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Jack Smith

At Harry's Bar the beer was cold and the Austrian guns in the end were less fulfilling than the light rain . . .

April 14, 1987|Jack Smith

We drove out to Harry's Bar the other night for the Filetti di Vitello al Picotitt e Pompelmo Rosa and the judging.

It was not raining. Even if it had been, I would not have said "in the rain." This is not a Hemingway parody.

The usual judges met at the back of the bar to read the 30 finalists in the 10th annual International Hemingway Contest and to choose a winner.

The entries are usually such bad Hemingway that the judges despair, but we remember that the prize is a trip to Harry's Bar in Florence, Italy, for two, so we are solemn.

If you want to enter the contest, read one book of Hemingway--that's all you need to get the hang of it. Then try to be funny, in his style, on one typewritten page.

It's trying to be funny that ruins many contestants. That, and making the parody too heavy. Hemingway's style was not that obvious. Restraint--that's the ticket.

Some don'ts that reflect my personal prejudices:

Don't write "I obscenity on thy grave," or on anything else.

Don't write "The earth moved."

Don't write about fish--live or dead.

Start anywhere. Here's a good place to start: "It was spring, and he could hear the Austrian guns in the mountains."

It's OK to put some sex in it, some boozing and some bulls--all three, if you can handle it.

Try to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Avoid vulgarity, slapstick and politics. Remember, Hemingway's tastes were hearty, but refined.

Of course I'm speaking for myself. Some of the other judges may like fish, slapstick and vulgarity.

One of the runners-up this year was a satire of Ron and Nancy by Daniel White of Washington. It began:

"The President looked at the woman he called Nancy. He knew in his heart that other men had also called her Nancy; it was her name. But he did not wish to think about that now. They were seated at a table. The table was hard, like wood, and capable of holding many condiments. Maybe a giant redwood was killed for it, the President thought. He looked at it admiringly, for he knew that to kill a giant redwood was not an easy thing and required much courage to do the job truly and well. Even with a chain saw. . . . "

Some of the judges were amused by the oblique reference to Reagan's well-known feeling about redwoods ("When you've seen one, you've seen 'em all"). Others felt the topic was too much a cheap cliche of the times. It had a nice ending:

"Rain began to fall. It fell as it always had, downward and in little drops. But the President did not notice, because he was inside."

I liked "A Clean, Well-Sighted Ace," by Jay Jennings of New York. It describes a tennis match, action mingling with visual images and philosophical distractions, as Hemingway might have described a bullfight:

"Nick noticed that the ball was white and round and hung in the air a second before he hit it. . . . The Swede served very hard. The ball was a white flash. It reminded Nick of the soft puffs from the Austrian guns in the woods on the ridge near Milan. . . .

"It was all a nothing and man was a nothing and the American's score was nothing which is in tennis love. When you have love, you have nothing, Nick thought. . . . "

The judges thought it was not funny enough, though I thought there was some humor in Nick's conclusion that all is nothing. Or nothing is all. Maybe it was a joke on the minimalists.

First place and the trip to Florence went to Dave and Diana Curtin of Newport Beach, entering as a team.

Their entry had the provocative name of "In Another Contra." It begins with a man pushing into a sleazy seaside bar.

"The man, whose name was nondescript, unslung his maquina and placed it on the bartop, gently, as if it was asleep and he wished not to wake it. It was his favorite machine gun. They had been together for years. Men who knew of guns and subordinate clauses said that when the gun was fired, it leapt and twisted with the iridescent violence of a tail-dancing black marlin, yet it was not nearly so slimy."

There is much killing in the bar; but it is only a killing of flies. The bartender explains: "They seek the light. That is their downfall."

The man says: "I seek the light also. As long as it tastes great and is not too filling."

Also I liked an also-ran, untitled, by L. B. Janzer of Portland: "You know how it is when the old drunk finds his place at the foot of the great seated Arsenale lion and the proprietor of the Bar Arsenale puts out the little metal tables with the Campari umbrellas and the young Italian sailors stand at the counter to have their morning cappuccino and to talk about the girls they had had last night, or about their mammas, because they are mostly from the country and not really Venetians, in spite of their immaculate uniforms, white and very beautiful."

Some judges felt the sentence was too long (86 words) and too literary.

Hemingway wrote much longer sentences than that. Read the sentence at the bottom of the first page of Chapter 2 of "A Farewell to Arms." It is 161 words long and clear as a tolled bell.

Hemingway couldn't have won it himself. He wasn't funny enough.

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