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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

One true sentence

The Manhattan Rare Book Company has a very short book for sale, from 1924. It has just 32 pages, and — you can see it here — it’s one of only 170 printed copies. The book was written by an unknown young writer, and most of its 18 “chapters” are just one paragraph long. The chapters are not directly connected, as in a story — they’re more like glimpses of scenes. Their language is simple, spare. You can buy the book for $39,000.

In the months before in our time was published, Ernest Hemingway sat in a hotel room in the winter, working on those pieces — or, when he couldn’t get the writing started, eating mandarin oranges and squeezing the skins so that they sputtered blue in the edge of the flames from the fireplace that “drew well in the room,” he wrote many year later in A Moveable Feast.

“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris, and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’”

One true sentence. That’s what he was reaching for — to make writing that would be so distilled and true to experience that you might feel the thing had actually happened to you, that you’d been there instead of having read about it. Hemingway is remembered now mostly in typecast ways — as the macho posturer, the self-promoter, the very heavy drinker, the writer of very short sentences. But it wasn’t that his sentences were short (they weren’t, always); it’s that they were stripped of everything but what might create the experience itself.

Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mud flats.

That's how "chapter 3" of in our time begins. The little book was published in Paris by Three Mountains Press, and was put up for sale at just one bookshop, the now-famous Shakespeare & Company on the rue de l'Odéon. Nobody, of course, imagined the impact the book would have (unless Hemingway did, which is possible; he took himself pretty seriously).

Like countless other writers in the U.S. and elsewhere, I’ve been affected and influenced enormously by the best of Hemingway’s writing — by its potent way of doing what only the best writing can do: shift us into awareness. I’m not sure if any impact or benefit of reading is more important than that.

This original, 1924 in our time had only the 18 brief bits. A longer book, titled In Our Time with the capital letters and published a year later by Boni & Liverwright in New York, interspersed most of those “chapters” among 12 more conventional short stories. If you buy the modern edition of In Our Time, that’s the one you’ll get. But it’s the first one that opened the first light in the dawning of a new way of writing about real things.

Hemingway spoke of writing what you know — but his work and life were filled with contradictions, and among those little pieces only one was drawn from an experience he’d actually had. That’s the paragraph — it's my favorite, in the book — about the rain-soaked evacuation of Greek civilians from a Turkish city close to the border during the Greco-Turkish War of 1922. Hemingway covered the conflict for the Toronto Star, and this piece has some of the economy of the news dispatches that had to be transmitted by cable back then. But there is a much more powerful purpose to this.

Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. No end and no beginning. Just carts loaded with everything they owned.

I think there's a lot in the deliberate confusion of that pronoun. Who is “they” — these specific refugees? Or all the faceless displaced of wartime? He does something similar, a little farther on:

Greek cavalry herded along the procession. Women and kids were in the carts crouched with mattresses, mirrors, sewing machines, bundles. There was a woman having a kid with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying. Scared sick looking at it.

Who is scared sick? The girl ... the correspondent ... or all of us? Does the writer mean only one crying girl, in this wretched little scene — or are we united in witnessing a moment of birth within so much devastation and loss?

Hemingway’s writing can be called awkward; but I don’t think that’s awkward. I think did he mean all that — the very specific, the very personal, and the universal, too.

There’s only one more sentence in this piece. It rained all through the evacuation. That’s it. One true sentence.

Hard, really, in the end, to put a price on that.

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