“The Words” — A brief review

It was because he loved the words more than he loved her.

Those were the words of the Old Man. Those were the words he spoke to the young writer who had plagiarized his own.

In the feature film “The Words,” directed and written by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, the Old Man (Jeremy Irons) is a fictional character; but like many characters in works of fiction, he speaks truth — the truth about himself as the Young Man, so much in love, yet unable to forgive his beloved when he learns she has lost the manuscript of his novel in a Paris railway station.

Decades later, the struggling young writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) accidentally finds that manuscript.  He covets the words the Old Man has written, so much so that he copies them verbatim and allows them to be published as his own. And for this he also pays the high price of losing the woman he loves.

Finally, in this convoluted drama there is the writer himself — the successful author Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who reads sections from his latest book “The Words” aloud. Afterwards, a groupie graduate student (Olivia Wilde) finagles her way into his penthouse to attempt to learn the truth about what happened to the Old Man and the plagiarist in his book. When Hammond tells her, she doesn’t buy it. She thinks he’s lying, because no one — not even a fictional character — can continue to live a lie and still sleep at night.

“There is a fine line between fiction and life,” Hammond tells her. “They come close, very close, but they never touch.”

All of the characters that a writer creates come from inside his head. They might be based on persons from real life, but in the end he makes them up; and because they come from the depths of his being, ultimately they are part of him and he is part of them. There is no other way.

And so the words of the fictional book “The Words” were written by Hammond. Hammond made up the Old Man just like he made up the Young Man, just like he made up Rory Jansen. He gave them life; he gave them the words to speak.

But there’s more to it than that, of course; because even Clayton Hammond himself was created by Klugman and Sternthal. Ultimately, they are the ones who drafted the words of the screenplay.

Writers of fiction might love their words to such an extent that they are prepared to sacrifice the greatest loves of their lives for their work.

Hemingway was such a writer; he never forgave his first wife for losing his early manuscripts on a train in Paris. The Young Man in “The Words” never forgives his young wife for doing the same; and when the young writer Rory Jansen opts to plagiarize the Old Man’s words to please himself and his wife, he loses them both.

Writing — or any sort of great art for that matter — can be a sickness, in which the artist sacrifices everything for the work, even the most precious of human relationships.

“We all make choices in life,” the Old Man says. “The hardest part is to live with them. Nobody can help you do that.”

Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons in "The Words," Jonathan Wenk/Cbs Films

Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons in “The Words,” Jonathan Wenk/Cbs Films

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Flaubert and Hemingway: Stylists at heart

It took Gustav Flaubert almost four years to complete Madame Bovary. As a writer, he worked tirelessly at his craft, composing numerous drafts of each passage, paring each revision down to its basic elements. In the end he wrote over 4,500 pages.

“A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry,” Flaubert said, “unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.”

His original drafts are available online at Édition des manuscrits de Madame Bovary de Flaubert. Flaubert believed that the success of the book was entirely dependent upon the style of composition.

“What a bitch of a thing prose is! It’s never finished; there’s always something to redo. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse,” Flaubert wrote in a letter to his mistress Louise Colet. He strove to hone a narrative style that was direct, precise and polished “as smooth as marble.”

Flaubert also worked hard to develop his characters through dialogue. In another letter he describes an “episode of six or seven pages without a single reflection or explanation coming from the author (all in direct dialogue).”

As a young writer, Hemingway educated himself in the art of writing by reading the masters: Turgenev, Tolstoy — and Flaubert. He developed his powers of observation in his work as a journalist, gathering facts necessary to flesh out the story. Like his mentor Flaubert, Hemingway’s writing — particularly his early prose — is clear and direct. He uses lengthy stretches of dialogue to develop characters. Hemingway became a meticulous stylist, writing and rewriting passages until the cadence was perfect to his eye and ear.

“I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied,” he told George Plimpton in a 1954 interview that appeared in the Paris Review.

And in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway wrote: “But isn’t writing a hard job, though?”

In his seminal biography of Hemingway, Carlos Baker describes the writer’s self-laudatory remarks upon finishing The Green Hills of Africa:

A narrative that combined true reporting, the excitements of action, and the quality of real literature was, Ernest thought, a pretty rare thing. First it all had to happen, and second the man to whom it happened had to be equipped to “make it all come true.” This was as hard as “painting a Cezanne,” and Ernest felt that he was “the only bastard right now” who was capable of such an achievement.

Referring to his early experiences as a newspaper reporter, Hemingway said: “On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

Writing is difficult, and good writing is even harder to achieve. Even the masters are apt to fall short.

Flaubert alluded to the writer’s attempts to perfect the craft in these lines from the pages of Madame Bovary:

As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

Hemingway’s Boat: Going out too far

In Kevin Canfield’s online Salon interview with author Paul Hendrickson, Can We Ever Really Know Ernest Hemingway?, Hendrickson discusses his newly released book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.

In 2002, while working on a previous tome, Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson hit upon the idea of using Hemingway’s boat Pilar as a metaphorical backdrop for the last 27 years of Hemingway’s life. He opened his notebook and jotted the following entry: “Hemingway’s boat. June 18, ’02. If you study what happened just on that boat you’ll get Hemingway’s whole life.”

Hendrickson muses: “I like to think that the acquiring of this boat and the ability of Pilar to release [Hemingway] from shore was doing something to him. He was no longer shore bound. It was a seagoing vessel, and you could go far enough out where you would lose sight of land.” In the book he writes: “I believe Pilar was a key part of the change, allowing him to go farther out, where you don’t see the shoreline.”

Pilar is my metaphor, my storytelling vehicle,” Hendrickson explains. Hendrickson believes that acquiring the boat may have had an impact on the evolution of Hemingway’s later prose.

This interchange brings to mind several passages from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the novella which clinched the Nobel Prize for him. A close reading of the text suggests that Hemingway himself might have been the originator of Hendrickson’s metaphor. In this masterwork Hemingway develops the concept of “going out too far,” far enough out where you would lose sight of land, where it would be only you and the boat and the sea. (Subsequent passages are taken from the 1952 Scribner’s Book of the Month Club edition.)

The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. (p. 31)

The sun rose thinly from the sea and the old man could see the other boats, low on the water and well in toward the shore, spread out across the current. (p. 35)

There were only three boats in sight now and they showed very low and far inshore. (p. 36)

He could not see the green of the shore now but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them. (p. 44)

Then he looked behind him and saw that no land was visible. That makes no difference, he thought. (p. 50)

When he acquired the Pilar, Hendrickson writes, “[Hemingway] is still the reigning monarch of American literature, but he’s already been sniped at by the critics. He’s still the king; he controls the crown. But he understood that he was beginning to have trouble” with his ability to write.

Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for. (p. 56 – 7)

He thought of how some men feared being out of sight of land in a small boat and knew they were right in the months of sudden bad weather. (p. 67)

Now alone, and out of sight of land, he was fast to the biggest fish that he had ever seen and bigger than he had ever heard of, and his left hand was tight as the gripped claws of an eagle. (p. 70)

In the end it was the going out too far that fated the old man’s defeat.

“I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” he said. “Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry, fish.” (p. 121)

“Half fish,” he said. “Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.” (p. 127)

Within a decade after publication of The Old Man and the Sea, his body and mind ravaged from the effects of alcoholism, a least four major concussive blows to the head and a series of electroconvulsive shock treatments he received at the Mayo Clinic for major depression, Hemingway would acknowledge defeat by taking his own life. No one knows the true reason, of course; he left no suicide note. Yet his final failed attempts at writing suggest that he had lost the ability to craft the almost magical terse prose of his youth.

It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.

“Nothing,” he said aloud. “I went out too far.” (p. 132 – 133)

The Sensual Sea

When I was young, shortly after I turned twenty, I shipped out of Boston on a cutter bound for thirty-six days in the north Atlantic.  On the way out, we lay over for a night in St. Johns.  From the flying bridge I still recall seeing the red cliffs of Newfoundland rising suddenly out of the sea in the morning sun, still remember slipping through the tight channel into the calm water of the cozy port, still picture the quaint weathered houses packed side by side along the terraced streets above the harbor.

Later, on southern voyages, I would survey the swells of the Caribbean for giant sea turtles while flying fish darted out from the bow as it surged through the blue water.  Watching the swells rise and fall away at your feet, you understood what sailors meant when they said that the sea breathed.

Hemingway wrote that la mar is what the Cuban pescadores call the sea when they love her.  For his old man, the sea was always feminine, even though in the Spanish language the sea is traditionally masculine, el mar.  “The old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda incorporated sensual sea imagery into many of his compositions.  Here is an excerpt from his piece Oda al Mar (Ode to the Sea):

El mar
y cuánto mar
se sale de sí mismo
a cada rato,
dice que sí, que no,
que no, que no, que no,
dice que si, en azul,
en espuma, en galope,
dice que no, que no.
No puede estarse quieto,
me llamo mar, repite
pegando en una piedra
sin lograr convencerla —

“The sea moves in and out of itself each moment, saying first yes, then no; then no, no, no; then yes, in blue, in churning foam; then no, no. The sea can’t stay still: ‘My name is Sea’ it repeats, slapping against the rocks without convincing them.”

As a young man, Melville shipped out of Nantucket on a whaler and didn’t return for three years.  His nautical experiences aboard the Acushnet formed the basis for many of the narrative scenes in Moby Dick.  Here he records an impression of the sea in a chapter entitled “The Symphony”:

It was a clear steel-blue day.  The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.

But though thus contrasting within, the contrast was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.

Aloft, like a royal czar and kind, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom.  And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion—most seen here at the equator—denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

For those inclined to go down to the sea in boats, masculine or feminine, there is nothing asexual about the sea.

Rain on the Roof

Rain on the roof: midnight serenade.  I awaken to the sound of pounding droplets, keystrokes on the roof, drumming out the cadence of thoughts—letters, words, sentences, paragraphs—stories composed overhead in the night.

Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter is to be sold at auction, the Olivetti through which flowed five million words over the course of his literary life.  I recall Hemingway’s Royal, on which he banged out his early journalistic copy and later short stories and novels; and Don Marquis’ archy the cockroach, hopping from key to key, leaving behind his trail of thought.  Helen Miller, big bosomed, sitting at her desk, hair pinned up, writing copy in the 1930s for the West Schuylkill Press:  did she touch type or, like Hemingway, hunt and peck?

Eleventh grade: Mr. Shirk’s academic typing class.  I sit at my desk, eyes glued to the top bound open book, fingertips on the home row, and begin to strike the keys: a, s, d, f; j, k, l, ;—next the reaches: t, r, e, w, q; y, u, i, o, p.  Later the words will come: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Mr. Shirk saunters up and down the aisle, periodically pausing at each student’s desk to observe.  “Check to make sure your fingertips return to the home row,” he says in a quiet voice.

I look up from the open book to the piece of paper pressed against the platen.  Through a slight shift of hand, a lateral displacement of the fingertips, I find that I have translated the quick brown fox into yjr wiovl ntpem gpc/.  Embarrassed, I reposition my hands and try again.

Early morning rain beats down on the roof: myriad millions of droplets, pounding out a story.  Tender is the night.  For forty days the rains descended during the great flood; the waters rose, covering every mountain top.  A rising tide lifts all boats—unless there’s a leak somewhere.

Dickens left his manuscripts, trails of thoughts composed in ink with quill pen; likewise Thoreau; later Hemingway and McCarthy on the platens of their Schreibmaschinen.  Modern writers leave no such trails behind.  Tracks are covered with spellcheckers and cut and paste, insert and delete.  How will future literary hunters track our train of thought to learn the art of our composition?  For we leave nothing behind but finished copy.

Raindrops on the roof, keystrokes, pound out the words:  nature’s story.  Seated at my desk in the darkness, fingertips poised on the home row, I take a moment to listen to this fine immemorial oral tradition.  Presently, the skies will clear; the pounding will cease, these words will slip away.

But the written word remains for all time.

Full Moon over Kitchen Creek

It was dark when we left the barn after the last lecture.  Outside, Jim’s wife waited for me with a flashlight.  I pulled my sleeping bag and duffle from the back of my Subaru and followed her across the meadow.  High above the barn where the haflingers were bedded down, a full moon broke through the clouds.

At the far end of the meadow we found the path that led down the hill to the hollow above the creek.  You could hear the water rushing down over the rocks in the night.  Off to the left I could make out the lines of a cabin in the moonlight.

Jim’s wife opened the door.  I followed her inside and threw my bag and duffle on the high bed.  She lit an electric lantern and held it up so I could survey the room.

“You’ll probably want a fire for the night.  Stoke the stove full and let it burn down to coals.  It’ll be nice and toasty inside.  I left a couple of heavy throws on the bed in case you need them.  Breakfast is at eight o’clock.  Good night.”

I looked about the room.  The cabin was perhaps fifteen by thirty feet, housing three windows, one on each side and another in front next to the door.  A writing desk stood opposite the double bed.  Another wooden desk stood at the far end near the wood stove.  The tinder box rested against the opposite wall.  A double bladed ax leaned up against the back wall, and a number of fishing poles lay cradled in a rack on the wall above the ax.  One of them—a fly rod—looked to be at least ten feet in length.

Three chairs rested between the desks and the bed.  I thought of the three chairs in Thoreau’s hut:  one for solitude, two for company, three for society.  This night only one would be necessary for me.

I set a lighted match to the kindling and stoked the stove with several split logs.  The dry wood caught quickly.  The fire made a whooshing sound as flames drew up the flue.

I rooted through my duffle and pulled out a set of long johns.  I undressed by the light of the electric lantern and hung my trousers and shirt on a nail by the window.  The thermometer on the wall read 52 degrees.

In the desk I found two books:  one on fly-fishing with an introduction by Jack Hemingway and another with watercolor prints of various species of trout.  I laid out my sleeping bag on the bed and crawled in and paged through the book on trout until the words fell out of focus.  Afterwards, I turned out the electric lantern and drifted off to sleep with the sound of the cascading brook in my ears.

Sometime during the night I got up to check the stove.  The fire had burned down to glowing embers.  I slipped on my boots and stepped outside.  Overhead the full moon burned in the night canopy.  This was Lorca’s luna, one and the same, sailing through a sea of smoky clouds.  A poem by e. e. cummings came to mind—

 !
O (rounD) moon, how
do
you(round
er
than roUnd) float;
who
lly & (rOunder than)
go
:ldenly (Round
est)
?

I returned to bed once more and awoke several hours later to find the full moon sitting on the edge of the silhouetted black mountain above the gorge.

I was up at first light.  The stove was cold.  Methodically, I stripped off my long johns and donned my clothing.  I gathered my gear and stowed it back into the duffle bag, rolled up the sleeping bag, stuffed it into the sack and cinched the drawstring tight.

I stepped out into the cool morning air.  For the first time I noticed that the maple leaves had turned a golden yellow; many had already fallen to the ground.  I hiked up the back hill to the pasture, carefully separating the hemlock branches now wet with dew.

The haflingers were out feeding on their flakes of hay.  They looked up when I stepped out through the trees, then resumed their breakfast.  I watched them eat before descending the hill back to the cabin.  Jim’s wife was calling from the path.  “Come up to the house.  You can get a hot shower before breakfast,” she said.

It was only when I turned to leave, my arms laden with gear, that I glimpsed the painting wedged on the shelf above the door below the beams.  A white-bearded man bowed his head over hands folded next to a crust of bread.

A poetic death

Ever since Ernest Hemingway popularized the Spanish corrida in his novel “The Sun Also Rises” (published as “Fiesta” in Great Britain), and his nonfiction masterworks “Death in the Afternoon” and “The Dangerous Summer,” it has been the subject of fierce debate among westerners. There are those who adore it for its pageantry and artistry, and those who abhor it for its savagery and senseless killing.

A recent New York Times article suggests that this debate continues—in Spain, of all places. Although nothing could be more Spanish than the corrida, a tradition that dates back several hundred years, many Spaniards detest it. How can a civilized society support a sport that consists of observing the slaughter of perfectly healthy animals for no other reason than the artistry of it? Yet the corrida persists, second only to soccer as a spectator sport in Spain. Why?

Like other facets of the entertainment industry, the Spanish corrida generates revenue. The going rate for a good seat is comparable to the cost of attending a major league American football game. It is also a large draw for tourism. Travelers to Spain flock to resorts on the Costa del Sol to sample the cuisine and the wine; they tour the ancient cities and marvel at the architectural forms of the Alhambra in Granada and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostella; they frequent the tapas bars in Madrid and sit at table to take in the flamenco dancers; and, if they haven’t seen one before, they certainly don’t want to leave the country without experiencing a corrida.

Most tourists are not aficionados, of course. If you have to ask what an aficionado is, mostly likely you aren’t one. But perhaps more than any other individual, it’s the aficionado who supports whole-heartedly the art of toreo.

During the year that I lived in Spain as a young man, back in Franco’s waning days, I traveled to Pamplona that summer for los sanfermines, those seven days of fiesta-ing that Hemingway wrote about. I remember seeing the bust of him in the street outside the Plaza de Toros. I remember the narrow winding streets hemmed in by the ancient buildings with the wrought iron railings on the small balconies and the crowded bars. But mostly I remember the corrida, the first one I ever saw.

The bulls were big, bred for the ring with barrel-sized necks. Small wonder that these massive muscles needed to be pic-ed and bled to weaken them sufficiently to allow the head to drop down to where the man could go in over the horns with his sword. Were there no corrida, such bulls would no longer exist; the breed would become extinct, entirely unnecessary and useless.

A year later, when I took my new bride to see her first corrida in Alcala de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes, she hated it and vowed that she would never again set foot inside a plaza de toros—and she was (and remains) a Spaniard.

Two summers ago I returned to Spain, this time with my parents. Although they had never been to Europe before, they adapted well. Months before, when we talked about the trip, I asked my father if there were anything special that he wanted to see or do while in Spain. “How about a bullfight?” he asked. My wife telephoned her sister, who purchased the tickets.

That evening we sat in the front row, adjacent to the barrera, so close that during the fight you could almost reach out and touch the matador’s coleta or the flanks of the animal. It was a standard corrida—two bulls a piece for the three matadors, one of whom turned out to be Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, the same Ordóñez mentioned in the Times article.

Ordóñez performed admirably that afternoon, so well in fact that he was awarded two ears from his second bull. At the end of the evening, they carried him out of the plaza on their shoulders to the admiration and delight of the standing crowds.

I was pleased to read that the current conventional wisdom in Spain is that Ordóñez just might be the one to return bullfighting to its traditional place in the hearts of Spaniards. Bullfighting runs deep in his blood: both his father and grandfather were matadors before him; and his father, Francisco Rivera, was killed in the ring.

Death is the great tragedy, of course. Yet there is something about the man who chooses to stare death in the face, determined to overcome it through the poetry of his art one more time.