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From the NS archive: The wound and the bow

27 October 1978: On the precariousness of friendship between writers.

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In this 1978 piece, the author and academic Malcolm Bradbury considered two recent publications – “Scott and Ernest” by Matthew J Bruccoli (Bodley Head) and “Ernest Hemingway and His World” by Anthony Burgess (Thames & Hudson) – and the topic of literary friendships. How can a writer friend be trusted, when one knows how easy it would be for them to trivialise their life in fiction? F Scott Fitzgerald, Bradbury wrote, “was foolish enough to consult Hemingway on the size of his penis, which Zelda had disparaged” – and of course the episode went on to appear in “A Moveable Feast”. The effects of such appearances are “usually destructive”, Bradbury wrote, “as with all portraits of ‘real’ relationships in fiction, though to an especial degree since the other writer has an equal entitlement to the subject”.

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All friendships are fragile, but none can be more precarious than a friendship between two writers – especially if both are of one sex, are leading figures of their time, and yet stand for different versions of the contemporary potential of literature. Good writers, especially when successful, often think they own writing, and since writing is the fictional ordering of life, they often incline to think they own that too. If they write life right, it must follow that other writers write it wrong.

Nonetheless, there is the companionship of the craft, and the special admirations writers acquire for the works of others. Friendships often ensue, but on difficult terms. It will be saddening to see how one's friends go amiss, though of course they inevitably will. They will marry foolish partners, damaging to their talent as well as probably to the friendship itself. They will pick silly friends who will mislead them about where the adjective is going in our time.

However, if their failures will be tragic, so too will be their successes. They will be for the wrong books, or the wrong reasons. In any case, success is a betrayal of the friendship. Here is a so-called friend publishing another best-seller in the same season, appearing as counter-claimant for the same literary honour (Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel), or offering critical judgments – which, however favourable, must be foolish – on one's work, competing for the attention of the same publisher, perhaps even having a better one. To complicate matters further, the literary friendship often appears in the literature of the literary friends. The effects of this are usually destructive, as with all portraits of “real” relationships in fiction, though to an especial degree since the other writer has an equal entitlement to the subject.

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In short, literary friendship is a minefield, waiting to explode when anything goes wrong. And so it was with Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. As Matthew Bruccoli reminds us in his new study of the subject, the friendship started on an odd balance. They met in 1925, when Fitzgerald was the author of three widely known novels and consuming his talent at speed, and Hemingway was virtually unknown. Yet it was Fitzgerald’s admiration for Hemingway that motored the relationship. Fitzgerald ensured Hemingway's publication with his own good publisher, Scribner's, and advanced his case everywhere. He read, and made valuable suggestions about, the typescript of The Sun Also Rises, which the following year made Hemingway a success.

From the start, Fitzgerald deferred to Hemingway, exposing his wounds, confiding his anxieties. He was foolish enough to consult Hemingway on the size of his penis, which Zelda had disparaged: Hemingway and other objective testers later found it normal, but it didn't help. Hemingway was to exploit the episode in his late A Moveable Feast, a text displaying considerable contempt for Fitzgerald. By then, of course, Fitzgerald was dead, and Hemingway a Nobel Prize winner. In the competition of literary friendship, it was easy to see who had won, and what had won: a version of the writer and of writing.

The fact is that Fitzgerald and Hemingway were superficially similar but fundamentally different kinds of literary performer. Both were essential voices of their era, the Twenties; both took the American novel into the world league. In different ways, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Sun Also Rises (1926) spoke for the neo-Romantic, dandyish styles and anguishes of a generation cut off from its predecessors by a war to which Hemingway went and got wounded, and to which Fitzgerald almost went, getting on to a troopship only to find that they were signing the Armistice. This gave Hemingway an edge in that crucial possession of the age, the wound of war and modernity. Both won bestselling success but Fitzgerald first and suddenly, so his career seemed to go into a downward curve, Hemingway later and more securely, so that his career pointed upward. Both undertook to merge a new life-style and a new art-style, but in opposite ways.

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For Hemingway, the wound was something to overcome, through stoicism, existential precision, economical constraint of self and of language. As Anthony Burgess puts it in his book – a bouncy rewrite of the standard Carlos Baker biography, with excellent illustrations and some odd variants (Burgess wounds Hemingway at Fossalta in the opposite leg from earlier commentators) – Hemingway the man “was as much a creation as his books, and a far inferior creation”. The hardshell stoicism of that creation made him a writer who contains and formalises those inner elements of consciousness and psychology that drive him into writing. Fitzgerald did not believe in containment; he spread himself through and into the culture, diving, like Dick Diver, into disorder, waste and psychic stress.

The result was that the space opened up between two different sorts of modern writer. We have two modern arts: one of controlled stylistic economy and form, another of immediacy, confession, risked consciousness. Fitzgerald is one of his beautiful and damned; Hemingway observes the damnation but seems to stand beyond it in stoic control seeking an heroic stance. In personal matters, Hemingway distrusted Fitzgerald's entire performance. He could not hold his liquor, control his fellow-drunks, manage his writing, manage his wife.

How could he ever know people except on the surface when he never fucked anybody, nobody told him anything except as an answer to a question and he was always too drunk late at night to remember what anybody really said,

Hemingway observed to Malcolm Cowley. For Hemingway, the writer's true appointment was with experience; from this he got his authenticity, his sense of life and the true sentence. Fitzgerald lacked this precision. Of the many crises in the relationship, one came when Fitzgerald published his “Crack-Up” essay. It is in fact an extraordinary essay about the writer’s historical exposure, drawing close connections between Fitzgerald's own disorders of consciousness and the economic and social fragmentations of the time. Hemingway read it as dangerous weakness, and published, in the same magazine, his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, which refers to “poor Scott Fitzgerald” and identifies him with cowardice.

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But by now Hemingway had become fiercely self-protective about his friendship, largely limiting contact to admirers and non-writers. His own existential, stoical performance was breaking him in mind and body. His feelings about “weakness” had been enlarged by the suicide of his father, defeated by his woman. Finally Hemingway’s shell collapsed; he died in psychosis and suicide, 20 years after Fitzgerald’s sad death.

Did he win for literature? Since then we seem to have moved back toward an age of writing as confession. Confession is a place where much of writing starts: a place of self-revelation, accusation, and attack. This we may contain by form, by the Jamesian panoplies or the more complex stoicism that Hemingway modelled for us. Books will be dramatised, completed, made secure as texts. On the other hand, we may, as Norman Mailer proposes, commit ourselves primarily to risking consciousness itself. Writing will then have raw edges, a sense of incompleteness, a quality of pained exposure. It will move closer to the first person and the present tense. Fitzgerald’s disaster was not entire; his lesson holds.

The Hemingway-Fitzgerald friendship, if that is the right word, is a modern fable, interestingly reanalysed and set straight, given the many errors that have accumulated around it, in Matthew Bruccoli's book. There are small lessons about friendship in it, and big ones about writing, including its options today. There may even be lessons for computer-dating: can you, ever match, writers as friends?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)