L.C. Tyler is a writer of crime and other fiction. Len grew up in Essex and studied at Jesus College, Oxford, and City University in London. During a career with the Civil Service and the British Council he lived in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sudan, Thailand and Denmark, none of which places provides the slightest inspiration for his work. He is now based in Islington and West Sussex. He is married and has two children and one dog. His first novel, The Herring Seller's Apprentice, was nominated in the US for an Edgar and was short-listed in the UK for the Last Laugh Award. Subsequent novels in the 'Elsie and Ethelred' series are Ten Little Herrings and The Herring in the Library (due in August 2010). Outside the series, Len has written the humorous (non-crime) novel A Very Persistent Illusion. Here he explains why he thinks Ernest Hemingway's The Torrents of Spring is a neglected masterpiece.
L.C. Tyler on The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway
For many years I wrote on the title page of each of my books the date of their purchase and where I was living at the time. My copy of The Torrents of Spring, exceptionally, bears no such inscription, but a little detective work shows that I must have bought it when I was 26, while I was in London working at something I didn't much want to do, in between postings to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. I had at that time some ambitions to become an author. It seems to me now that The Torrents of Spring is a dangerous book to fall into the hands of any young writer, carrying, as it does, the promise that great novels can be written quickly and easily.
Hemingway wrote the book at a very similar age to my own when I first read it. A year or so before, he had a collection of short stories entitled In Our Time published by Boni and Liveright. His contract with the publisher stipulated, as is usual, that they had first refusal on his next book, but Hemingway wished to switch to Scribner's. He therefore sat down, so the story goes, to write something that was unpublishable and that Boni and Liveright would be obliged to turn down. He wrote The Torrents of Spring, in just 10 days, as a parody of the work of Sherwood Anderson, another author published by Boni and Liveright. Anderson had been one of Hemingway's mentors, but had fallen from grace in Hemingway's eyes after writing the pretentious Dark Laughter. The mocking parody served the double purpose of breaking with his publisher and distancing himself from Anderson. It worked. Boni and Liveright elected to side with the then more famous Anderson and let Hemingway go - with hindsight, not the best decision a publisher has ever made. And Scribner's decided that the book was publishable after all.
Does anybody now read Anderson? Most people who pick up a copy of The Torrents of Spring will certainly never have looked at Dark Laughter. Like Rachael Whiteread's famous House, Hemingway's first novel has to be taken as it stands, unsupported by the original structure within which it was built. When one considers its unpromising origins, it still reads surprisingly well.
The Torrents of Spring tells the story of Scripps O'Neil, 'a tall lean man with a tall lean face'. Drunk and deserted by his first wife, he walks along the railway track to Petoskey, where he finds employment in a pump factory - 'an endless succession of days of dull piston-collaring'. He works with Yogi Johnson, who, following an unfortunate incident with a prostitute in Paris during the war, has lost all interest in women. In Petoskey Scripps also meets and marries Diana, an elderly waitress at Brown's Beanery. Almost immediately, however, Scripps finds himself attracted to Mandy, another waitress at the Beanery, seduced by her fund of literary anecdotes about Ford Madox Ford. Yogi in turn finds happiness with a squaw who has entered the Beanery clad only in a pair of moccasins.
This then is pretty much the plot of the novel - or rather novella, since it is scarcely 100 pages in length. It is unlike anything that Hemingway wrote subsequently and, frankly, should not work at all. Re-reading it many years after its purchase, however, I still found myself laughing out loud.
The humour is for the most part deadpan and slightly surreal. In places the book works as parody, without it mattering exactly what is being parodied. For example, when Yogi is talking to the 'woods Indians' the following passage occurs:
The Indians sat down on the logs. One of the Indians pointed up at the sky. 'Up there, gitchy Manitou the Mighty,' he said.
The other Indian winked at Yogi. 'White chief no believe every goddam thing he hear,' he grunted.
Or, when Scripps is looking for work on arrival in Petoskey:
'Tell me,' Scripps asked the waitress. 'Is there any work in this town for me and my bird?'
'Honest work?' asked the waitress. 'I only know of honest work.'
'Yes, honest work,' Scripps said.
Every since reading this, whenever anybody has asked me if I know whether there is any work available, I have wanted to reply: 'Honest work? I only know of honest work.'
Sometimes, there is an Alice in Wonderland quality to the story. On arriving at the pump factory Scripps's first problem is simply to get in.
He walked up to the door. There was a sign on it:
KEEP OUT. THIS MEANS YOU!
Can that mean me? Scripps wondered. He knocked on the door and went in.
It is not however a pump factory like any you would come across in the real world.
Other men - Indians for the most part - wearing only breach clouts, broke up the misfit pumps with huge hammers and adzes and rapidly recast them into axe heads, wagon springs, trombone slides, bullet moulds, all the by-products of a big pump factory. There was nothing wasted, Yogi pointed out.
Later they visit the part of the factory where pumps are hand-carved using 'short-bladed, razorlike-looking' knives for international pump competitions.
Here and there the book borders on metafiction, as Hemingway describes the process of writing the book we are reading.
It is very hard to begin this way, beginning things backward, and the author hopes the reader will realise this and not grudge this little word of explanation. I know I would be very glad to read anything the reader wrote and I hope the reader will make the same sort of allowances. If any of the readers would care to send me anything they ever wrote, for criticism or advice, I am always at the Café du Dôme any afternoon, talking about Art to Harold Stearns and Sinclair Lewis, and the reader can bring his stuff along with him.
Once or twice the book does look forward to what Hemingway would write later. The following passage could easily have come from For Whom the Bell Tolls or from A Farewell to Arms or any one of a number of other novels or short stories.
In a good soldier in the war it went like this: First, you were brave because you didn't think anything could hit you, because you were something special, and you knew you could never die. Then you found out different. You were really scared then; but if you were a good soldier you functioned the same as you did before.
This is Hemingway writing the unadorned truth from personal experience. But more usually the narrative of The Torrents of Spring verges, as I have said, on the surreal - and the plot has a strange dream-like quality to it. Scripps's bird, for example, may be a hawk or a robin or a parrot; nobody apparently has the necessary knowledge to identify it. The Beanery however seems quite used to customers coming in and ordering one portion of beans for themselves and one for their bird. As you do.
When asked which writers have influenced my own style I usually quote P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson and other writers generally acknowledged to be 'humorous' to some extent – or classic crime writers such as Agatha Christie. Yet, re-reading things that I have written, I frequently see a tenuous link back to something in The Torrents of Spring. My own writing is often, to some extent at least, parody - though, unlike Hemingway, I am not trying to persuade my publisher to drop me. I probably would not write exactly as I do had I not read this book. Many writers have been inspired by Hemingway - Hemingway the soldier, Hemingway the bullfighter, Hemingway the big game hunter. Am I the only one to have been inspired primarily by Hemingway the casual parodist?
The Torrents of Spring is not one of Hemingway's most famous works. I suspect some people coming to it after his other novels will find it a little odd. The New York Times wrote shortly after the book's publication that the novel revealed 'Mr. Hemingway's gift for high-spirited nonsense'. The review concluded that 'in the last analysis, the book sets out to amuse. This it does.' I think that this underestimates it, however. It is not merely humour but humour that has stood the test of time and outlived the object of its mockery. It is, in its way, as well-constructed as anything Hemingway wrote later. And at the same time, it is great fun. To quote (as the book modestly does itself) the words of John Dos Passos: 'Hemingway, you have wrought a masterpiece'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]