In the vein of catching up on the reading I missed out on in high school, over the past few years I’ve been working on overcoming my aversion to Ernest Hemingway. In high school, I read several of his short stories (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” etc.). My high school English teacher, Mr. Witz, even assigned us to write a Hemingway imitation piece, to be entered in a national contest. The spare, hard narrative style was okay, but I resisted the dialogue. I still do, to some extent. The repetition, the obvious-seeming phrasing, at least in some pieces, struck me as problematic. I’m not sure I can parse my dislike of it very well. Maybe it sounded too phony to my reading ears.
But in an attempt to overcome this superficial dislike and limited exposure, I have read three classic Hemingway novels during the past few years. First up, The Old Man and the Sea, the book that won him a Pulitzer. I checked it out from the Iowa City Public Library and read it in an afternoon. Short, brusque, heartbreaking. The elderly Cuban fisherman at the heart of the story is on a quest for a giant marlin, and his obsession over this last fish takes him far from land and home. I especially remember the scene of him catching a smaller fish to sustain himself while he tries to reel in the marlin. He’s out on a small boat, with nothing but his rod and a knife, so he slices up the smaller fish and eats the meat raw, like sashimi. He knows he has to sustain his life long enough to catch the marlin, and as he is driven further out to sea by the marlin caught on the end of his reel, he tries everything he can think of to stay awake, stay alive, and take the sucker.
It’s such a short, spare, beautiful book. I’d like to read it again, but I know it’s devastating, heartbreaking, and I am a little afraid to go through it again.
This seems to be my experience with the other two Hemingway novels that I’ve read more recently: The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. The stylistic difference between the two is strong. TSAR was written in the 1920s and was one of Hemingway’s breakthrough books. It’s far more voluble and is more-or-less plot-free. The strength of The Old Man and the Sea derives partly from its brevity, so the simple plot is sufficient. In the longer novels, the writing is the focus, rather than the characters, who aren’t especially compelling, or the plot, which seems to follow around disillusioned young American men in Europe. Maybe getting farther away from his own experiences helped Hemingway create a stronger piece. I’m no literary critic, of course — these are just my impressions.
A Farewell to Arms seems more autobiographical, since the book cover describes Hemingway’s experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War, which is the occupation of the protagonist, Frederic Henry. The most exhilarating part of the books, for me, is when Henry and his pregnant, English girlfriend escape from Italy to Switzerland in a “borrowed” canoe. Henry rows across a lake all night, evading border authorities and escaping arrest for deserting his post. The physical agony and the bright goal at daybreak brought me into the boat with Henry and Catherine.
Yet, once Henry and Catherine have created a charming life for themselves, posing as travelers through Switzerland and nesting in a hotel, a sense of foreboding settles in. Sure enough, as Catherine goes into a prolonged and difficult labor, ending with a Caesarian, you know something’s gone awry. Just like in an episode of ER, the knowledge that the book is physically coming to a close and the heroine is still fighting for her life lets the reader know that Henry’s happy family is about to disintegrate. It’s odd, knowing how integral fathers-to-be are in delivery rooms now, because Henry is sent away and goes into the Swiss village for meals and beer, and he reads the newspaper, wiling away the time as his cyanotic son is delivered and Catherine bleeds to death. He’s far from any friends or family to comfort him, and a bereft man is all that remains at the end of AFTA. Again, like Old Man, it’s heartbreaking.
So this is my experience of Hemingway. I feel I owe it to myself to re-read some of the short stories, to see if I can tolerate the dialogue and connect with the terse, lonely characters. They’re not warm people to spend time with, but they do feel real.