We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

Robert Frost, ‘The Secret Sits’

In 1921 Joachim Gasquet recorded that his friend Paul Cézanne wanted to ‘treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’. This concept was hardly new. In his book on the seventeenth-century Italian architect Francesco Borromini, Anthony Blunt quoted Galileo’s The Assayer (1623), which foreshadowed Cézanne by three centuries: ‘the great book of nature . . . is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it’. But when we look at nature – at the shifting sky, the turbulent sea or a blooming flower – we do not in fact see these rigid geometrical forms. Yet Cézanne’s remark was influential and frequently quoted.

The Cézanne exhibitions at the Paris Salon d’Automne in 1906 (the year of his death) and again in 1908, and his pictures in the Post-Impressionist exhibitions at the London Grafton Gallery in 1910 and 1912, made it fashionable and sophisticated to admire him as the rising star of art. He had a powerful impact on Cubism, which began in 1910 and shifted modern art toward abstraction. Picasso, who worshipped Cézanne, called him ‘the father of us all, a sort of God of painting . . . my one and only master’. Alex Danchev, the biographer of Cézanne, af rmed that for Picasso, he was the great progenitor and ‘protector: mother, father, grandfather and spiritual advisor’. Rainer Maria Rilke expressed his adoration in his Letters on Cézanne, written in 1907, and Roger Fry admired him in Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927). In the ‘Introduction to [His Own] Paintings’ (1929), the contentious D. H. Lawrence also praised him for both personal and aesthetic reasons as ‘the most interesting figure in modern art, and the only really interesting figure . . . and that, not so much because of his achievement as because of his struggle’. Repeating the geometrical comparison and emphasizing the cubes, he also mocked the trendy critics: ‘With Cézanne, landscape ‘crystallized,’ to use one of the favorite terms of the critics, and it has gone on crystallizing into cubes, cones, pyramids, and so forth ever since’.

Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo began collecting Cézanne as early as 1904. She owned four works by him, including the famous portrait of his wife, Hortense. In Lectures in America (1935) Stein sounded off about Cézanne with typically pretentious obfuscation that could mean almost anything: ‘Finished or unfinished it always was what it looked like, the very essence of an oil painting because everything was always there, really there’. By contrast, she condemned her hometown, Oakland, California, because ‘there was no there there’.

In ‘The Transatlantic Interview’ (1946), her most famous pronouncement on this subject, Stein repeated what she had often told Hemingway during their extensive conversations in the 1920s: ‘everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cézanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition. . . . Cézanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and that impressed me enormously’. Despite her assertion, which does not logically derive from Cézanne, elements in a work of art have varying degrees of importance and each part is not equally important.

Hemingway was also fond of making statements that were as cunningly misleading, deliberately provocative and manifestly untrue as those of Cézanne and Stein. In ‘A Natural History of the Dead’ (1932) he mocked academic pedantry by leaving out footnote 1 and putting footnote 2 at the bottom of the page. He claimed in Green Hills of Africa (1935) that ‘all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called

Huckleberry Finn,’ a statement he knew was false. The whole genteel tradition from James and Wharton to Fitzgerald and Cheever, and the whole realist tradition of Dreiser and Norris, did not derive from Twain’s comic, picaresque book. In his great leg-pull, the highly acclaimed The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway expressed his contempt for Life magazine, the reading public, the critics and religion by writing an ironic and mock-profound fable that gave readers exactly what they wanted and could understand. The novella offered moral uplift, transparent symbolism and a pretence of culture. It was universally admired, and earned him a Pulitzer prize and a considerable fortune.

In A Moveable Feast, where he discussed his secret connection to Cézanne, Hemingway also made several other dubious statements. He declared that Wyndham Lewis had the eyes of an ‘unsuccessful rapist’. In fact, Lewis was a handsome ladies’ man and charismatic seducer. When attacking Lewis, Hemingway had no way of knowing about his sexual life by looking into his eyes. Similarly, Scott Fitzgerald would never have humiliated himself, and risked devastating confirmation of Zelda’s charge that his sexual organ was inadequate, by exposing himself to Hemingway. It should therefore be clear that A Moveable Feast is a memoir of his youth in the 1920s, enhanced thirty years later by the imagination of a novelist. Not everything in it is true.

Instead of believing everything Hemingway claimed about Cézanne, it would be far more useful – for the first time – to maintain a sceptical attitude and carefully examine what he actually said. In August 1924 the young Hemingway, starting his literary career, was still trying to please his influential mentor Gertrude Stein, though his chaste and concise style was very different from her own. Following her advice but not her example, he deferentially wrote, ‘I’m trying to do the country like Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit’. Eight years later, he wrote his painter-friend Henry Strater, ‘A man can be a hell of a serious artist and not have to make his living by it – see Flaubert, Cézanne and Co’. It is extraordinary that from all the examples of writers and artists he could have chosen, he cited precisely the two influences that Stein had previously mentioned.

In ‘On Writing’ (1925), originally the ending of his story ‘Big Two-Hearted River,’ Hemingway was still seeking the approval of Stein – who bore a remarkable physical and psychological resemblance to his mother – and repeated the Cézanne trope: ‘He could see the Cézanne. The portrait [of Hortense] at Gertrude Stein’s. She’d know it if he ever got things right. The two good ones at the Luxembourg [museum], the ones he’d seen every day at the loan exhibit at Bernheim’s gallery’. Contrasting ‘tricks’ and ‘the real thing’ and using both methods, Hemingway insisted that the inspiration had to come from ‘inside,’ not outside, himself. He emphasized his point by moving into the ‘picture’ as well as into the ‘stream’: ‘He wanted to write like Cézanne painted. Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. . . . You had to do it from inside yourself. . . . Nick, seeing how Cézanne would do the stretch of river and the swamp, stood up and stepped down into the stream. . . . He waded across the stream, moving in the picture’.

Hemingway gave the fullest account of this idea in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast (1964). Speaking of the Musée du Luxembourg he claimed, with considerable exaggeration, ‘I went there nearly every day for the Cézannes’. In a crucial passage he added, ‘I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret’. He had always been frank and forthcoming about the craft of writing in Death in the Afternoon and in his long interviews with George Plimpton and Lillian Ross. Now, he twice vaguely stated that he ‘was learning something’ from Cézanne in order to add the depth and ‘dimensions’ he needed to strengthen his stories. But he said he was ‘not articulate enough’ to reveal the dark secret about Cézanne.

In a later chapter of A Moveable Feast he repeated, ‘I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted. . . . It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts’. Since hunger

usually distracts from rather than intensifies concentration, this idea, as Hemingway romanticized his young manhood in Paris, was fanciful. Anyway, Hemingway never had to go hungry or catch pigeons for dinner. Hadley’s ample trust fund allowed them to have a maid, ski in Austria in the winter and go to Spain for the bull fights in the summer.

Connecting Cézanne and hunger once again, Hemingway also told Lillian Ross, who exaggerated his characteristic exaggerations, ‘I learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cézanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut’. A rough estimate of Hemingway’s time in Paris reveals that his Homeric boast was clearly impossible. He lived in Paris from 1922 to 1928, and during that time returned to North America for six months. The movable beast worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star in 1922 and 1923, travelling from Spain to Turkey for about half that time. From 1924 to 1928 he spent about half the year vacationing in Austria and Spain. So he was away from Paris for about four of his seven years. In order to visit the museum a thousand times, he would have had to go there every single day when he was leading an unusually busy athletic, social and writing life in Paris. This exaggeration casts doubt on many of his dubious claims.

Hemingway also imitated his Paris friend James Joyce, who was pleased to boast about the catnip he’d hidden in Ulysses: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality’. Like panting hounds pursuing the scent of an elusive fox, Hemingway’s critics have made desperate attempts – with vague parallels and far-fetched analogies – when trying to decipher his secret. But they offered no substantial evidence to support their contentions.

Hemingway could also have learned from many other painters. If he’d substituted Matisse for Cézanne, there would have been myriad articles trying to figure out that enigmatic connection. Emily Watts, whose 1971 book started the modish critical trend of connecting Hemingway to Cézanne, undermined her argument with many telltale qualifications:

perhaps, can be associated with, seems to have known, could very well have (twice), is entirely possible, is possible to assume. She admitted Hemingway’s difficulty in trying to emulate Cézanne, whose techniques had been used by his contemporaries and by modern painters for a century before Hemingway’s death. Watts confessed, ‘A writer is working under a severe handicap if and when he might attempt to imitate the type of complex colour modulation or colour orchestration used by painters from Cézanne to the present’.

Watts’s always vague and all-too-general statements contained no precise meaning. Using but not explaining his word in A Moveable Feast, she claimed that ‘Hemingway sought the dimensions which were present in the paintings of Cézanne’; that the painter ‘helped Hemingway develop [undefined] techniques by which he could indicate “the shape of the country”’; and that ‘Hemingway was able to flatten [why?] and foreshorten [how?] the landscape much as Cézanne did’. When she tried to give specific examples, she retreated to tautology and did not explain her assertion: ‘Hemingway’s specific reference to “the rocks we have to climb over” indicates his own tactile response to the volumes of those large gray rocks in the shadowy forest of Fontainebleau. Cézanne had formed these volumes primary by colour which, at least for Hemingway, had become something tactile, something which it was necessary “to climb over”’.

In 1984 Kenneth Johnston quoted Patrick Heron on Cézanne using white or leaving parts of the canvas bare. Dutifully following the trail of Emily Watts, he weakly added, ‘Hemingway’s theory of ‘omission’ has seldom been better stated’. But there is a big difference between the white or bare patch on Cézanne’s canvas that shows nothing and its direct opposite: Hemingway’s iceberg that is most solidly there both above and below the surface. Johnston tried to argue, with the telltale may also be, that in ‘the oblique rendering of more than meets the eye; the repetition of line, color and motif; the fusion of simplicity and complexity; the union of abstraction and reality; the elimination of non-essential details – the “secret” of Cézanne may also be discovered in Hemingway’s landscape’. All this generally applies to many painters and many writers, but not specifically to Cézanne

and Hemingway. In his short article, only six pages later, Johnston repeated the previous quotation almost verbatim. As Byron said of Coleridge, ‘I wish you would explain your explanation’.

In 1999 Theodore Gaillard also moved unsteadily toward deciphering the secret, and he too indulged in far-fetched and unconvincing comparisons. In Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples (1893-94), he wrote, ‘we first look obliquely across the open mouth of the centrally positioned blue-gray glazed ginger jar but, almost eerily, down the throat of the nearer green vase to its left. . . . And so it is with Hemingway in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’. But there is nothing eerie about the mouth of a jar and it is not at all this way with Hemingway! Gaillard also maintained that, following Cézanne, Hemingway’s mastery ‘manifests itself in the meticulous placement and repetition of key words and images’ – though Cézanne’s picture has no ‘key words’. Finally, this critic stated that ‘the patterns of Cézanne’s artistic life seemed to reflect much of the same confining verticality faced by Ole Andreson in “The Killers”’. But Hemingway surely did not have to learn from Cézanne how to describe Andreson lying horizontally in bed in a small room. Time and again, critics have tried and failed to make the analogy between the techniques of a painter and a writer.

Between Johnston and Gaillard, Meyly Hageman boldly attempted to unravel the great mystery, but got no closer than anyone else. She said, ‘The “secret” Hemingway discovered, then, from studying Ferme consists of at least three visual devices: to reduce art forms into geometric planes that create tensions when placed at angles with one another; to contain this tension by using overlapping dynamic and static planes; and to omit distracting surface details that invite literary translation so that spatial forms remain pure’. But Hemingway would never want to write nor would anyone ever want to read this sort of mechanical, geometrical and overlapping fiction.

In his life of Cézanne, Alex Danchev noted the critics’ problem when trying to define the greatness of the painter: ‘admirers of Cézanne’s art have always been extravagant in their admiration, but have always had difficulty explaining themselves’. Danchev weakly concluded that ‘Hemingway’s secret remains secret’. When I wrote to him and asked him to explain it, he did not reply. But Hemingway left an important clue to that mystery. He revived the idea of the secret in a little-known passage about the Parisian painter Jules Pascin in Islands in the Stream (1970):

He was small and very tough and very strange. He used to wear a derby hat most of the time. . . . He always acted as though he knew a great secret, as though he had just heard it and it amused him.. . . You could always tell he knew it and it amused him very much.

Like the sly Hemingway (keeping the professors busy), Pascin ‘acted as though he knew a great secret’ which, also like Hemingway, always ‘amused him very much’.

Many authors have been inspired by specific paintings and used them in their fiction. But no other writers, before Hemingway imitated Stein, had claimed to learn how to write from looking at paintings. He pretentiously maintained that he had learned to give more depth and dimension to his prose by using the pictorial techniques that Stein told him she had learned from Cézanne. Hemingway deliberately misled his critics by claiming that Cézanne had influenced his work. Though many critics, blindly following each other, have invented ingenious explanations to justify Hemingway’s claim, there is no convincing evidence of his debt to Cézanne.

Hemingway’s real secret in A Moveable Feast was his attempt to hide the powerful influence of Stein by insisting that he was the one who had learned from Cézanne. At one stroke he amused himself by eliminating Stein and deluding the professors. He’d bitterly quarreled with Stein after her attack in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), fiercely counterattacked her in his memoir and did not want to acknowledge her impact on his work. We can now see (to paraphrase the Master) that all of Cézanne’s influence on Hemingway comes from one talk by Gertrude Stein called ‘Transatlantic Interview’.

By Jeffrey Meyers

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