editions: Scribner paperbacks
The Sun Also Rises – 4 out of 5, 2/10-2/13
The Old Man and the Sea – 5+ out of 5, 4/5-4/6
To Have and Have Not – 4 out of 5, 6/27-6/29
A Farewell to Arms – 4 out of 5, 8/13-8/16
In Our Time – 3.5 out of 5, 9/12-9/17
For Whom the Bell Tolls – 3 out of 5, 12/21-12/23
Hemingway is one of those authors who you’re familiar with even if you haven’t read any of his work. The infamous six-word-story may be an urban legend but it doesn’t really matter: we understand that Hemingway is a writer of unadorned, terse prose. His sentences are short, his stories often masculine to the point of (some might say) toxicity, he was a hunter and a boozer and he killed himself. These are all things that I knew about Hemingway without ever having read a word of his writing.
Admittedly, I did read A Moveable Feast when it was bestowed upon me after leaving my first internship at The Public. But reading someone writing non-fiction – let alone writing non-fiction (or ostensible non-fiction) about themselves – is rather different from reading them in a fictional mode. And so, for the second year in a row, some of my closest contact to an author’s work came not from film or the page but from the stage.
I’m in awe of Elevator Repair Service and the work they do with classic texts, finding ways to stage them without actually adapting them. GATZ is one of the craziest, most mind-bending experiences I’ve ever had in a theater – and while The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is a smaller-scale feat, it is still a powerful and fascinating work of stagecraft. I saw that at NYTW in fall 2011 and I still recalled certain moments as I picked up The Sun Also Rises earlier this year. I remembered the bullfights, the drinking, the doomed not-quite-love affair between Jake and Brett Ashley. I remembered the final lines and how they were spoken in the backseat of a cab.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the rest of the book. ERS was smart to call their show The Select: you wouldn’t want to adapt all of Hemingway’s debut like you might Fitzgerald’s opus. There are moments of, let’s be frank, ordinary boredom in Hemingway’s debut. He hasn’t mastered the truly noteworthy skill of his, these short punchy sentences. He might be doing a great job of removing unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and other tools of purple prose… but he also doesn’t quite know what’s interesting. In many ways, The Sun Also Rises reads much like A Moveable Feast: we’re clearly hearing about Hemingway himself, or a version of him, and as with most who hold themselves in high self-regard, there are things that he thinks we’ll find interesting that really only he finds interesting.
I decided, after getting my feet wet with Hemingway’s early ‘masterpiece’, I’d jump all the way ahead to the big one: The Old Man and the Sea. Author Will Chancellor, when I was telling him about this project, expressed complete befuddlement that I could possibly have reached this point in my life without reading that book – and he called it perhaps the most perfect novella of all time.
I have to agree. I was entranced, near breathless throughout much of my reading. Hemingway’s simplicity here is the finest it could possibly be, finding a story to match the stylings, and it is one of the most wonderful reading experiences I think I’ve ever had. As a writer who enjoys a more lushly laden prose than Hemingway and his acolytes often deploy, I found myself awakened to the possibilities of this style in a way I didn’t think possible. It is a work truly deserving of the ‘masterpiece’ moniker.
One of the many joys of this whole project is that in forcing myself to read several works by an author in a year, I’m almost by necessity exposing myself to works that I might otherwise have never seen – works like Hard Times and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that are fantastic and fascinating and not the first (or second or third) book you recommend for someone coming to an author fresh and unexposed. To Have and to Hold is one such book. It has echoes of noir and adventure, a searing critique of capitalism, and some of Hemingway’s most experimental writing. It was such a wonderful surprise, believing that I “knew” Hemingway and his writing to be one thing and then discovering that it could open up and be much more. This is the Hemingway novel that I want to recommend to people, because I know it is the one they might not otherwise read – and it is perhaps the one I’m most glad to’ve read, even if I didn’t like it as much as The Old Man and the Sea.
In the back half of the year, I started to feel a bit of tension around this project. As our political climate started heating up, I wondered if I could handle Hemingway and his particular brand of American masculinity and bravado. But Dani encouraged me to jump into A Farewell to Arms and I’ll admit that I was again surprised, this time by the care and depth of emotional honesty that Hemingway brought to bear when detailing the love affair between Henry and Cat. I found some of the same problems rising up here that I found in The Sun Also Rises, with moments of slow going and curious detail (or lack thereof) – but when it came to the great beating heart of that novel, I was floored. I didn’t know he had it in him, frankly, and it made the ending of the novel absolutely gobsmacking.
I followed that up quickly with Hemingway’s debut short story collection, In Our Time, which is essentially a collection of flash fiction with some linked stories spaced in there. You see the seeds of much of what Hemingway would be getting up to down the line and the promise is immediately clear: this young man is going to write something great. I enjoyed getting to experience that in reverse – that is, knowing what Hemingway would come to write and seeing where it all started. But those stories have all but fled my mind, save a few small details from the Nick Adams stories. Just gone.
And then the election really kicked into gear and we saw toxic masculinity and the death-throes of the white patriarchy strike out in such a way that… well, nobody saw it coming. Yes, sure, people did. But I didn’t. Not really. My friends didn’t, my office didn’t, my ‘culture’ didn’t. And I couldn’t bear to read… well, much of anything, really. After the election I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy, a little humor, a couple feel-good warm-blanket kind of novels, some fiery social commentary – but I was struggling to face the fact that I still had to read one more Hemingway. Not only that, I had to read the most war-y of his books, the one that was set during a war we rarely hear about in our history classes.
And so as Christmas approached, with a train ride ahead of me, I forced myself to pick up For Whom the Bell Tolls… and I found that I was often barely reading. There were moments that pulled me in, but I will admit to you, faithful reader: I skimmed. I skimmed a lot. When the prose grabbed me and sat me down, I read as closely as I did The Old Man and the Sea… but all too often, my heart wasn’t in it. I hated the way Robert Jordan treated Maria, I hated the strange tension of this war, I hated the way they were all sitting around and floating through their memories as they waited to die at the hands of the fascists. Did I hate the book? No, that’d be unfair. It’s not a bad book, although I think I would’ve found it too long even if I’d read it under happier circumstances. But I didn’t enjoy it.
Conclusion: This fifth year of ‘catching up’ has been, in many ways, the most difficult. I had more trepidation with Woolf, perhaps, but with Hemingway I found that I just didn’t quite care so much. His style is, of course, an actual game-changer and when his writing was truly firing on all cylinders, it was breathtaking. The Old Man and the Sea is the Great American Novella, A Farewell to Arms perhaps the great war novel (or at least the Great American World War One novel), and I have to give credit for the way that Hemingway does capture the masculine self-interest and internal conflicts of a young man with the world at his feet. And I enjoyed making a discovery like To Have and Have Not, which is just as strong a novel (if less impactful and moving) than his more famous ones. But he rarely compelled me to read, in the way that Dickens or Austen or Woolf or Murakami oftentimes did (even though they all had their ups and downs too). Perhaps it is because I don’t so much see myself as Hemingway’s kind of man – or his kind of reader. But maybe that’s okay, too. It was still worth the candle.