Hemingway’s Icebergs

Ernest Hemingway
image credit: By Lloyd Arnold [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of Ernest Hemingway.

As it’s only had a few views I’ve re-cycled this post from 2018. If you’ve read the post already, many thanks. You belong to a small and exclusive group of supporters!

Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London. He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018.

Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

A couple of years ago, my novella Julia’s Room was on a Kindle free offer and it occupied 19th position in the Amazon.com Free Short Story rankings alongside Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories in the Paid rankings. So the covers of the two books were, for a time, displayed side by side.

I was delighted because of the enormous admiration I have for Hemingway’s talent and his technique. I am in awe of his masterful economy and the way that he presents complexity so simply; the addictiveness of his rhythms; his spare, understated and totally believable dialogue; the realism which pervades his novels; the singularity of his characters and the credibility of their relationships; but, above all, I admire his theory of omissions.

Stated simply, Hemingway believed that as long as an author was completely aware of the back-story to his work and was in control of it he could omit important information and yet the reader would still, through inference, be aware of what was going on emotionally and intellectually below the level of the text as fully as if the writer hadn’t left anything out at all.

At first sight this seems just like plain old sub-text. Actors have to know what the sub-text of a scene is in order to act truly. Sub-text is what is really going on in the scene as distinct from the utterances actually made.

For example, if, as an actor, you are called upon to say “Good morning” to someone in a scene there are dozens of ways you might do it, determined by your emotional and intellectual relationship to the other character; the situation you are in; what has occurred between you previously; your character’s mood; what you are anticipating will happen and so on. Each of these influences will determine the tone and colour you will give to “Good morning” and along with other indicators, such as your physical attitude and body language, will communicate to the audience what your character is really thinking when your character is simply saying “Good morning”.

Another example might be a conversation about the weather between a man and a woman who fancy each other. It will be a totally different conversation if, despite their physical attraction, they mutually loathe one another; or if they have great regard for each other but one finds the other more attractive and so on. The words uttered will remain the same and will be about the weather but the tones, colours and emphasis will subtly differ, depending on the subtext.

What on earth, you may be saying, has all this got to do with Hemingway’s theory of omissions? Well, in novels we don’t have the luxury of the actor’s voice and body to guide us. Sub-text is inextricably connected to information, i.e., who knows what about whom. What does the reader know that the characters don’t? What do some characters know that other characters do not? Does one character know something that no-one else does? Has one character gained a false impression of another?

For sub-text to work effectively in a novel the reader has to be provided with information in advance. A great deal of exposition is therefore required at the beginning of the work in order to inform us of what is going on so that we can appreciate the delights and ironies of the subtext at the appropriate point when the characters interact and come into collision.

For example, early in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” we are told comprehensively about the circumstances surrounding Anne Elliot’s rejection of Captain Wentworth. When Anne meets Captain Wentworth again, some years after her rejection of him, we can therefore appreciate the torment and unhappiness that is going on below the level of their banal remarks. We can only do so because Austen has already prepared the ground: we have been told directly about the circumstances of Wentworth’s rejection, of Lady Russell’s involvement in it and Anne’s deep regret that she had allowed herself to be persuaded against Wentworth by Lady Russell.

Hemingway’s theory of omissions eschews this expositional approach. Of course, he has to give us some information, otherwise there would be no novel, but he places that information before us so subtly that we are not aware of it as crude “exposition”. He omits much important information and yet because of his oblique references, nuances and inferences manages to nudge us towards a subliminal understanding of what is going on beneath the superficial surface of the text. The characters allude obliquely to the important, omitted information, the way people do in real life and we, as readers, infer.

That is why Hemingway, the novelist is so much like Chekhov, the dramatist, who also employs the oblique, impressionistic approach when it comes to exposition.

For example, in Hemingway’s “Fiesta” we are aware that Jake Barnes has problems of a sexual nature and that he and Brett Ashley would probably have been together if it hadn’t been for those problems. Nothing about this is stated specifically, only hinted at, and we have to go a long way into the novel before the word “impotent” is actually mentioned by Jake’s friend, Bill.

Even then it is introduced into the conversation in the form of an unwittingly insensitive joke which Jake is forced to reflect on briefly for the reader’s benefit by way of internal narrative and then respond to light-heartedly. The banter continues and from it we get some nebulous idea that there’d been an accident connected with a plane. And that’s all. In this way nothing feels artificial or “forced”.

Hemingway keeps our attention and makes us speculate about a mysterious and possibly tragic aspect of someone’s character without sentimentality or melodrama: exactly the response we should have had in life if we had ever come across Jake Barnes. The subject of Jake’s impotence is barely alluded to throughout the rest of the novel, and then only obliquely; and yet Hemingway’s technique constantly keeps it before us.

Jake’s impotence pervades so many scenes, none more poignantly than when he is with Brett, and yet, because of Hemingway’s technique there is no suggestion that Jake is full of self pity. He appears to us as maimed, slightly mysterious and yet not at all melodramatic: just like anyone in his situation that we might encounter in actuality and this is because the author is not telling us directly what we ought to feel about him.

That is why Hemingway’s work repays re-reading; and every time we re-read it we gain more and more insight into the situation via the clues Hemingway has provided for us. It is also why re-reading his work is such a pleasure.

I must have read “Fiesta” nine or ten times now and I always find something new or unexpected in it because, in essence, the book is reading me as much as I am reading the book.

Similarly, in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” the reader gleans from the generally oppressive atmosphere and the conversation between Macomber, his wife and Wilson, the white hunter, that Macomber has recently been involved in something shameful whilst hunting a lion, although, for some time, we are told nothing specific.

Hemingway makes the reader fill in the gaps left by the author’s omissions. He actively engages the reader and makes us feel that the book is, in some way, actually stimulating our own imaginations and we are partaking in the writing of it; that we, with our emotions and intuitions, are completing the empty spaces that Hemingway has deliberately created.

The implementation of the omissions theory causes us to connect with the text in a way that is denied to us if we are told everything at once. Hemingway is the father of the modern approach to exposition, which, of course, is why his work seems so “modern”.

Hemingway provides an excellent account of his theory of omissions at the end of chapter 16 of “Death in the Afternoon”. In it he warns that if a writer leaves things out only because he doesn’t know them then there will only be empty spaces in his book.

That’s why, when writing Magnificent Britain I had to know everything that happened to Sir Maurice and Leonard Stidges during the First World War before I could apply Hemingway’s omissions theory to the scene where Leonard, as an old man, is interviewed by Nigel Lush. Similarly, I had to know everything about the characters and what had happened to them before I could implement Hemingway’s theory in Julia’s Room.

The theory of omissions is also known as the “iceberg” theory, presumably because an iceberg attains its strength and beauty from the seven eighths of it that cannot be seen but, nevertheless, is still there. I can’t think of a more appropriate image for Hemingway’s major novels.

A word of warning for writers: there’s an old joke that half the writers in the world are trying hard to write like Hemingway and the other half are trying hard not to. Hemingway’s rhythms and stylistic devices are so captivating they enter your bloodstream unnoticed and, once possessed by them, you find yourself writing dreadful Hemingway pastiche every time you write. That’s why, when I’m writing a novel I never read anything by Hemingway.

Details of all Michael’s books are on his Amazon Author Page.



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