Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

I owe you an apology.

I know you're not around anymore, and I know you probably don't care what I have to write anyway. But I've spent a lot of my life saying hateful things about you, so I feel the need to apologize publicly.

I first read Ernest Hemingway in an American Lit class in high school. I loved the teacher, loved everything we read, except I loathed Hemingway. We read his Nick Adams short stories. Our teacher discussed his terse style, interest in war, bull-fighting, the outdoors. To me his writing felt arrogant, filled with false-bravado. I couldn't see the draw at all.

In college, discovering that most of my classmates had read Old Man and the Sea, I gave that a try. Same style. After just a few pages, I put it down.

Years later, I ended up teaching American Lit. A fellow teacher suggested a Hemingway short story ("A Day's Wait"). I wrinkled my nose, but she promised me it was good. It was. It was a breathtakingly beautiful story, honest and sad. The only good Hemingway I ever read. It didn't inspire me to read anymore, but at least I could say I taught Hemingway. Sort of.

Fast forward to now, and my Bristol book group. The lone man in the group suggested we read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I made a face. I told the group I'd happily give it a try, but in truth I didn't intend to read more than a few pages. Especially when I saw the novel was over 400. I repeated my mantra, said I found Hemingway's writing masculine, arrogant, and dull.

This Thursday when we meet for book group, I'm planning to eat my words.

I LOVED For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Admittedly, it was a slow start. The writing was the same terse style I'd come to hate. But I pressed on, figuring I should at least finish the first chapter. And I was loathe to admit it, but every so often there were some beautiful sentences. Then I pushed on to the second chapter, thinking I should at least say I read 50 pages. By page 50, I stopped making excuses, and finally admitted I was totally absorbed in this story of an American dynamiter fighting in Spain's Civil War, and all the politics, the people who say one thing, but mean another, and everyone in their own way confronting death as they plan to blow up a bridge to stop the Fascist Army.

But not only was the story absorbing, the characters fascinating (though it did take a while to actually get to the bridge...), the best part was that this terse style became like a writing masterclass.

I mean, listen to this! "He knelt by the stream and, pushing his automatic pistol around on his belt to the small of his back so that it would not be wet, he lowered himself with a hand on each of two boulders and drank from the stream. The water was achingly cold."

Achingly cold. It gives me chills (literally, not just figuratively!). Talk about a beautiful use of an adverb (which writers are never supposed to use!).

Most of the language was slow, plodding, yet brief. It was meant to capture Spanish in translation, and I did truly feel like I was reading Spanish and then slowly translating the language into English in my mind. It also forced me to read every word, which took a long time, but is a neat trick.

But better, Hemingway plays with that rhythm, changing it at different points, and he changes the pace of his language to convey dialogue, description, thought, sex. I was mesmerized. I would love to quote one of his sex scenes, but I don't quite dare. Read the book!

I also loved the cursing in the novel (yes, sex, cursing, see what this Hemingway love hath wrought?!). Actually, he didn't curse outwardly, he did everything he could to get around it. As a young adult author, I thought there was a lot to learn here:

"Where the hell are you going? Agustín asked the grave little man as he came up.
“To my duty,” Fernando said with dignity.
“Thy duty,” said Agustín mockingly. “I besmirch the milk of thy duty.” Then turning to the woman, “Where the un-nameable is this vileness that I am to guard?”
“In the cave,” Pilar said. “In two sacks. And I am tired of thy obscenity.”
“I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness,” Agustín said.
“Then go and befoul thyself,” Pilar said to him without heat.
“Thy mother,” Agustín replied.

Apparently this annoys a lot of people, but it absolutely cracked me up. You know (roughly) all the obscene things the characters are saying, but Hemingway is avoiding all censorship. In a later passage, in the main character's own head, so there is no Spanish translation, the word muck is substituted. But muck becomes just as angry and as effective as anything else.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, I didn't find the novel overly arrogant or masculine, or any of those other hateful things I said before about Mr. Hemingway. Instead, I found it full of questions, about masculinity, bravery, killing, what it means to be a soldier, whether war really accomplishes any purpose, whether democracies can ever be fair.

The love interest, Maria, prior to the novel's opening, has been gang-raped. This isn't handled well (sex and loving the "right man" will make it all better!), but considering it was the early 1940s, I was impressed it was there in the first place, discussed, and that Maria was treated gently and sensitively because of it.

It was a beautiful and truly thought-provoking read. And strangely enough, I'm anxious to read more. Anyone have any Hemingway recommendations? Any writers you hate?


  1. I'm not a Hemingway person, for pretty much the same reasons as yours. Give me F. Scott Fitzgerald instead. I even like Steinbeck better than Hemingway. Steinbeck's "The Pearl" is haunting. I will have to look for "A Day's Wait" and give that a try.

  2. Andrea: Funny, I've been thinking about some of the literary greats like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald that I read as a kid (same American Lit class) and haven't read since. You've inspired me to give them another look! Do let me know if you can make it through A Day's Wait. It's about a feverish little boy, so is missing many of those typical masculine Hemingway themes.

  3. My policy, to be applied to self only, is not to name writers I don’t care for publically. I learned that I am too prone to forming strong opinions, sometime without sufficient reason.

    I like your post, because it reflects on your transition from a negator(=made-up word, but useful) to an appreciator. I’ll be looking to emulate you.

  4. Ha, when I first started reading this post, I was like "Who's she talking to?" Oh, duh Hemmingway.

    I think maybe you couldn't appreciate and/or relate it at first? For instance, I never could understand Toni Morrison (I know right?) until college and I love her work now.

    Maybe we have to grow into the words for some authors?

    I "dislike" lots of writers, but my Southern up-bringing will keep me silent about them. :)

  5. Mirka: Thanks! At least, a negator to an appreciator in one area... I'm sure there are numerous other quickly made, ill-informed decisions in my life! I have felt strongly about Hemingway for a while, though, so it's good to come clean!

    Karen: hehehe. If it wasn't a dead famous author, that could have been a scary beginning to a blog post! Bet you were really wondering what I was about to confess! ;)

    There's a lot of books I read as a kid that I didn't like then and don't like now, so I'm not sure what the difference is. Maybe the Nick Adams stories aren't representative of Hemingway's best work. Or maybe my tastes have matured. Probably a bit of both. I like the idea of "growing" into some authors. Toni Morrison is a good example of someone who can be hard going at first, but is so rewarding to read.

    I try to hold my tongue about living authors, but I figure the dead famous ones are fair game. Except when I'm wrong. ;)

  6. It's been years since I've read, and enjoyed, "From Whom the Bell Tolls" but you've made me want to go search it out again. I've been re-reading Francis Prose's "Reading Like A Writer" and she does an excellent job of highlighting Hemingway's talent with sentences and phrases (much like you did, I might add!) from "A Moveable Feast" and "The Sun Also Rises".

    In college, I think I enjoyed Hemingway because the terse structure gave me an excuse to read quickly, when actually I should have been reading a whole lot slower to appreciate his work!!

  7. Bridgette: How is Francis Prose's book? Sounds like it could be really interesting. And glad to hear from another Hemingway fan! I need to decide what to read next. BTW, my book group all agreed with me, everyone enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls.

  8. I've never read any Hemingway. My daughter told me that Old Man and the Sea was the worst thing she ever had to read. But after reading your post, I'll admit, I'm considering giving For Whom the Bell Tolls a try.

  9. Ruth: Ohhh, if you do go ahead with it, let me know what you think, good or bad! I have to say, I'm thinking about going back to Old Man... at least it's much shorter than For Whom the Bell Tolls!

  10. Anne,
    I loved this post. I have not read For Whom, but did read The Sun Also Rises in high school. I remember liking it, but I don't recall much of the story or even of the style. Your shift as a reader is something that seems to happen to many of us. We grow up a little, figure out more about the world and ourselves, and appreciate works that eluded us before.

    I don't think there are many writers that I have strong negative opinions about. I tend to avoid certain styles (like horror, for example), rather than certain authors.

  11. Adoptsmom: Thanks! You've got me thinking what other books I might want to give a try to measure just how much I've grown up (or not! ;) ).

    I don't think there's any genres I don't read, but definitely some I like better than others. It's so interesting to me how we all have our own completely subjective view points when it comes to literature.


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