Lucy and Todd

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Come to Papa

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

Ernest Hemingway – don’tcha love ’im? That big strong he-man with the teeth, running all over the earth just to root out the rarin’est bulls, the meanest wars, the biggest martinis, the coldest champagne and the prettiest gals? And writing that prose, my gawd, without those sissy modifiers so that you could just drop dead from its straight-from-the-hip lapidary American masculine themey beauty?

Ernest Hemingway – aren’tcha sick of ’im? With that big beer belly and purple face and vacant look, falling over at Claridges and throwing up all over Paris and Africa with those giant dead fish, and that need to be mothered and called Papa at the same time and that very unwinning inability to be alone for even a single solitary second?

Anyway. To the man and woman in the street, Ernest Hemingway was novel-writing, for decades. Until he began to confuse the excitements of his fiction with those in his life, to supplant vividity in the novels with his own exploits. And then he supplanted those with booze, and supplanted booze with death when they told him he couldn’t drink any more. (Such was the loyalty of the last Mrs Hemingway to the crumbling edifice of his legend that she insisted he’d had an ‘accident’ while cleaning his gun.)

If he could, Hemingway would have married every woman he went to bed with. As it was, he married four of them: Hadley Richardson, a shy girl he met at a party; Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy socialite who really loved him; Martha Gellhorn, a famous war correspondent – who really didn’t need or want to marry him but caved in when he started to blub; and lastly Mary Welsh, a journalist of a more ordinary stamp, who liked hunting and fishing. And in each instance, having been unfaithful to the first woman with the second, he proceeded to torture them both for months with his own whimpering indecision. They were all strong American girls, and though they had experience of war, and Europe, the domain in which Hemingway had rooted his literary sensibility, he himself wondered why he pursued these vivacious beauties burnished in the heartland of his own country, given that he could have any woman in the world.

Naomi Wood isn’t interested in mulling that over, however, because of what looks like her own crush on Hemingway. That is the only centre of this ‘novel’, and, perhaps disappointingly, it’s no different from the hundred million other crushes on Hemingway that people have had, men and women, since ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ appeared in 1923. He was just so beautiful! Despite Wood’s infatuation with the man, she gives very little away with regard to her grasp of his prose or his significance as a writer, which must have meant a lot to these four women, as well as to everybody else. The most that she quotes from his work is from the dedication pages of his novels.

Wood claims Mrs Hemingway ‘is a work of imagination’. That is debatable. When a writer paints herself into such a tight corner, following what is well known about a set of real-life personalities, she gives up artistic control over the characters and the plot of her book. That leaves only one sphere in which to manoeuvre: description. It seems that if the thoughts, wishes, dreams and fears of these four women weren’t available to Wood in diaries or letters, all she could do was try, rather desperately, to tell us what they might have thought about cobblestones, or how Cuba can seem boring. There are many humdrum, would-be lush descriptions of water or jungle plants (‘spiky’ is a word which crops up a lot, in order, presumably, to remind us of the jaggedness of life with Papa). More than once we have to hear about salt particles on Hemingway’s beautiful body (this was in the early days of course) which women want to lick off. As if he’s just a big side of bacon – which, to some, is not far from the truth. But if you like to read about these things, Lillian Ross’s Portrait of Hemingway is much more trenchant. And then there are those novels – which are works of imagination.


This review appeared in The Herald, 15 February 2014

The Sweetness and Light Brigade

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 15, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Last Tuesday at the Coach and Horses in Soho, a party was held in honour of the Omnivore’s prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year, and Fiction Atelier was there. A A Gill won, for his excellent review of Morrissey’s autobiography. Much amusement was caused by the organisers’ depiction of the book reviewer as a dying breed, in danger of extinction. They proposed an Adopt a Critic scheme, whereby you make a small donation and keep a critic alive. Along these lines, the winner of the Hatchet prize gets a year’s worth of potted shrimp from The Fish Society. Appropriately, critics were packed into the Coach and Horses like sardines in a tin.

All innocent enough. But in the wake of this jokey occasion there have been many negative remarks made about negative reviews. Mark O’Connell at Slate knocked the Hatchet Job prize, as did Alex Clark in the Guardian. This implies alarmingly little faith in the value of criticism. Under the hypnotizing influence of the internet, a capitalist marketing tool that pretends to be critical but isn’t, optimists have taken over. The result is that newspapers have become sheepish about publishing negative reviews. Even A A Gill seemed a bit abashed as he accepted a little gold-coloured plastic hatchet with which to slice up a book-shaped cake for us hungry, reviled reviewers to wolf down.

It’s said that negative reviews are ‘easier to write’. This may or may not be true, but does that invalidate a review? Does it mean the reviewer lied, calling the book lousy when in fact it was great? That would be a fiendishly irrational and immoral thing to do. In our experience, reviewing is never easy; one doesn’t relish the chance to kill a book. But if reading something has been aggravating and unrewarding, one has a duty to say so. It’s not laziness that drives a reviewer to damn a book. It’s outrage.

Is the ‘negative’ reviewer showing off for the sake of advancing his or her career? On the contrary – a negative view bravely risks the creation of lifelong enmities, all for the public good. It’s the log-rolling, back-scratching favouritism, blackmail and sheer incomprehension found in ‘positive’ reviews that are more likely to bring an aspiring reviewer some scrap of success. In the London literary scene, where everybody knows everybody, the impulse to be polite can be overpowering. But it must be resisted.

‘Hatchet jobs’, so-called because people unjustly see them as gratuitously violent, are a noble effort to improve literature, and to open up honest debate about a book’s merits and deficiencies. Mealy-mouthed, fence-perching flattery is the more tawdry form of journalism. ‘Positive’ (mendacious) reviews cruelly abandon poor readers to their fate, leading them to waste time and money on a stinker of a book. They offer praise where it doesn’t belong, skewing reality for everyone. And what’s worse, they encourage bad writing – and that is a crime.

At least one national newspaper in the UK now has a quota for negative reviews. It’s small. This implies to readers that most of the books being published are good, which we all know to be the exact opposite of the case. A ‘hatchet job’ might offend the writer, the publisher? Boo hoo hoo. The Sweetness and Light Brigade claim that in the adverse climate now faced by literature and the other arts, we must stand firm and be positive about things. But what about the dismay and disappointment of potential readers, who after all are human beings, who’ve been told a book is fabulous, when it isn’t? Simply isn’t. How does misleading them with the equivalent of ‘Well done you’ help books? The air should ring with cries of ‘Codswallop!’, ‘Where’s the editor?’ and ‘I demand satisfaction!’

It doesn’t help, of course, that such limited space is now given to reviewers in newspapers. Apart from the London Review of Books and the Scottish Review of Books, there’s nowhere in Britain that fiction is discussed at a proper length. The whole process of reading and reacting to a book has been reduced to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, gladiatorial sport. Glibness can result.

We thought John Crace should have won the Hatchet Job prize – though he wasn’t nominated. He should win it every year. His ‘Digested Reads’ in the Guardian provide a vital service. He nobly steers you clear of many a turkey, which he’s very good at tearing to shreds, and making a tasty sandwich of. Long may he thrive.

The unwritten law of full disclosure bids us to say that Lucy was shortlisted for the Hatchet Job prize this year, for her review of Douglas Coupland’s Worst.Person.Ever., the title of which was roundly booed at the party. But it was not a hatchet job. It was a book review – of a book that was no good. Vive la différence!

FREE COPY OF MIMI: quiz closed

In Stuff We Like on February 9, 2014 at 10:14 am

Spring has come, and Mimi (Bloomsbury), by Lucy Ellmann, comes out in paperback on February 14, 2014.

In honour of this occasion, the Fiction Atelier proudly announces that three free copies of the novel will be given out to winners of today’s quiz. (More literary identification quizzes will be posted soon.)

And the question is………………………………

Who wrote the following poem?


It is not growing like a tree

In bulke, doth make man better bee;

Or, standing long an Oake, three hundred yeare,

To fall a logge, at last, dry, bald, and seare:

A Lillie of a Day

Is fairer farre, in May,

Although it fall, and die that night;

It was the Plant, and flowre of light.

In small proportions, we just beauties see:

And in short measures, life may perfect bee.


Answers should be sent by Feb. 14 2014 to:

The names of people offering the correct answer will be chosen from a hat on Valentine’s Day, and published on the blog – unless you prefer anonymity. If you win, you will be contacted by email in order to get an address to which to send your copy of Mimi. Good luck!


Feb. 14


Ben Jonson

(from The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, eds. H J C Grierson and G Bullough, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934. 171-175.)

The poem features in Mimi, in commemoration of Bee.

Thanks to all who took part, and look out for future literary quizzes on!

Germaine Greer – White Beech

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 2, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Germaine Greer, who did so much for feminism, has got herself a new cause: gardening. But it’s gardening on a grand scale. Weeding for her is removing acres of lantana and kangaroo vine. Planting involves tending 150 white beech saplings that will grow into trees forty metres high. Instead of slugs, she’s got tics and leeches. For Greer decided twelve years ago to restore sixty hectares of Mesozoic ‘Gondwanan’ rainforest, called Cave Creek, near the Eastern tip of Queensland.

From the moment settlers arrived in Australia, they seem to have devoted themselves to obliterating everything that lived. To see a tree was to cut it down. They passed fifteen different Marsupial Destruction Acts. They willingly doused their own land with Agent Orange, and consistently attacked not just ancient societies and ecosystems, but such startlingly marvellous things as koalas, gliders, Wonga Wonga pigeons, pademelons and glow-worms. How could they look at all this stuff and just think, Kill?

Becoming a conservationist wasn’t the plan. Greer was originally searching for a house in Australia in which to store her vast archive. But she came upon a run-down dairy farm and was smitten, thanks to a bower bird: ‘I needed a sign and the bird was it…an ambassador from the realm of biodiversity, which is every Earthling’s birthright.’ Earthling! Is she writing from Mars? The archive is never mentioned again (it’s recently been purchased by the University of Melbourne).

Having bought a place she knew nothing about, Greer embarks on knowing more about it than anyone else. The result is a book that ranges from natural history and botany (‘The Australian tamarinds belong to the sapindaceous genus Diploglottis, whereas the historic Tamarind…is fabaceous’) to genealogy, technical info and practical advice, at times matey, polemical, and mystical. But it’s no Moby-Dick. There are too many long, improbable conversations as Greer and her sister, or other pals, sort out abstruse botanical conundrums, most of which could have been handled more simply and elegantly in prose form.

‘ “How old would you say they are?”

“They grow slowly. Twenty years, mebbe?” ’ etc. etc.

Repetitive and meandering, Greer’s material begs to be organized, compressed, and synthesized into a coherent structure. You never know what’s going on! She gives us an impressive litany of Australian errors, social, botanical and biological, is wonderfully scathing about their genocidal treatment of animals, and her description of the timber industry makes rightly painful reading. Her excitement about the flora and fauna she encounters too is contagious. But the book is as tangled as one of Greer’s strangling figs that squeeze the life out of the host tree (or, in this case, the reader). My concern isn’t so much aesthetic as ecological: that White Beech’s peculiar construction may distract attention from an admirable project. Reading it, you feel like you’re tagging along behind Greer on an arduous expedition, wondering if she even knows you’re there. Her 20-page disquisition on the macadamia genus nearly killed me:

‘ “Funny isn’t it?” said I to Jenny. “In Enzed you’ve got two genera of Proteaceae and both are monotypic, making a grand total of two species. Mind you, there are many monotypic genera in the family. Out of forty-two genera in Oz sixteen or seventeen have only one species. Isn’t it odd that New Zealand only 2,000 ks or so off the coast of Australia should have only two proteaceous species when Australia has more than 850?”…’

It’s not autobiography either. We find out nothing further about her life in Australia (where Greer now spends several months a year) except that she occasionally cracks open a bottle of wine and eats a salad, or makes black apple popsicles. At one point she flings a sated leech from her sock, leading to the perplexing statement: ‘Vital substance of mine was already incorporated in the Cave Creek biomass’.

Greer writes best about her cherished trees, the slumbering snakes, or a Rufous Fantail whose ‘fanned brick-red tail is edged with a white so bright that it seems to leave tracks in the sunlit air’. You get the feeling she’s just too busy heaving tree trunks around with her male workforce (who have the nerve to find some of her ideas ‘girly’) to sort the book itself out into a satisfactory organism, with its own shape and substance. The link between environmentalism and feminism, for instance, she almost wholly omits. But if Greer won’t stress it, I will. Men have wrecked the world through greed, Oedipus complexes, an innate desire for destruction, and lust for steak. ‘Darlings, what have you done, what have you done to the earth?’ asks Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Woman in the Moon”. Reversing this ruination, if it can be reversed, is a feminist issue.

Greer’s project, in conjunction with some kindred conservation efforts, is contributing to a growing chain (now covering 3,665 kilometres) of prehistoric rainforest remnants across Australia, and beyond. It’s an indubitable achievement and has given Greer, she says, ‘heart’s ease’ and a certain humility: ‘The tiny snail negotiating the edge of that lettuce leaf is my cousin.’ That’s nice. The thing is, she now expects us all to do it! ‘The same opportunity is out there for everyone… You can stop mowing…let your quarter-acre revert to Moonah Woodland and Coast Banksia…[and] combine your backyards, to make a safe place…for echidnas to mosey about in.’ In Edinburgh? I only have a little iron balcony with a couple of empty flower pots on it. No sign of an echidna yet. Funny isn’t it?


(A version of this review was published in the Herald on February 2, 2014.)