Friday, January 3, 2014

Ernest Hemingway: In Our Time (1925)

I hate the idea of Hemingway.  You know the famous Nabokov quote:  "As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it."  That's how I feel.  I hate that kind of macho bullshit, always have. 

On the other hand I've always suspected, or feared, that I was doing him - or maybe just myself - an injustice in feeling that way, because I've never really given him a good solid read.  Read a couple of his books in college and they didn't leave any impression, but I was going through some shit then where nothing left an impression.  So I've always meant to go back to him.  Now, fresh off a Fitzgerald kick, seemed as good a time as any.  I'm starting at the beginning and I'll work my way forward until I can't stand any more.

For about the first half of this book I was on board.  I really like, for example, the trick of alternating fully-developed short stories with descriptive fragments, taken as if from soldiers' diaries or letters.  It sets up a productive tension between the fragments and the stories - how does each set of experiences relate to the other? is it one set of experiences or many? - that goes a long way to fulfilling the promise of the title, that this book is going to say something definitive about its age, and those who lived through it.  It also gives the book a modernist experimental flavor that I don't remember from my other EH reading;  the fragmentation, the collage effect, reminds me of course of This Side of Paradise, and I find it interesting that both writers started off experimental and became more conventional almost immediately. 

The style, though.  That famous Hemingway style.  It's a stumbling block for me.  I can appreciate it - did like it for the first half of the book or so.  It is refreshing at first, even this many decades after it became canonical;  and it is effective at suggesting restraint, shell-shock, strong feeling, numbness, any number of things.  But after a while it begins to feel maybe even more pretentious, more bombastic, more contrived than the ornate older styles against which it was reacting.  By the time I got to "Big Two-Hearted River" I was rolling my eyes. 

But then I started reading online criticism of the book - and I regret to say I didn't bookmark what I read, so I can't link to it - I don't remember where or what it was - but maybe that's part of my point, that Hemingway has become ubiquitous, and for good reason - I remembered struggling through this very story in high school and struggling with the idea of literary symbolism.  You know, what is it, how do you know this is a symbol of that and not of this other thing and aren't you just pulling it out of your ass anyway, all those things you have to work through when you're first learning to read in a literary way.  It's a good story for that;  the iceberg theory and all.  And I can't argue that this story doesn't do that:  doesn't suggest great trauma, great crisis, beneath a placid surface.  I have to respect it.

I'll keep going.


Cat said...

I love teaching and writing about "Big, Two-Hearted River." It is a beautiful entryway into close reading and subtext. Also, I would say that the Hemingway celebrity persona and ethos associated with him is far more bombastic than the work itself, at least than the early work. Almost always, Hemingway is trying to express a kind of broken, suffering masculinity, rather than the egotistical sh!tshow he's associated with. And he's more self-conscious about that egotistical posturing than his later legend would have you believe. The Sun Also Rises has a healthy amount of self-loathing and generational skepticism, while by A Moveable Feast, Hemingway is bemoaning that the wicked wealthy corrupted his precious genius.

Tanuki said...

All these interwar books I read, I'm always wishing I could discuss them with you over nachos and beer at Christopher's. I'm halfway through The Sun Also Rises right now, and yeah, the broken masculinity is pretty clear in there, although I get distracted by the fishing stories...