On Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon:
The unfortunate, if well-meaning, advice too often given to a new author is to write about what you know. It does not tell you how much you need to know or how you need to know it. Some things, important things, we learn by accident: the look of a girl passed on a street late one magical night in Manhattan, a girl we will never see again and, perhaps for that reason, will never forget. Some things we learn, or try to learn, on purpose. We go somewhere because it is the only place to discover what we think we have to find. It was the reason Hemingway went to Spain, to learn about bullfighting, something he thought he would hate but loved so much he wrote what is perhaps the greatest book ever written about it, Death in the Afternoon. The title itself seems to tell a story, four words that convey a sense of solitude and makes death seem an act of heroism and something to be proud of.
Hemingway was in his twenties, trying to write. He had been an American volunteer in the First World War, an ambulance driver in Italy. He was there, on the battlefield, whenever the fighting stopped, picking through dead bodies, looking for survivors. Death was all around him, but he did not yet know what he thought he needed to know.
“The greatest difficulty,” he insisted, “aside from knowing what you really feel, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” He was trying to write, “trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all, and the most fundamental, is violent death.” He had seen death, but not life and death together, the moment when, suddenly, death, violent death, takes life away. The only place you could still see it, “now that the war was over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it.”
Death in the Afternoon is not a novel, but neither is it what normally is called a work of non-fiction. It is not even a memoir, an autobiography in which Hemingway tells stories about himself. It is a book about bullfighting, but only because of what bullfighting teaches, or used to teach, about death. Bullfighting, Hemingway is quick to tell us, is not what we tend to think it is: a sport, an equal contest, “or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man.” Bull fighting is a “tragedy,” certain death for the bull and danger, and possibly death, for the man. In an equal contest, all the advantage would be with the bull. This is why the matador has only fifteen minutes to work. Any longer than that and the bull, who learns rapidly, would learn to ignore the bullfighter’s attempts at deception. A bull who survives the bull ring is never allowed to fight again.
Hemingway introduces, from time to time, a woman – he calls her the “old woman” – with whom he carries on a frequently interrupted but never abandoned conversation in which she often asks questions about such things as the love life of the bulls. She is gratified to learn that while one bull is sufficient for fifty cows, a bull sometimes becomes so enamored of one in particular that the two of them try to wander off together, somewhere alone. Hemingway tells her that the best bull fights are held in Madrid and where the best places in the arena are to find a seat with an unobstructed view and at least partial protection from the blazing midday sun. With an expert’s eye he describes what makes a bullfighter great: the bravery, the calm indifference, when a thousand pound bull passes so close that “the horns almost touch, and sometimes do touch, his thighs while the bull’s shoulders touch his chest.”
In the 1920s, which were, in the judgment of many contemporaries, a period of decadence in bullfighting, Joselito, one of the greatest bullfighters Spain had ever seen, first arrived on the scene. He was attacked, as is usually the case, by those who admired the best known names of the time, “who fortunately all retired and at once became incomparable.” Watching Joselito, for Hemingway, was like “reading D’Artagnan when you were a boy.” The test, the real test, of a matador came with “his first severe horn wound,” because until then you cannot tell what his “permanent value will be.” Joselito was gored badly three times, and killed 1557 bulls. He was then gored a fourth time and died. Joselito is only one of the bullfighters Hemingway had watched closely. There was El Gallo, “a great bullfighter and the first one to admit fear,” and Manolo, who was refused police protection from the crowd on the reasonable ground that if he fought as well as he should he would not need it. Hemingway describes them all, and then, just when you have been drawn so closely into this misunderstood defiance of death that you begin to think yourself one of the bullfighters he describes, he tells you something about writing that reminds you how little you know.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have the feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”
The drama of the bullfight comes in what is called the faena, the “sum of the work done by the matador with the muleta in the final third of the bullfight.” The muleta is a heart-shaped scarlet cloth folded over a tapered wooden stick with a sharp steel point used to perform a series of passes “of more or less aesthetic value with the bull,” the passes that bring the bullfighter and the bull closer and closer. The
complete, the perfect, faena makes you feel “immortal while it is proceeding,” a feeling “as profound as any religious ecstasy,” a feeling that builds with “the increasing disregard for death that leaves you, when it is over…as empty and as changed and as sad as any major emotion will leave you.”
The perfect faena is seldom achieved, but it is the standard for what should be looked for. It is, for Hemingway, the one indispensable thing, the one thing you should require of yourself: “to know what is good and what is bad, to appreciate the new but let nothing confuse your standards.”
The last chapter of Death in the Afternoon tells you what has not been written. “If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it.” It would have included the Prado, and the “bright Madrid summer morning; the bare white mud hills looking across toward Carabanchel; days on the train in August with the blinds pulled down on the side against the sun and the wind blowing them….” And then, at the very end, there is this: “The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.”
Death in the Afternoon is all about bullfighting, and it is not about bullfighting at all. It is about the meaning of courage and what it means to live and to die well. It is about remembering that, “It is easier to be stupid and naturally brave than to be exceedingly intelligent and still completely brave.” It is about the nobility of honorable lives.