ballplayers and my years as a pitcher, and asked what position he had played. But he said he had only played ball a little, and had never been really good at team sports. He liked skiing and boxing and fishing and shooting, the solitary sports. The things a man could do alone. Then I asked him if Fitzgerald was in town. Not that he knew of, he said. As far as he knew the Fitzgerald’s would not be in Paris for a few weeks. He volunteered no further information about Scott, so I dropped the subject.
In a happy mood, I tried in my best comic style to talk about our mutual friends on the Star. Listening, he barely smiled. So I swung into some of my most amusing stories about Harry Hindmarsh. Ernest had said that he would one day write a book about Hindmarsh and call it The Son in Low. By his silence he made it clear he no longer had to hate Hindmarsh. He made me feel, too, that I was talking about people and things that belonged to a time long ago. Untouched, impassive, so darkly hidden as he listened, he became like a stranger. This gift of sudden complete withdrawal was new. It worried me. Coming out of it suddenly, he told me he liked Loretto very much; she was a fine girl, and then with the old frankness I had always liked in him, he added, “She has a kind of savage candour, hasn’t she?” Instantly I wondered what Pauline had said to him about that milliner, or had he too noticed that Pauline’s bluntness had taken Loretto aback? Or could it have been that he had been surprised when Loretto asked him how he had managed to get married in the Church? But since we were on delicate ground I made no comment other than I had thought he would like Loretto. And of course I said we liked Pauline too.
Reaching down to the bag in which he carried the boxing gloves, he asked me if I would like to glance at the proofs of A Farewell to Arms. Right now, he said, he was taking the proofs to James Joyce. Ordering another drink, he waited asking no questions while I read the first two chapters. I noticed the change in style since The Sun Also Rises. But the magic was in the way the words came cleanly together; the landscape was done with his painter’s eye, not Cezanne’s eye, his own, and I recalled that back in Toronto he had told me that he wished sometimes he had been a painter. Yet here was a little trait I noticed, continuation of a trend that I, maybe wrongly, had marked in The Sun Also Rises. I had felt in my bones that Hemingway himself was going to be identified with his hero, Jake Barnes. Now the identification would be pinned on Lieutenant Henry. Readers would be convinced that everything happening to the lieutenant had happened to Hemingway, and his literary personality would grow apace. Was this what he wanted? Would there ever be a showdown between himself as he was and this growing literary personality? It bothered me.
In the beginning I had been sure Hemingway would be a broad objective writer like Tolstoy. Was he to become an intensely personal writer, each book an enlargement of his personality in the romantic tradition? Well, a good writer goes his own way. But sitting there with him at the little cafe, all in the shadow now for the sunlight had gone, I did wonder if he was to make all his work seem like a personal adventure. Then I tried to express my admiration of the descriptive prose; it was to be a bigger book than The Sun Also Rises, I said, and I remember that as he picked up the proofs he laughed. “The Sun Also Rises was the kind of book you write in six weeks,” he said. Just the same, I said, rarely had a book been so warmly received by the reviewers, and, marvellous to relate, rarely had they been so right. Growing more serious, talking with that intensity of conviction that had always made me feel he had a vast store of secret wisdom about writing, he said, “Always remember this. If you have a success, you have it for the wrong reasons. If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work. They always praise you for the worst aspects. It never fails.”
It was comforting; it was encouraging; it was like knowing that he would never be taken in by spurious adulation, or let the mob make him anything but the fine artist he was. Closing my eyes now, I can see us sitting at that cafe, hearing him talk about becoming popular because of the weakest aspects of one’s work. Now, remembering, it becomes deeply moving.
We had got up and were walking slowly along the street. At the corner he said, “I’ll leave you here. I’m late. I told Joyce I’d bring these proofs to him.” And then he must have seen an envious look in my eyes. Suddenly he was boyishly apologetic. “I know you’d like to meet Joyce. I’d take you with me and have you meet him, Morley, but he’s so shy with strangers. It’s no good when you walk in on him. He won’t talk about writers and writing. This way it wouldn’t be any good. You understand, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” I said. “I wouldn’t dream of going with you. You want to talk to him about your work,” and I laughed. We made a date for boxing the next week. He went one way and I another up to the Select to meet Loretto. When I looked back he was going along slowly, carrying his bag, a big fellow, feeling good.
If I couldn’t meet Joyce with him it wasn’t likely I would ever meet him, I thought. And then suddenly I felt my own peaceful satisfaction. After five years, there I was on a Paris street; in spite of the stories, the malice, my own doubts, I was watching the retreating figure of the man who had been so quick and generous in his appreciation of my work, and we had had an immensely enjoyable afternoon together.