‘They had a vermouth…’


From London Review of Books:

Good reporters go hunting for nouns. 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. But at times it strikes you that the cult of specificity in Hemingway is a drug you take in a cheap arcade: lights flash on the old machines and a piano plinks overhead. One evening it came to me as a small revelation that he takes too much pride in the nouns. (And pride ruined him.) He never takes nouns for granted. He invests his whole personality in them, because nouns are the part of speech where a person gets to show off. Papa gets busted on the nouns because he can’t place them on the page without ego. Too often they are there to attract attention. To cause a sensation. To make a blaze. Hemingway will never say someone had a drink when he can say they had a vermouth.

You can have fun with this. 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?’

When Frederic makes it to Milan, a little boy runs out and fetches him a bottle of grappa. ‘I sent for the porter and when he came I told him in Italian to get me a bottle of Cinzano at the wine shop, a fiasco of chianti and the evening papers.’ Once he’s up and ready to start courting Catherine Barkley in the style she deserves, they’re off to their favourite café, the Gran Italia, where they ‘drank dry white capri iced in a bucket’. Months pass, and many glasses, before they go to the races and have ‘a whiskey and soda apiece’. My love for the book only increases as it gets a little closer to Brief Encounter.

‘I guess we’re both conceited,’ I said. ‘But you are brave.’

‘No. But I hope to be.’

‘We’re both brave,’ I said. ‘And I’m very brave when I’ve had a drink.’

‘We’re splendid people,’ Catherine said. She went over to the armoire and brought me the cognac and a glass. ‘Have a drink, darling,’ she said. ‘You’ve been awfully good.’

‘I don’t really want one.’

‘Take one.’

‘All right.’ I poured the water glass a third full of cognac and drank it off.

‘That was very big,’ she said. ‘I know brandy is for heroes. But you shouldn’t exaggerate.’

Is this a paid advertisement? But, hold on, we’re only on page 126. The book has named tipples galore, and when Frederic is back in bed with jaundice, another nurse, not the fanciable one, sees a lot of empty bottles. Again, not just bottles, but ‘marsala bottles, capri bottles, empty chianti flasks and a few cognac bottles’. But there’s work to be done, so, once he’s better, our Signor Tenente goes with others to clear the field hospitals in the mountains and take down the wounded. He visits Gorizia again, where, before long, he is holed up in a villa eating spaghetti and drinking ‘two bottles of wine that had been left in the cellar of the villa’. I wondered at the mention of ‘wine’ tout court, then the inevitable comes, after a mention of rain. ‘I like a retreat better than an advance,’ Bonello said. ‘On a retreat we drink barbera.’ There’s more grappa back in Milan and a martini at the Hotel des Iles Borromées (‘the martini felt cool and clean’), before going up to the lake with Catherine.

Here the nouns go mad and Hemingway’s style reveals itself to be an inventory.

“Issues for His Prose Style”, Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books