What does it take to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for heaven's sake. I mean, to WIN THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE!!!!! It makes the Man Booker, or the Orange, or the Costa Award - or indeed anything else - look like... peanuts.
To be honest, and with some shame, I must admit that, while being aware that Ernest Hemingway knew a thing or two about the craft of writing and had churned out some cracking novels (several of which I had read), I had actually FORGOTTEN (if I ever knew) that he actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was in 1954, since you ask. And the only reason I was 'reminded' of it was because the other day I plucked one of the hundreds of original penguin paperbacks from the packed book shelves lining my late mother's home and found myself staring at this fact, emblazoned in glorious old-fashioned font, on the jacket of his novel 'To Have and Have Not'.
As it turns out, the award was not for any particular book, but, as the President of the Swedish Nobel Academy put it:
"For his mastery of the art of modern narration. Hemingway is one of the great authors of our time, one of those who honestly and undauntedly, reproduces the genuine features of the hard countenance of the age."
So far so good. What a great reason to win the Nobel Prize. Yay!
But Hemingway was also a depressive drunk who just seven years later, at the age of 62, put a bullet through his own brain.
And that got me thinking. Geniuses often suffer, it is true. But Hemingway had such heightened powers of wisdom and self -awareness that it seems all the more shocking that he should simply give up on the business of being alive. To win the greatest prize for literature in the world should have been the pinnacle of his career, shouldn't it? Something to rejoice, in. Something to cherish....
At which point it occurred to me (the audacity of implied self-comparison with a literary giant notwithstanding) that NOTHING would be more potentially damaging to my own, notoriously fragile creative muse than waking up to the fact, every day, of having won the bloomin Nobel Prize for Literature! Where can one possibly go from such an achievement, other than down? How could one ever write another word that felt good enough? Just the sound of the critics sharpening their knives, ready to lay into whatever was produced next, would be sufficient to send me scurrying into a dark cave, or reaching for the bottle. Typically, Hemingway knew this. Already an alcoholic, and suffering from additional poor health, he famously did not attend the award ceremony, declaring:
"Writing at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day."
Oh my word, the sadness. The prescience. The genius.
I can thoroughly recommend 'To Have and Have Not'. It offers all that you would hope to find in a Hemingway novel. It also contains a harrowing paragraph praising the handiness of guns for the purposes of self-annihilation:
Those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up.
That was written 24 years before he shot himself. His fourth wife had the pleasure of doing the cleaning up.
I think I'm saying I'm glad I'm not a genius. I think I'm saying I'm glad I'm never going to win a Nobel Prize.