Mainly About Books by the Books Editor
Since Donald Trump took office as President of the US, the world has been fascinated, indeed mesmerised, by his daily use of short tweets to express his changing opinion, his unfocussed anger at friends and enemies (often there seems little distinction), and announce, often daily, new and often unexpected policy directions.
The President sees himself as having special skills in the use of tweets. Recently he proclaimed that he was, in effect, “the Hemingway of the tweet”.
That kind of remark is likely to set a literary minded person thinking. As a result of my own musings, I have news for the President: the Hemingway of the tweets is in fact Hemingway himself.
With the exception of A Farewell to Arms (1929), these days I find little to admire in what Hemingway wrote after the Sun Also Rises in 1926 – the title comes from a passage in Ecclesiasticus, a scripture which is only to be found in Catholic versions of the Bible.
(For many years, readers and critics alike have debated Hemingway’s religion and his position as “a marginal Catholic”. Recently, however, Matthew Nickel in his critical overview, Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway (New Street Communications, $22.95 / £17.50), asserted that Hemingway’s Catholic faith was much more important to him than previously believed. Indeed it began in his late teens, at the time of Nick Adams stories – some of his best work. (At the time of his marriage in 1927 he was described as a “Catholic in good standing”.)
Now Twitter is enlarging the size of the tweets from 140 characters to 280, but I suspect that President Trump has in mind the shorter form, which seems to suit him.
His tweets are familiar, over familiar indeed, and can at times be very forceful, even brutal. But they cannot be said to have any real style, any real human feeling – except self-admiration, and are often very crudely expressed.
I doubt if Trump has read much of Hemingway. He seems never to have been a person who has found resource or comfort or inspiration in books of any kind. But somewhere in the brief years of his education, one of his teachers seems to have expounded to him the idea that the secret of Hemingway as a writer (at least in those early years before WWII) was due to his brevity and striking imagery, his manner of letting the emotions of his characters come across to the reader in an unemphatic way.
Hemingway’s first real book in our time [sic](Paris, 1924) was a selection of short stories interlinked with brief vignettes from his experiences as a journalist in those post war years. One of these, once described by Time magazine, as Hemingway’s shortest story, concerned an encounter with the King of Greece. Greece and Turkey were then fighting an appalling war of quasi-genocide in the Ionian provinces of Asia Minor behind the ancient port of Smyrna.
Here, albeit a little longer than the normal tweet, is the complete text of Hemingway’s account of his encounter with King Constantine of Greece (who was forced to abdicate in 1922 and died in exile 1923) and his wife, Sophie of Prussia, both then under house arrest.
“The king was working in the garden. He seemed very glad to see me. We walked through the garden. This is the queen, he said. She was clipping a rose bush. Oh how do you do, she said. We sat down at a table under a big tree and the king ordered whiskey and soda. We have good whiskey anyway, he said.
“The revolutionary committee, he told me, would not allow him to go outside the palace grounds. Plastiras is a very good man I believe, he said, but frightfully difficult. I think he did right though shooting those chaps. If Kerensky had shot a few men things might have been altogether different. Of course the great thing in this sort of an affair is not to be shot oneself!
“It was very jolly. We talked for a long time. Like all Greeks, he wanted to go America.”
That comes to 148 words, longer than a tweet, of course; but in these few words Hemingway reveals the essential nature of the whole post-war period, not perhaps as experienced in the US or in the UK, but by much of Europe from Galway to Aegean: war, murder, massacres, and monarchs cultivating roses.
I cannot see the president managing that kind of thing. The president is a real bruiser. He lacks Hemingway’s humane sensitivity, and Hemingway’s deep seated sense of religion.
No; I am afraid it is quite clear that when it comes to challenging Hemingway, Trump shouldn’t even think of getting in the ring with him.