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Pen Hemingway keynote address delivered at the John F. Kennedy Library 24 March 2013.

Each year the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and PEN New England award the PEN/Hemingway prize for the year's best first work of fiction. The ceremony takes place at the John E Kennedy Library in Boston, home of the Hemingway Collection, and a distinguished author delivers a keynote address. Here we present the keynote address of Colm Toibin, who spoke at the ceremony honoring 2013 PEN/Hemingway award winner Kevin Powers and his novel, The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown, 2012). T6ibin is an Irish novelist, essayist, short story writer, and poet, perhaps best known as author of the novel The Master, short-listed for the Booker Prize and chosen as one of the ten best books of 2004 by the New York Times.


Each year the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and PEN New England award the PEN Hemingway prize for the year's best first work of fiction. The award is presented at a gala reception at the John E Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. This year we are pleased to present the keynote address of Colin Toibin, who spoke at the ceremony honoring 2013 PEN Hemingway award winner Kevin Powers and his novel The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown, 2012). Toibin is an Irish novelist, essayist, short story writer, and poet, perhaps best known as author of the novel The Master, short-listed for the Booker Prize and chosen as one of the ten best books of 2004 by the New York Times. He is a member of the Royal Society of Literature and winner of the 2011 Irish PEN Award for his contributions to Irish literature. A transcript of his address follows.

It's a very special honor to be here today at the John E Kennedy Library. When my father took me out of school in June 1963, which is almost 50 years ago, he took me out of school so I could witness history. It was when John Fitzgerald Kennedy came back to Wexford as President of the United States. His great-grandfather had left County Wexford and we were from Wexford, and we still had the keys in Wexford Town, and we watched him, and it was an amazing moment. It was a hugely inspiring moment for all of us. It mattered enormously, and I think it changed our country in many ways. It let us know that anything was possible. It wasn't merely inspiring in very large and grand ways--although it was, the ways it inspired us were large and were grand--but also in small ways.

Before he died, a few months before he died, I spoke to Arthur Schlesinger in New York. He told me that in the crafting of the speech which President Kennedy gave to the Joint Houses of Oireachtas, the Joint Houses of Parliament in Ireland, they very carefully inserted something that was a sort of dynamite, a sort of wake-up call for Ireland. That among the banished children of Ireland was James Joyce. His name was almost unmentionable. His books were unread. He was not publicly recognized in any way. His manuscripts were not in any holdings in Ireland. There was no statue of him, no street called after him, and his name was anathema in Ireland. And in that speech, John Kennedy used his name as a great son of Ireland, a son Ireland should be proud of, and he said it in our parliament building. I think that was a very important moment in the lifting of censorship and in the opening up of things in Ireland.

Just further to add that in many other ways the Kennedy family has been so important for our country in the work that Senator Edward Kennedy did, often behind the scenes, to create peace in Northern Ireland. And it's wonderful that the son of lean Kennedy Smith is here. She was your Ambassador to our country who, as Ambassador during those crucial years when peace was being forged and when things were very difficult and very delicate in Ireland, held a key position and worked tirelessly for a simple thing in Northern Ireland, and indeed on the island, called peace. Both she and Senator Kennedy, and perhaps it will only be known in the future when the archives are fully opened, the amount of work they did for that and their dedication for that. It's something that I think will be acknowledged even more in the future than it is now. But even now, it's something that we are grateful for.

As was mentioned, in 1972 when I was seventeen, my mother really wanted to get me out of the house. I was sort of sitting around a lot and I seemed to be dreaming dreams that didn't seem healthy. [laughter] So they found me a job quite a distance away just so they wouldn't have to see me for the rest of the summer, as a barman--a seventeen-year-old barman, I was a wimp--in the Grand Hotel in Tramore, which is a seaside resort in County Waterford in the southeast of Ireland.

I suppose some part of the hotel may have really been grand or compared, say, with other hotels in the region--which were certainly not grand--or it might have been grand in the past. But it did not seem grand to me in 1972. The bar was small and dingy, and it was not very busy in the day. But it was at night that the grandeur emerged, if grandeur is the word. And grandeur indeed may be the word because at around eleven or so, in the ballroom of the hotel, the vast ballroom added to the back of the hotel, the grandeur emerged in the guise of a grand appetite for alcohol. [laughter] No one could have enough of the stuff, and they wanted even more in the two hours when all the other bars in Tramore were shut and the ballroom of the Grand Hotel had a special license to go on serving on a grand scale. [laughter]

Drinkers in those two hours were five deep at the bar, calling for more. They were frantic to have their orders heard over the loud music. Orders came like "two vodkas and tonic; one vodka and white lemonade; two pints of Guinness and a double Jameson." [laughter] Pulling a pint of Guinness--I was a dreamer, I was interested in literature--pulling a pint of Guinness then, as now, took skill and it took time. You pulled half of it and then left it to settle, and by the time you'd found it again you'd forgotten the rest of the order. [laughter] And you could not locate the customer among the crowd. [laughter]

The strange part was when you went to clean up at the end of the night, much of the last orders, orders demanded with such urgency and carried away in triumph by a man, had not even been touched. It was hard work, and as you can imagine, I did not last long. [laughter] Mostly extras like me were needed at night or at the weekend. But slowly I wasn't needed at all.

But while I was there, it meant you were free during the day. And one day when the weather was fine, I went on my own to the Long Beach in Tramore. The word 'tramore' comes from the Gaelic tra, meaning beach, and mhor, meaning big. And I brought a book. And I have no idea why I had this book rather than any other book. I'd taken it from home, it was a Penguin paperback and it was called The Essential Hemingway. And yes, I still have it.

It had that photograph of that bearded man who looked wise and skeptical and handsome in a weathered sort of way on the jacket. It included short stories and extracts from some novels. But it also included the entire text of The Sun Also Rises. And this was what I read on that beach, on that afternoon, and the afternoon that followed.

"Literature," Ezra Pound said, "is news that stays news." But I wonder if literature is also something that hits the nervous system before it can be filtered by the intelligence. It moves like energy. I had nothing in common with any of the people in that novel. I had never been in Paris or in Spain. I'd never seen a bullfight. I'd never been fishing. I'd never been outside Ireland. I did not know any Americans, nor any English people. I'd never been drunk. I knew nothing, or nothing I wish to repeat here with a mixed audience, about sex. [laughter]

And, yet, the book overwhelmed me. It opened a world for me. Before anything else, the world it opened was the world of the book itself, its characters, what they did and said. That world seemed more real and true, and indeed more fascinating than the one I inhabited. I felt for Jake, and indeed I became him. I, too, wanted Lady Brett Ashley, but I could not have her. I, too, wanted the bulls to be good. I, too, wanted my friends to behave. I, too, knew the manager of the hotel, although I should say the manager of the hotel was looking at me by this time in a very glaring sort of way in Tramore. I, too, was stoical. And I, too, liked being alone. And I, too, knew that things would never be the same again.

As soon as I could, and it took me three years to organize this, I went to Spain and I stayed there for three years. It was hard to explain at home why I wanted to go there in the first place. Even later, I found it easier to say that I went to Spain in search of drugs and sex and rock and roll. Since my friends knew that I didn't like drugs, and I had no interest whatsoever in rock and roll [laughter], it would have been harder to explain that I went to Spain because of a book I'd read on a beach in Tramore when I was seventeen, a book I have never tired of.

Later, I came to analyze the style, the great Hemingway invention. I saw how the emotion lived between the lines, within the cadences and the rhythms of the sentences. Hemingway as a writer felt the emotion and then saw no reason to parade what he felt, or wear it on his sleeve, or cheaply name it, thus to reduce the grandeur of its ambiguous and mysterious power.

Instead, he found a way of enticing it from the depths, as a fisherman might, or luring it towards him, as a matador might. And then allowing it to evade easy capture, giving it strength and subtlety, allowing it to dart in the light, flex its muscles, create excitement.

Sometimes he wrote like a painter, each brushstroke filled with a mixture of things. He was ready to suggest, ready to leave some of the emotion out so that oddly it would be all the more present because of his tact and the delicacy of his touch. Sometimes he wrote like Cezanne painted, and this idea fascinated me and gave me as much as I got from reading The Sun Also Rises for the first time.

There's a deleted passage in Hemingway's story "Big Two-Hearted River," where Hemingway wrote of an alter-ego: "He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. Cezanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. He wanted to write about the country so that it would be there like Cezanne had done it in painting. He felt almost holy about it."

In his memoir of his early years in Paris, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway also wrote about the power the French painter had over him as he learned his trade. "I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple, true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions I was trying to put into them. I was not articulate enough to explain it to anybody. Besides, it was a secret"

The secret lay in the brushstrokes of Cezanne, each one open and obvious in its textures, with repetitions and subtle variations, each one containing something close to emotion, but emotion deeply controlled. Each stroke sought to pull the eye in and hold it, and yet also build to a larger design in which there was a richness and density, but also much that was mysterious and hidden.

This is what Hemingway sought to do with his sentences. By looking at the work of C6zanne, first in Chicago as he did, then in the museums of Paris, and then in the home of his friend Gertrude Stein, he sought to follow Steins example and make the sentences and paragraphs he wrote ostensibly simple, filled with repetitions and odd variations, charged with a sort of hidden electricity, filled with an emotion which the reader could not easily find in the words themselves, emotion which seemed to live in the space between the words, or in the sudden endings of certain paragraphs.

Thus, in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway could write, "But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight."

In that sentence, he managed to declare very little, but to suggest a great deal. In the forty-one words, twenty-seven words have only one syllable. This makes the reader feel comfortable, as though something easy were being said. But it is clear from the way the punctuation works and the variation within the phrasing that nothing is in fact simple, and much is ambiguous and almost painful. Instead of saying so, Hemingway manages to give the impression of this, to comfort the reader with the diction, but then jolt the reader with the shifting levels of tone and meaning within the clauses.

The theory of this is to let the writer do the feeling and to register this in the prose, bury it in the white spaces; thus, the reader will come to feel it all the more intensely, because it will not come as mere information, but as something much more powerful, will come as rhythm. And it will come so subtly that the reader's imagination will be deeply engaged in capturing it in all its uncertainty and strangeness. Thus, it will be closer to music in its impact, but the words will still hold their meaning. It will play the stability of meaning against the mystery of silent sound. This idea that what you leave out in prose writing is more important than what you put in made its way into the very core of Hemingway's method as a novelist and short story writer. At its best, it could work miracles.

A few years ago, when I was working--actually, I was once more dawdling or making myself useless. This time I was in the library of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and it was that same frisson as I had earlier today at looking at Hemingway's handwriting, looking at those wonderful sentences from that novel that I love so much, some of the sentences that were deleted that seemed to be perfect in their way; I would not have taken them out. And it may be interesting to see this new edition.

But sentences that remained in and that are so important, the frisson of just looking at that, looking at that handwriting, realizing there was a time when these weren't written, when this sentence was not there, and that it came into being in a wonderful, miraculous way.

I found a film script of The Sun Also Rises. It was written by a professional scriptwriter, which Hemingway hated. He seemed to hate the script, and then he grew to hate the scriptwriter. [laughter] And he made this pretty clear as he read the script. It was obviously a good day because he wrote abuse in the margins and it was so exciting seeing his handwriting and feeling his rage. [laughter]

He became especially enraged when the screenwriter tried to suggest that Jake, the protagonist of the novel, was impotent for psychological reasons. Hemingway emphatically declared--and it's written in the margins--that Jake had his testicles shot off in the war, something Hemingway had seen happen a number of times, he wrote. But he did not make this clear or fully clear in the text of the novel itself, however. Although it is implied, we're also allowed to believe that there is something in lake's psychosexual makeup which renders him impotent. It may have happened in the war, it is suggested, but it could have been psychological.

In any case, as Lady Brett Ashley felt, and as I felt, and as Jake himself felt, it was hard luck on a guy, tough luck. There was nothing more to be said.

The novel takes place in the present. We're given tantalizing hints and clues about events in the past about who Jake is and where he comes from. But most of the past is left out, thus offering a depth to the actions of the present. Jake is not described physically, and this also means that the act of reading the book is an intense act of imagining, filling in the gaps which is mirrored in the prose itself.

The writing is ostensibly simple with short, declarative sentences. In this work, Hemingway tried to achieve what Cezanne had achieved in his paintings, something dense which pulls the eye and the imagination in toward itself, using a technique which seems open and simple, but the result finally can contain not only an impression, but an infinite amount of emotion.

Hemingway stands, for me, with the poet Wallace Stevens as the greatest American writer of his age. Although Stevens took a dim view of the novel form itself, he remained alert to what Hemingway was doing in prose and this might have been greatly helped by a fistfight between the two men in Key West in 1936, in which Stevens, ever the dandy--poor Stevens, he broke his fist while attempting to break Hemingway's jaw. [laughter] In a letter written in 1942, Wallace Stevens saw Hemingway as a poet, and the most significant of living poets, he said. So far as what he called extraordinary actuality is concerned, in 1945 he wrote, "Someone told me the other day that Ernest Hemingway was writing poetry. I think it is likely that he will write a kind of poetry in which the consciousness of reality would produce an extraordinary effect. I have no doubt that supreme poetry can be produced only on the highest possible level of the cognitive."

I did not know those nights in 1972, as I pulled bad pints of Guinness in Tramore and forgot everyone's order, that what I was doing, what I was really doing was looking forward to going back to the beach and the book, that I was being pulled towards the highest possible level of the cognitive. I'm sure I would not have even known the highest possible level of the cognitive, even had it come up from the sea and bit me [laughter], or been served for tea. And I'm still not sure, which must in its own way be a good thing. All I know is that we must strive towards it in all the sentences we write, and all our paragraph endings and all our lines of dialogue. It is our job to make the cognitive more precise than it has ever been, more rich in color and more mysterious.

And on an occasion like this, with Hemingway watching over us, and the ghost of Wallace Stevens, and indeed John Kennedy, we can also follow the man and his companion in that poem by Wallace Stevens with the wonderful title, "How to Live. What to Do," which ends with these words--that the men were "joyous and jubilant and sure."

Thank you. [Applause.]
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Author:Toibin, Colm
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Speech
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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