Hemingway, Fitzgerald … and Callaghan

Morley Callaghan (February 22, 1903 – August 25, 1990)

It’s a mystery why some authors survive in print and others fall away. I would like to report that it has to do entirely with the quality of their writing and that the literary cream always rises to the top as the decades go by. I would like to report that, but it isn’t true.

With the exception of those few dozen writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald are two American examples) who take up permanent residency in The Canon, staying in print would seem to have more to do with what house published you, whether that house still exists, and whether someone at the house that owns your back list thinks money can be made by keeping it current. Movie adaptations used to rescue the occasional forgotten author from obscurity, but comic books are just about the only kind of “books” made into films these days … American films, anyway … so that lifeline has been cut.

I was both pleased – and very surprised – to discover that nearly all of Morley Callaghan’s novels and his collected short stories remain in print; and that his famous memoir of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other expatriate American writers (entitled That Summer in Paris) is available in a new, expanded edition.  Callaghan was one of Canada’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers from the 1930s until his declining years – his slightly pugnacious Irish face once adorned a Canadian postage stamp – and, during his lifetime, he attracted a solid readership in the United States for his novels and especially his stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker during the heyest of its hey days. But I have not met a single non-Canadian under about the age of 50 who has even heard of Morley Callaghan, let alone read his books.

Callaghan was of Irish ancestry – his parents immigrated to Toronto – and a devout Catholic. His novels often have vaguely Biblical titles and (if you look closely enough) semi-religious themes, usually involving sin and the possibilities of redemption. His characters divide up about equally between criminal types and priestly ones. I suspect the Catholic flavorings may have something to do with Callaghan’s loss of readers below the border in recent years. He was most popular during the period when movie actors such as Bing Crosby were playing priests and Ingrid Bergman was playing nuns. Nice priests and nuns, too!

My favorite of the Callaghan novels that I’ve read are More Joy in Heaven (1937) about an ex-con who becomes a reluctant society’s darling; and Such Is My Beloved (1934) about two prostitutes and the young naive priest who tries to help them. The latter is considered Callaghan’s finest book. I highly recommend both novels and any collection of Callaghan’s superb short stories. His fellow reporter at the Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway, compared Callaghan’s short stories to James Joyce’s. I would compare them to Ernest Hemingway’s … and compare them favorably. Which brings us to that famous (or infamous) summer in Paris.  A late 1920s summer  that Callaghan spent with his friends (Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald) and during which he met just about every other prominent exiled writer of the time who put in time near the Eiffel Tower … from Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound to the aforementioned Joyce.

I’m going to take a wild guess that Callaghan wrote That Summer in Paris (1967), which appeared three years after Hemingway’s own bestselling memoir of expatriate Paris (A Moveable Feast), to cash in on the earlier book’s success. Callaghan achieved his presumptive goal – his own book sold well and still does, particularly when interest in Hemingway is high – but the book stands on its own. And his good but not great memoir has something that Hemingway’s lacks: veracity. Callaghan’s book gets some of the minor details wrong (e.g., where exactly the boxing match between him and Hemingway took place) but it is true about the events and the people it describes. A Moveable Feast gets most of the minor details right and that’s about it, although it is Hemingway (in a sort of late return to stylistic form) so a lot of the lies are beautifully written.

hemingway460This disparity between the two men’s writing had a parallel in their athletic prowess. Callaghan was a trained and experienced amateur boxer. Hemingway just pretended to be, especially when he was drunk and bragging to other delusional drunks. Papa badgered the younger and lighter Callaghan into a boxing match that was to be officiated by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scott was also to keep time: three minute rounds with one minute of rest in between. I’ll let Callaghan tell you what happened next.

“Our first round was like most of the rounds we had fought that summer, with me shuffling around, and Ernest, familiar with my style, leading and chasing after me. No longer did he rush in with his old brisk confidence. Now he kept an eye on my left hand and he was harder to hit. As I shuffled around I could hear the sound of clicking billiard balls in the adjoining room.”

(Fitzgerald called time and the three men joked around until it was time to fight again.)

“Right at the beginning of that round Ernest got careless; he came in too fast, his left down, and he got smacked on the mouth. His lip began to bleed. It had often happened. It should have meant nothing to him. Hadn’t he joked with Jimmy, the bartender, about always having me for a friend while I could make his lip bleed? Out of the corner of his eye he may have seen the shocked expression on Scott’s face. Or the taste of blood in his mouth may have made him want to fight more savagely. He came lunging in, swinging more recklessly. As I circled him, I kept jabbing at his bleeding mouth. I had to forget all about Scott, for Ernest had become rougher, his punching a little wilder than usual. His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one punch himself.”

(Callaghan noticed that other people at the club were starting to watch, and noticed that Fitzgerald seemed to be in awe.)

“I was wondering why I was tiring, for I hadn’t been hit solidly. Then Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his gloves, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw; spinning he went down, sprawled out on his back.

“If Ernest and I had been there alone I would have laughed. I was sure of my boxing friendship with him; in a sense I was sure of him, too. Ridiculous things had happened in that room. Hadn’t he spat in my face? And I felt no surprise in seeing him flat on his back. Shaking his head a little to clear it, he rested a moment on his back. As he rose slowly, I expected him to curse, then laugh.”

(It was then that Fitzgerald realized that he’d let the round go an extra minute.)

“‘Christ!’ Ernest yelled. He got up. He was silent for a few seconds, Scott, staring at his watch, was mute and wondering. I wished I were miles away. ‘All right, Scott,’ Ernest said savagely, ‘If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake,’ and he stomped off to the shower room to wipe the blood from his mouth.’”

The friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald ended that very day – in that moment – and Hemingway attempted to exact a measure of revenge with a stupid, childish, reportedly false anecdote (in A Moveable Feast, of course) about the relative size of their penises. The friendship between Hemingway and Callaghan ended a short time later, when word of the boxing match’s result reached American shores. Callaghan was judged the liar at the time. History has reversed that decision. And Hemingway is most likely still petitioning the Afterlife for a rematch. A contest that everyone – except possibly the equally delusional ghost of Hemingway’s great admirer, Norman “Can’t Box Worth a Shit Either” Mailer – knows that Papa would lose.

Writers should stick to writing.

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A Ghost Story of Christmas

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Charles Dickens was up against it when he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol (1843). He was 31 and already a celebrated author, but he had big debts, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child, and his publisher had just sued him for the printing costs of his latest serialized novel –  Martin Chuzzlewit – sales on the initial installments of which had been less than half that of The Old Curiosity Shop two years earlier.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, then put up his own money to have it printed. He managed to get his book into stores before Christmas … but just barely … on December 19th. Not that there was much of an Xmas buying season back then – there was hardly an Xmas –  and the latter-day commercialization of the holidays would have appalled young Charles. He was all about getting together with family and friends, feasting, singing, dancing, wishing each other well … things that can’t be ordered from Amazon … like generosity of spirit and charity to the poor.

A Christmas Carol was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially, but it didn’t solve Dickens’s money problems. In the short term, it added to them. There had been cost overruns on the production and there were soon pirated editions all over England. Dickens himself had to sue the pirates, who promptly filed bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay legal fees of $60,000 in today’s money. What his book did achieve, however, was to formalize an English revival of celebrating Christmas – then underway – and to give it, at least initially, a social purpose.

A Christmas Carol is structured as a Christian allegory – using staves instead of chapters, for instance – and the word “carol” originally meant a song of praise to God.  It is a humanistic, distinctly Dickensian form of Christianity that the book espouses, however. One that preaches good works … and more good works … and never quite gets around to praying or going to church. The ghost of Jacob Marley wanders the earth dragging heavy chains because he was miserly and selfish and rude – one helluva greedy son-of-a-bitch – not because he was profane or gay or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol or put other Gods before Him.

It’s no stretch to imagine Jacob Marley, in his ghostly wanderings, bumping into Ayn Rand or Sam Walton or, one day soon, the Koch brothers. Not to mention a few Republican candidates for President. But A Christmas Carol teaches us that as long as there is life, it’s not too late to change. And even the worst sort of Marleys can become Scrooges – the Scrooge of the book’s final stave – who begin using their money for good.

They have nothing to lose but a few tax deductions. And their chains.

Lit’s Nice Guy: Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford (17 December 1873 – 26 June 1939) – Writer and Friend

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In his literary publications English Review and Transatlantic Review, Ford Madox Ford debuted or published the work of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Rhys, Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy, Gertrude Stein, H.G. Wells, and Henry James among many others. He was Joseph Conrad’s mentor and collaborator on his first works.

It is difficult to imagine modernism (or, for that matter, 20th century literature) without Ford Madox Ford’s tireless promotion and generous support. Most of the writers he assisted paid him back by becoming more famous than Ford, a couple of them slept with his wife, and Hemingway (whom he helped the most and who apprently never met a patron he didn’t betray) made fun of Ford in print and trashed him in person.

Ford Madox Ford might be literature’s illustration of “Nice Guys Finish Last,” but here’s the thing. He was a very great writer, who deserved to stand with those he helped. At age 40, he sat down to see what he could do himself and the result was a masterpiece, The Good Soldier (1915). Then, at 41, he enlisted in the British Army as an officer and saw a lot of action in World War I. He put those experiences into a series of five novels with the umbrella title Parade’s End (1924 – 1928) that is also a masterpiece and possibly the finest work of prose literature produced by the Great War.

Happy Birthday, Ford Madox Ford … a great writer and the better man.

P.S. That’s Ford in the photo on the end next to James Joyce, who is looking very Joycean and who is flanked by Ezra Pound, who is looking insane and vaguely fascist. The other man in the picture is John Quinn, the Irish-American art collector and lawyer who (among his many other accomplishments) defended Joyce’s Ulysses against charges of obscenity.

King Ubu’s One-Night Stand

December 10, 1896 … Ubu Roi opens and closes in Paris

ubu roi

The horrid hero of Alfred Jarry’s notorious play Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is an infantile, bourgeois Macbeth, who wears a target on his sizable belly and has a toilet brush for his scepter. Ubu’s first line is “Merdre,” French for shit, but – for reasons known only to its  author – with an extra “r.”

On opening night, that first line provoked a violent melee that stopped the performance – almost before it had begun – for fifteen minutes, and reports of the evening provoked enough outrage among the good French bourgeoisie to ensure that Ubu Roi was never again produced during its author’s short life.

Viewed in the most elementary way, the play – Jarry’s obscene depiction of a hated teacher – is little more than a schoolboy prank, but it takes such delight in its own comic savagery … so steadfastly refuses limitation … that it ends up being profound. Ubu Roi is cited as a precursor to not only Surrealism and Dada, but Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty as well as the Theatre of the Absurd … not to mention Andy Kaufman and Punk.

Countless authors have used themselves as models for a character, but only Jarry (that I’m aware of) used one of his characters as a model for himself. After the play’s riotous opening, he adopted aspects of the Polish King’s dress, manner, and stilted speech, and – aided and abetted by rivers of absinthe – became indistinguishable from Ubu. Jarry died at age 36.

The New Directions edition of Ubu Roi is still the best translation and it features the author’s illustrations. An extended portrait of Jarry is included in the brilliant book by Roger Shattuck called The Banquet Years (1968), which also has bios of fellow French avant-gardeists (composer Erik Satie, painter Henri Rousseau, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire).