Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reading Hemingway

There's a sort of mantlepiece shelf in our library -- I say a sort of mantlepiece because it's over a sort-of fireplace: a fireplace-ish niche which lacks that essential element, a chimney, because once upon a time it contained a Victorian era ventless gas heater. This shelf I claimed, not long after we started unpacking books, as my aspiration shelf, the place where I line up all the books I intend to read. There they stand until I pull them down, read them, and return them to their appropriate shelf.

One night, for no particular reason other than I realized the aspiration shelf was short on fiction and because one of the gaps in my literary knowledge is that I'd never actually read anything by him, I added The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms to the aspiration shelf, and a couple nights ago while I was wandering about the library kibitzing MrsDarwin's novel revisions, I pulled The Sun Also Rises down and started reading it.

As I say, I'd never actually read any Hemingway before, though of course I'd heard roughly the same jokes and observations that anyone who hangs around book people will have soaked up about him. He writes in short sentences. Declarative sentences. And he's a masculine writer. Writing about war. And drinking. And bullfighting. And drinking. And blood. And drinking.

Somehow I'd got it into my head that reading Hemingway would be roughly as difficult a haul as reading Faulkner was a couple years ago, only with tortuously short sentences instead of tortuously long ones. As such, I was surprised to find Hemingway's prose to be almost completely transparent. Indeed, I wouldn't have noticed him to be any particular kind of prose stylist if I hadn't been assured ahead of time that he was known for his direct and vigorous prose. It just reads... normal. Thinking on this, it occurs to me that I normally associate a distinctive style either with some kind of dialect or effort to convey thought, or with the use of especially ornate or poetic diction while writing prose. Short, clear sentences that tell you what is going on just seem like the modern norm.

Though since Hemingway is so noted for his style, I now find myself wondering if rather than being a "typical example" of modern prose style he's something of the model of what has since become common.

Either way, I find myself quite enjoying The Sun Also Rises, and it even works as a lunch reading or bedtime reading book, in a way that Literature typically doesn't for me.


christopher said...

It's interesting that you've started reading Hemingway now as I've been sort of drawn back to him lately also. I'm pretty sure I've read every story he ever wrote and at least three biographies that I can remember. Looking forward to some reviews :)

Tom Simon said...

Rem acu tetigisti, Mr. Darwin, sir!

Hemingway’s prose was a violently novel experiment when he began publishing after the First World War. The experiment was so extremely successful that it became the norm for nearly all young writers and critics who entered the field after him.

With the typical unwitting irony of the historically ignorant, the last two generations of critics have utterly forgotten that Hemingway was an experimental writer. Instead they choose to fetishize, as the epitome of experimental writing, James Joyce — whose experiments one and all were ghastly failures. You see, Joyce still reads like an experiment, and people who desire novelty merely for its own sake still find it a heady dose. It does not often occur to them that an experiment which has been imitated for ninety years without ever catching on or finding a practical application might have to be regarded as a failure.

Matthew Lickona said...

I read Hemingway once. In the rain. The prose was hard and true and clean. It was good to read it. It made me feel hard and true and clean as well, and that was a good feeling to have. Even if it was not true.

I first read The Sun Also Rises as a freshman in high school, I think, and his line about Lady Brett - "She had curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it in that sweater" - lodged firmly and forever in my lizard brain.

Matthew Lickona said...

The Sun Also Rises drinking game: every time they mention taking a drink, take a drink.

John Farrell said...

Hemingway's style I enjoyed. I read Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was the endings of both novels I found...forced, for lack of a better term.

Gail Finke said...

My father is a Hemingway expert so I've read everything he ever wrote, including collections of his newspaper articles and all his short stories. I couldnt' stand "A Farewell to Arms," but as soon as I shut it I burst into tears. My favorites are not the typical favorites -- I loved "A Moveable Feast" and "Death in the Afternoon." Of course I had to read "The Sun Also Rises" in high school and I do wonder how I would like it now. What particularly struck me during my read-all-of-Hemingway frenzy was how strangely the women talked. But if you read memoirs from the 1920s, particularly women's letters, you find that they really talked that way.

Matthew Lickona: HA HA HA HA HA