Fists Pietro Grossi (trans. Howard Curtis). Pushkin Press. 200 pp., $13.95.
To become a true aficionado of Fredric Jameson’s early work, there is a rite of passage which one must first perform. Essentially, it entails a radical rethinking of Hemingway’s style, to the extent that it becomes impossible ever to read him in the same way again. Jameson, in Marxism and Form (1971), makes the remarkable assertion that the real subject of Hemingway’s oeuvre is not courage, love, death, and so on, but rather ‘the writing of a certain type of sentence, the practice of a determinate style’. Hemingway discovered, so Jameson tells us, that by forgetting about words themselves and focussing on prearranging the objects those words are supposed to describe, one can omit certain external spatial displacements or internal emotional occurrences such that the result is a resounding symphony in the void of connotation. The excitement of reading Hemingway is only partly that of the chase or the battle; at a more profound level it is the thrill of seeing whether Hemingway’s sparse prose can rise to the challenge of the event it must portray. Ultimately, for Jameson, Hemingway’s works are about the writing process, and this process becomes—of all things—a shadowy utopian image of non-alienated labor:
Writing, now conceived as a skill, is then assimilated to the other skills of hunting and bullfighting, of fishing and warfare, which project a total image of man’s active and all-absorbing technical participation in the outside worldâ€¦[I]t satisfies the Protestant work ethic at the same time that it glorifies leisure; it reconciles the deepest and most life-giving impulses toward wholeness with a status quo in which only sports allow you to feel alive and undamaged. (Marxism and Form, p. 412)
But the type of sentence Hemingway wanted to write presupposed a specific social content: that of the expatriate community, in which foreign beings confront us not as complex persons sown into a richly woven social fabric but as clear-cut objects in a thinned-out reality. In other words, the Hemingway sentence cannot easily represent the ‘thickness’ of modern everyday life, with all its tangled relations and nuanced mediations. Consequently, when the world began to change at the end of his life (the phrasing is Jameson’s), and he was forced out of expatriate circles and back into an American reality resistant to his writing practice, he was reduced—and this is the Jamesonian shock par excellence—to “stylistic impotence and ultimate suicide.”
So when a reader of Jameson is informed that Pietro Grossi, Italian author of the manly-entitled Fists, is “a great admirer of Hemingway and J. D. Salinger,” his ears instantly prick up. That this information makes it into the author’s blurb suggests (besides being a ploy by the publishers to target a suitable literary public) that the influence of these writers on Grossi will be significant. The question is: what can Hemingway and Salinger offer a young writer today? Judging from the quality of Fists, a superb collection of three short stories, quite a lot. But they also bring problems.
All three stories deal with the passage from boyhood to manhood: “Boxing” follows the dual existence of a nerdy boy who is secretly renowned as a great boxer, and whose becoming-man reaches a climax in the ring against a fellow boy-outcast; “Horses” deals with a pair of brothers and their increasing alienation from one another and their growing distance from their father; finally, “The Monkey” is a decidedly odd story about a man who returns to the town of his youth to visit an old friend who has started acting like a primate.
“Boxing,” which betrays the influence of Salinger and Hemingway from the very first page, is surely one of the best short stories written in recent times. Salinger’s casual, happy-go-lucky tone, the tone of Holden Caulfield’s nonchalant unknowingness, is fused with Hemingway’s poignant, dramatic brevity. But if Jameson is right in supposing that only certain limited social contents can be portrayed by Hemingway’s style, then it follows that “Boxing” will somehow have to limit the degree of social complexity it manages to represent. It is no surprise, then, that the boxing ring is gradually constructed as a mythical place of equality and wish-fulfilment, where all the complications of everyday life are filtered out, leaving only a primordial battle between two heroes: ‘the world around me would disappear and all I saw was my opponent’.
But what is truly great about this story is that, if one reads it with the Jamesonian framework in mind, it becomes a sort of meta-fictional dramatization of the Hemingway sentence itself (one, I imagine, entirely unintended by the author). The furious, distraught speechlessness of the Goat—a teenage deaf mute who is the only boxer capable of taking on the Dancer (the narrator’s nickname) and who demands to fight him—stands as a sign of those intensely felt but never overtly expressed subconversations of which Hemingway was a master. This pugnacious silence then becomes, in turn, the embodiment of the narrator’s “outside,” a menacing reality principle: “I had to thrash the living daylights out of that deaf mute from the world outside . . . and then once and for all everyone would know that there was a piece of reality, square in shape with ropes all around, where I really was a sensation.” What began as a potentially trite story of a boy’s desire for recognition is transformed into a duel between the forces that enabled Hemingway to write and those that eventually killed him: between simple, absolute combat and the over-complex relations of the outside world.
Without giving away the ending, it is enough to say that the reality principle outstrips the pleasure principle in the final showdown between the Dancer and the Goat. The former is left feeling “empty and alone,” superficially because of growing up, but more profoundly due to the incapacity of the type of sentence Grossi wants to write to represent modern everyday life. The thrust and intensity of his sentences require a primeval agon between two foes, but everyday life—life after the fight, as it were—is no such constant combat. Maturity, then, should not be understood (pace Grossi) as the discovery that stories and reality cannot “be made from the same material,” but that a certain type of writing cannot process a certain type of reality.
Which is perhaps why in “Horses” we go back in time to an age when the city, a complex type of reality if ever there was one, was still a potentially new social experience. It is no mistake that the setting for this second story of the collection is some unnamed locale in rural Italy, with the hustle-and-bustle of the city located firmly on the other side of a mountain range (that is, beyond the reach of Grossi’s phrases). If “Horses” sometimes lacks the agonistic charge of “Boxing,” it compensates for this with some beautifully crafted and understated scenes of male bonding between Daniel, the brother who learns about horses and stays, and Natan, the brother who learns about horses and flees to the city. Indeed, Grossi’s inherited style is particularly amenable to man-to-man transactions. It is telling, for example, that one of the rites of passage in this story consists in clinching one’s first deal—a far cry from hedge funds and multinational corporations, and with a handshake-like immediacy that evokes an imagined medieval directness suited to these sentences:
“Hello,” the man with the bow legs said.
The other two men looked at Daniel in silence. They were chewing straws.
“I’ve come to shoe the horses,” Daniel said.
One of the two men who were chewing straws gave a half-laugh. He, too, had a weathered face and bow legs.
“Old Pancia must be slipping,” the man who had not laughed said.
“That isn’t a job for boys,” the first man said, standing in front of Daniel.
“If I can’t manage, you can complain to old Pancia and he’ll come and do it for free.”
One of the two men leaning against the stable wall took the straw from his mouth and pushed back his straw hat to get a better look at the boy who talked like a man.
The story ends with yet another macho standoff (Fists is an apt title), as if Grossi’s journey to manhood requires a series of aggressive gestures and duels.
The final story of the collection, “The Monkey,” is by far the weakest. Yet, interestingly, it is the weakest for precisely the same reason that the other two are strong: it represents a vaguely credible modern life by using those same literary techniques that were designed as if to shun the complexity of that life. Nico is called by the sister of a childhood friend who has begun to act like a monkey (the ridiculousness of that idea never really dissipates), and is asked to return to his hometown to visit him. This then triggers a series of phone conversations with various women from his present and past. What is noticeable about these conversations is how badly written they are. The crisp dialogue between men in “Boxing” and “Horses” suddenly becomes slack and mediocre. Why is this? Because the women force Nico to verbalize emotions which the men in Grossi’s stories keep unsaid. The great tidal pull of the subconversation is neutralized by a bathetic utterance of what, dramatically speaking, requires silence. No wonder that Grossi, as he admitted in an interview last year, wanted to “forget women” in these stories: women, for this type of writing, are the sirens who tempt men to impotent speech.
It would seem, then, that Jameson was right about the dynamics of the Hemingway style and about its limitations. It works today only when, as with Grossi at his best, it becomes unwittingly—and therefore paradoxically—self-conscious.
Daniel Hartley is a Ph.D. student at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig University Giessen, Germany. His research is on Anglo-American Marxist literary theory. He has his own personal blog: Thinking Blue Guitars.
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