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The art of accrocher

In A Moveable Feast (1964), Ernest Hemingway recounts how Gertrude Stein, upon reading a selection of his stories ‘liked them except one’, entitled ‘Up in Michigan’: ‘“It’s good,” she said. “That’s not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable…you mustn’t write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it.”’

Stein reasons: ‘that means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.’

Traditionally, inaccrochable refers to unpublishable sexual content, as is indeed Stein’s point regarding ‘Up in Michigan’, prompting Hemingway to ask: ‘but what if it is not dirty but it is only that you are trying to use words that people would actually use?’

For the purposes of this article, however, I would like to consider the word more literally in terms of its relation to the French verb accrocher – meaning to hang up – and of its existence, therefore, as this verb’s direct and negative adjectival derivation.

The notion of things being judged, valued, and qualified according to and based upon their capacity to be ‘hung up on a wall’ or not is one of which I was reminded when reading, last week, an article in the New York Review of Books.

In this article – aptly entitled ‘A Novel Way to Think About Literary Categories’ – Tim Parks questions our tendency to categorise novels based on their genre: ‘is it the better to find what we want, on the carefully labelled shelves of our bookshops? So that the reading experience won’t, after all, be too novel.’ He then proposes a different method of categorisation, based upon what he refers to as a ‘hierarchy of values’ that is expressed thematically as opposed to stylistically.

It struck me this tendency towards categorisation is not dissimilar to the idea of wanting to hang things up on walls in order to identify with them; in assigning things – novels, paintings – a category, we are essentially selecting the wall upon which they might be most appropriately hung.

There seems to be a suggestion, too – made more explicit, perhaps, by Parks than it is by Stein – that in assigning works categories or walls, we are able to engage with them more effectively and to understand them in greater depth; their categorisation is what makes them more comprehensible, and thus appealing, to us.

As, however, Ralph Waldo Emerson observes in ‘The American Scholar’ (1837), our inclination to hang something up on a wall – and, indeed, what we ultimately choose to accrocher – is really something that is inherently internal and dependent upon individual preference, as opposed to external, objective categorisation; beauty is, after all, famously in the eye of the beholder.

Emerson writes: ‘When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part, - only the authentic utterances of the oracle; - all the rest he rejects’.

Thus, what we choose to hold onto (s’accrocher à) within our observations and what we deem to be accrochable, as it were, is ultimately dependent upon the inclination of our own mind.

This is, indeed, what Parks comes to realise, as he defines and proffers an alternative method of literary categorisation; though not necessarily exclusive to him alone, the fact of his discerning this alternative method is testimony to Emerson’s idea of ‘the seer’s vision’ uncovering that which is of greatest pertinence to the seer himself. In accordance, too, with the ‘short and rare’ nature of this ‘hour of vision’, Parks recalls how ‘suddenly, the likeness was obvious.’

To this end what we read, write, or paint becomes a form of self-expression which, is, fittingly, what Emerson identifies within us all: ‘the man is only half himself, the other half is his expression’ (‘The Poet’, 1844).

His reference to ‘what is always true’ is likewise significant, in restoring us to Hemingway, for whom truth is portrayed as the most accrochable of all; when suffering from what sounds uncannily like writer’s block, he explains how he would ‘write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then.’

Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman

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