Byron Bay, Australia, May 2018
A trailer for the movie “Breath” screened earlier this year for Australia/NZ. The movie, adapted from Tim Winton’s 2008 novel Breath, stars Australian actor Simon Baker who also optioned, produced and directed the project. Baker’s known to American audiences as “The Mentalist,” a long running American TV series. The movie “Breath” premiered in Australia, May 3, 2018. Baker’s movie closely follows Winton’s novel, an acclaimed 2009 Miles Franklin Award winner (best Australian novel).
The story turns on a young boy’s coming of age around a tiny, Western Australia (WA) coastal town. The main adolescent pastime here is surfing and the movie promised better than most surfing action. Our Lennox (New South Wales) friend recalls the young, Byron Shire local Simon Baker as a precocious surfer. For this movie, Baker insisted production, crew and cast remain 75% resident to the movie’s filming location, Denmark, WA. Patti and I visited WA summer, 2014, and traveled a coastline closer to Nairobi than to Sydney. We don’t recall much beyond rock-climbing remote sea cliffs.
But we do remember this novel catching an eye at our regular Powell’s (a Portland bookstore) date-night, 2009. Here’s the cover.
Last February (2018), our ski buddies Don and Whitney visited us from Portland, Oregon. Before arriving at Byron Bay (NSW), Australia, they enjoyed a week’s powder skiing Japan’s very cold hinterland ski-fields. A couple days later they’d crossed the equator to surf Clarke’s Beach with Sarah’s Byron Bay surf school friends. Don then posted these photos and dates to Facebook.
Byron Bay, February 15, 2018
Now Don and Whitney’s adventure (a 4500-mile work of adaptive spirit as well as athleticism) may not signal a cultural shift like Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer” (1964) or ski-film pioneer Warren Miller’s1 “Around the World on Skis” (1962). But Winton’s novel takes the outré, bohemian imperative well beyond contemporary action sports.
Particularly, we see turning detail in Winton’s Breath that we’ve seen before, in an Ernest Hemingway skiing story.
Hemingway’s earliest fiction was published in 1924. Of the In Our Time stories anthologized, most overlooked is “Cross-Country Snow.” Here Hemingway recalls the Swiss/Austrian setting of ski adventures with his first wife, Hadley, during the Paris years. Despite Hemingway’s personal lifestyle troubling some readers, his groundbreaking fictional style defines our modern prose idiom.2
Tim Winton’s Breath shows similar motive detail, 2008. But where Hemingway’s code-hero Nick Adams (and Hemingway himself?) appear fixed by uncertainty, Winton’s Pike conveys equilibrium and growing sensibility. In both stories, the turning force underfoot signals life changing moments, better realized (for Pike) and less so (for Nick Adams/Hemingway).
Set in backward, small-town mining/farming communities, Winton’s protagonist, Bruce Pike, finds his life role-model: Sando, an international surfing icon, retired to that remote WA beach. Despite a dark, psychic current, Pike craves the breath [of life]: breath-held when the he’s pulled underwater by broken waves and the breath-held in flagrante with Sando’s wife, Eva, an American freestyle skiing champion with a bad knee (and worse mojo). The novel pivots on some startling, breathless surfing imagery. Not to mention accidental brain damage.
We’ll find Winton’s language, imagery, and ambivalent thematic context nascent in the earlier Hemingway story.
First, here’s Winton:
We didn’t know it yet, but we’d already imagined ourselves into a different life, another society, a state for which no raw boy had either words or experience to describe. Our minds had already gone out to meet it and we’d left the ordinary in our wake…You felt shot full and the sensation burned for hours – for days… Like you’ve exploded and all the pieces of you are reassembling themselves. You’re new. Shimmering. Alive…I was, after all ordinary…(but)…This was a woman not in the least bit ordinary…She relished opposition, yet her only real opponents had been the facts of life: gravity, fear and the limits of endurance. She loved the snow the way I loved water – so much it hurt…(Now) I’m nearly fifty years old…But I can still maintain a bit of style. I slide down the long green walls into the bay to feel what I started out with, what I lost so quickly and for so long: the sweet momentum, the turning force underfoot, and those brief, rare moments of grace” (emphasis added).Breath, Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2008)
Sensational prose. An early New York Times book review (June 8, 2008) allowed that this surf imagery “isn’t hokum.” Recently, American poet/critic Ron Rush described Winton as “one of the world’s great living novelists” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 10, 2018).
Hemingway’s short story “Cross Country Snow” (1924) also turns on a single pivot. Like Winton’s Australian Pike, Hem’s American protagonist Nick Adams also craves a freedom lost before (he knew) he missed it. He’s on a final ski run with his buddy George. But life’s trapped Nick Adams: a war injury (“I can’t telemark3 with my knee”), geography (“the mountains [at home] … are too far away”), and his new wife’s pregnancy.
On the white below George dipped and rose and dipped out of sight. The rush and the sudden swoop as he dropped down a steep undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body. He rose to a slight up-run and then the snow seemed to drop out from under him as he went down, down faster and faster in a rush down the last, long steep slope…Nick Adams came up past George, big back and blond head still faintly snowy, then his skis started slipping at the edge and swooped down, hissing in the crystalline powder snow and seemed to float up and drop down as he went up and down the billowing khuds. He held to his left and at the end, as he rushed toward the fence, keeping his knees locked tight together and turning his body like tightening a screw brought his skis sharply around to the right in a smother of snow and slowed into a loss of speed parallel to the hillside and the wire fence” (emphasis added).Cross Country Snow,” In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway, (Three Mountains Press, Paris, 1924)
We see Hemingway’s “plucked Nick’s mind out” and Winton’s “our minds had already gone out.” The phrases suggest transcendence. But does either character realize an elevated state? (Winton: “mind” is the phrase’s subject, an active placement. Hemingway: “mind” is the phrase’s object, a more passive position.)
Hemingway’s “turning his body” and Winton’s “turning force underfoot” are realized only in Pike’s “brief, rare moments of grace.”
Here Winton identifies Hemingway’s code-hero: the “grace under pressure” ethos. Hemingway and scholars opine about Hemingway’s ideal hero paradigm. But Winton localizes the transcendent moments of grace in Pike’s experience. Hemingway’s Nick Adams abandons the turn’s “sweet momentum” that Pike “started out with (and) lost,” and then found again.
Pike is age-fifty as Winton’s Breath closes. Hemingway’s male protagonists expire earlier, if bravely.4 Nick Adams expires, metaphorically: he turns his skis and stops parallel to a fence: fenced-in. Adam’s bleak concluding words, [there’s] “no good promising” [about skiing again or his wife’s pregnancy?] contrast with Pike’s “I can still maintain a bit of style.” Adams turns on a frozen Swiss snowfield; Pike turns on warmer Indian Ocean waves. The youthful, cross-country (skiing), code-hero Adams remains ambivalent, unresolved, emotionally attenuated. Pike finds grace at sea level.
These twin turning images, divided by critical oceans, two continents, 9,000 miles and three-generations, suggest that Winton and his current notion of “toxic masculinity”5 may get better milage than Papa’s hyper-masculinity.6
Hemingway, world-famous novelist, died by his own hand, aged 61, near the world-famous ski resort Sun Valley, Idaho. At age 57, Winton surfs remote WA. “This late life waterborne obscurity is a mercy,” Winton said this year.7
So, the newsy part of this article ends here.
However, the article might continue: a discussion of how the “dirt-bag” beginnings of surfing and skiing as sport morphed into $10 billion/year industries. Endless Summer (1964) cost $50,000 to produce; the movie earned $20 million. Interesting particularly is how words/pictures drove dynamic $ growth: music, writing, photos, movies and the advertising so developed. Corporate/economic/pop-culture monographs exist. (e.g., Belinda Wheaton, “The Cultural Politics of Lifestyle Sports,” NY: Routledge, 2013. Also, Rinehart, Syndar,“To The Extreme,” NY: State U NY Press, 2003).
BTW: At Rødøy, Norway, a petroglyph, dated to 5000 BC, shows a human figure on skis: it became Oslo’s logo for 1994 Winter Olympics. Skiing (and other action/extreme sport) athropological studies exist. To date, there’s been no definitive anthropological study of surfing history.8
1 Warren Miller filmed, produced and personally presented 50+ annual ski films over his career. https://www.smh.com.au/sport/warren-miller-the-ski-bum-whose-films-made-him-king-of-the-slopes-dies-at-93-20180126-h0ookl.html
2 Professors argue about who developed the stripped-down American prose of the twentieth century – Hemingway? Gertrude Stein? Sherwood Anderson? Dashiell Hammett? Hemingway’s most famous, most read; his self-regarded life-style most imitated. (Nathan Ward, The Lost Detective (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
3 During the time of Hemingway’s Austrian/Swiss ski holidays, Hadley’s biographer Gloria Diliberto reports (2011) Hemingway unhappy with Hadley’s comparatively more skillful skiing. BTW: I wrote about Hemingway’s “telemark” ski-turn reference: “The Great Ski Saga.” Ski XC. (Backpacker Magazine ski-annual, Fairchild Publications) NY, November 1985: pages 33-36.
4 Gary Cooper’s farewell speech in the movie “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943) sounds like Hemingway’s unintentional parody of his own code-hero and “grace under pressure” meme. (Hemingway wrote the novel, script and chose the actors.) Cooper’s Robert Jordan dies a cool, youthful, anti-fascist fighter (while dictator Franco rules Spain for decades more). This ambivalence shading Hemingway’s code-heroes seems foreshadowed by Nick Adams’ uncertainty.
5 Michael McGirr. Tim Winton, Looking for riches in the human heart: Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum 10-11 March 2018: pages 20-21.Tim Elliott. Plain Talk: Tim Winton has been musing on men…: Sydney Morning Herald, GoodWeekend 10-11 March 2018: pages 16-19.
Mandy Nolan. Toxic masculinity, terror and Tim Winton: Byron Shire Echo 28 March, 2018: page 32.
Tim Winton Podcast: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/australia-books-blog/audio/2018/apr/09/tim-winton-on-men-and-writing-with-my-heart-in-my-mouth-behind-the-lines-podcast
6 Hemingway’s first female biographer (Mary V. Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, New York: Knopf, 2017), cites “the mustachioed and virile Hemingway of the 1930s…his exploits in the bullring, on the deep seas, and in the African bush…morphed yet again into the politically engaged reporter of the Spanish Civil War, then into the intrepid, fighting journalist of WWII and finally into ‘Papa’ …[with] an openness to fluidity in gender boundaries.” Dearborn suggests the code-hero’s world is “more vibrant, more alive, more elemental, and at the same time more romantic” (pgs. 8 & 9). Hemingway’s code-hero, constraining emotion to embrace a “grace under pressure” performance, seems at odds with the romantic, anti-rationalist trope. (For a [trans-] gender equivalency, see Hemingway’s posthumous Garden of Eden novel, 1986.)
7 “The Guardian,” Australia Edition, April 9, 2018, 2:15 AEST. (newspaper online.)
8 Aaron James, Surfing with Sartre: an aquatic inquiry into a life of meaning (New York: Doubleday, 2017). Also, James centrally posits “adaptive attunement”, a Zen-like state where “my experience of myself can pass in and entirely out of my flow of consciousness, and then back to my bodily technique, as the wave moment asks of me…I’m fully engaged in the speeding moments with my actions drawn up into the blurring wind rush and my sense of myself fading into the background…” (pg. 162, emphasis added).
Sound track: “Madly, Truly, Softly,” a song by Savage Garden.