Julian Barnes: “Homage to Hemingway” from The New Yorker, 7/4/11

Illustration by David Levine, 1987

It was a stratagem he’d devised on the first morning – of throwing into each section an anecdote, a memory, a long joke, even a dream. He never explained why he was doing it, but each free-form intervention was designed to make them ask: Is this a story? If not, how might we turn it into one? What do we need to discard, what keep, what develop?

Most stories I love start in my heart; they may work their way into my head, or they may not, but I love them for the emotional reward I get from them. A few I recognize as interesting and dramatic, but they don’t really go anywhere for me. But once in a while I tremendously admire a story for what the author has done, and like an orgasm, it slowly spreads its pleasure all over. I’ve noticed most of these stories – Richard Russo’s “The Whore’s Child“, “Further Interpretation of Real Life Events” by Kevin Moffet, “I Use Commas Like Ninja Stars” by Sam Nam – are about writing, writing classes, and/or writers. That’s “Homage to Hemingway”.

I don’t want to say too much about the story. It needs to be read. The light needs to dawn, that “oh, I see” that happens when Columbo (RIP, Lieutenant) finally catches the killer in the last five minutes on a tiny detail, or when we all finally realized Bruce Willis was dead all along in that movie. And I don’t fool myself to thinking everyone will be as captivated as I was. I’m a bit naïve, not as widely-read as many; for some, it may be ho-hum, oh, yeah, this again. But I was reading this – after having photocopied it in the hot basement of my local library where The New Yorker is kept – while chomping down on a delicious cheeseburger and fries at a local pub (I don’t know what they do to make the burgers so wood-charred, or the fries so amazingly crispy) and my server commented, “That must be really good.” Apparently I was smiling and nodding at the pages spread out over the table.

How embarrassing! And even more embarrassing when I tried to explain: “It’s this story, it’s so good, do you want to read it? Can I read it to you? It isn’t long…”

And while we’re talking reading and food (“Eat…Sleep…Read”, says the sign in the window of my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) that’s covered in this story, too – and this blog is also the home of Top Chef and Food Network Star reviews, in addition to literary fiction, after all, so why not include it here:

…[H]e told them his theory of writers and cooking. Novelists, who were in it for the long haul, were temperamentally equipped for stewing and braising, for the slow mixing together of many ingredients, whereas poets ought to be good at stir-fry. And short story writers? someone asked. Steak and chips. Dramatists? Ah, dramatists – they, the lucky sods, were basically mere orchestrators of the talents of others, and would be satisfied to shake a leisurely cocktail while the kitchen staff rustled up the grub.

This went down well, and they started fantasizing about the sort of food famous writers would serve. Jane Austen and Bath buns. The Brontes and Yorkshire pudding. There was even an argument when Virginia Woolf and cucumber sandwiches were put together. But without any discord they placed Hemingway in front of an enormous barbecue piled high with marlin steaks and cuts of buffalo, a beer in one hand and an outsized spatula in the other, while the party swirled around him.

I now need to find “Homage to Switzerland” which I understand is in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, a volume I never thought of getting until now. You can listen to a podcast of Julian Barnes reading this Hemingway story, from which his story emanates. But you should make sure to read “Homage to Hemingway”; it contains everything you really need to know to enjoy it.

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