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His style depends on engorged nouns, not absent adjectives

Friday, 1 June, 2012

“Hemingway is the bullshit-detector of modern literature: every verb earned by toil, every noun inhabited, every adjective deleted, they say, the better to tell you how it was.” So writes Andrew O’Hagan in his review of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Vol. I, 1907-22 for the London Review of Books. “Good reporters go hunting for nouns,” O’Hagan begins, and continues, “They want the odd verb too, but the main thing is the nouns, especially the proper ones, the who, what and where. The thing British schoolchildren call a ‘naming word’ was, for Hemingway, a chance to reveal what he knew, an opportunity to be experienced, to discriminate, and his style depends on engorged nouns, not absent adjectives.”

For O’Hagan, lots of those Hemingway nouns were distended by alcohol:

“In A Farewell to Arms, there are forty occasions when someone has a drink. It begins in Gorizia, where our hero, Frederic Henry (he’d better have his name; we’re going to be with him for a while), sits watching the snow falling while he drinks a bottle of Asti with a friend. Later, over too much wine and Strega, he explains to a priest his regret at not having gone to Abruzzi. The first time he is at the villa housing the British Hospital he is upstairs drinking two glasses of grappa with Rinaldi. He later tells a group of people about a drinking competition — on this occasion, red wine — he got into with a salesman from Marseille. At the dressing station, he sits with one of the medical captains. ‘He offered me a glass of cognac.’ A page after that, stuck in the dugout with a basin of macaroni, he is drinking from a canteen of wine. He has a swallow just as the mortar that will injure him lands in the dugout. ‘Bring him a glass of brandy,’ says the doctor who first treats him. (Rinaldi brings him a bottle of cognac that afternoon.) And when the priest comes to visit him he brings not any old bottle. ‘This is a bottle of vermouth,’ he says. ‘You like vermouth?'”

By emphasizing Hemingway’s nouns as opposed to his verbs, Andrew O’Hagan is going out on a bit of a limb but his review is all the better for this contrarian take. And maybe it was all about drinking, anyway. The creative juice of the young Hemingway’s imagination was, at least, 40 percent distilled spirits and the writer knew that the bill for all this booze would come later in life, as it duly did.

This being Friday, we’ll start the weekend with one of Hemingway’s favourite drinks, a martini called the Montgomery, which he created at Harry’s Bar in Venice. It is said he named the drink after Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery because the British commander would not attack unless he had a 15:1 advantage in forces, and this was the the gin-to-vermouth ratio Hemingway aimed for.
2 oz. Gordon’s gin
1 teaspoon of Noilly Prat vermouth
An olive

Method: Pour ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Shake, then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with the olive. When drinking, instead of saying “Cheers!”, say “Nouns!”

Hemingway pours


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