What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

July 3, 2017 Issue

This week’s New Yorker has yet to arrive in the mail. Rather than wait any longer, I’ve decided to pick one piece from the version and comment on it. My choice is Adam Gopnik’s “Hemingway, the Sensualist,” a review of Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography, Hemingway. Gopnik’s title is excellent, getting at exactly the quality of Hemingway’s writing that most appeals to me – its sensual responsiveness. Gopnik says,

The stoical stance has been much celebrated—“grace under pressure” and the rest—but the sensual touch is the more frequent material of the prose. Whether at Michigan trout streams or Pamplona fiestas or those Paris boîtes, there is a strong element of “travel writing.” He wrote pleasure far better than violence.

This is well said. My favorite Hemingway work is his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964), in which his “sensual touch” is evident in almost every line. Here, for example, is his description of eating oysters at a café on the Place St.-Michel:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

My only quibble with Gopnik’s piece is that it slights Hemingway’s journalism. Gopnik says, “But, as much as generations of newspapermen have claimed him as a student of newspaper style, nothing memorable emerges from the collected journalism.” I disagree. There’s a reporting piece called “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (The Toronto Star Weekly, December 22, 1923; included in the 1967 collection By-line: Ernest Hemingway, edited by William White) that I rate right up there with Hemingway’s best short stories. It’s an account of a Christmas Day that Hemingway, his wife, Hadley, and their best friend, Chink, spent skiing in the Swiss Alps. From beginning to end, it’s a rush of action and excitement, climaxing in the run down the mountain (“But there is no place to go except down. Down in a rushing, swooping, flying, plunging rush of fast ash blades through the powder snow”). The pleasure principle is commandingly strong in this piece, as it is in all of Hemingway’s best writing.

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