First Impressions of Ernest Hemingway

To put it briefly, my relationship with Hemingway has evolved from serious dislike to begrudging respect to utter obsession. My first experience of Hemingway was reading “Hills Like White Elephants” in an American literary and visual culture class (my high school had DOPE courses, guys). I enjoyed the piece immensely, probably because I’d never seen anything written like it before, but I think the assignment following the reading was so hard that it utterly destroyed my initial opinion of him. Re-writing a fairy tale in the style of Hemingway is no easy business, especially since I’m not really a creative writer. It’s also a really ambitious project when you’ve only read a single piece of his work. While “Hills Like White Elephants” is one of the best and most boiled down examples of Hemingway’s style, it wasn’t enough to make me understand who he was or how he wrote. For a long time, I blamed Hemingway himself for my mediocre performance on the assignment and I avoided reading his work for an embarrassingly long time.

Sometime in my junior year of college, I bumped into “Indian Camp”, another Hemingway short story. It was only a few pages long and I thought, fuck it, I’ll give it a shot. I had to admit that it was impressive from the start, since the simplicity of the prose worked so well with the perspective of a young boy. The moment that finally floored me was when I read, “[The Indian’s] throat had been cut from ear to ear”. Ho. Ly. Shit. I couldn’t believe the dad had killed himself, just like that. The whole story had been violent in its description of the caesarean section, but that moment took the violence to a whole new level of potency. It was the blunt description of the moment and its aftermath that intrigued me the most. In that moment, I had to begrudgingly admit that Hemingway had done something genius.

The full-on obsession phase began and ended with the 24-hour period in which I devoured A Farewell to Arms. By the last chapter, Hemingway had absolutely shattered every emotion I had and according to my concerned roommate, I was “shaking like a shitting dog” (true story). I hated myself for hating Hemingway for so long, since I let a stupid and unfair grudge get in the way of reading a great book. Looking back, though, I would imagine a lot of people dislike Hemingway when they first read him and perhaps avoid him like I once did. His subject matter is not necessarily fun and it is definitely not easy to read at first. Still, I’m relieved that I eventually grew enough as a reader to be able to appreciate Hemingway as a writer and cultural icon.

“The Red Badge of Courage” and the Question of Authenticity

1812It’s my understanding that upon the The Red Badge of Courage’s publication in 1895, it received much praise for it’s “realistic” meditation upon the psychology of war and the personal experiences of soldiers. Stanley Wortheim says that the book is “unquestionably the most realistic novel about the American Civil War”. However, The Red Badge of Courage was published at a time when Civil War veterans were still alive and in some cases, writing personal narratives of combat or fiction inspired by those personal experiences. It bothers me that someone would think a narrative written by a non-veteran is more realistic than others written by actual veterans, so I’m going to compare a narrative written by the latter group with Crane’s book.

Of the veterans who were able to write about their time in combat, Ambrose Bierce was particularly notable for writing in a way which was both blunt and immediately devastating. His short story “Chickamauga” testifies to the unspeakable effects of war upon both soldiers and civilians, something which is most evident at the very end when the young boy is only able to utter a “series of inarticulate and indescribable cries”. We’re told he sounds like this because he is a deaf-mute, his wordless outburst isn’t unusual considering what he’s been through. After all, trauma theory states that language fails to accommodate the psychological impact of trauma. This moment in the narrative suggests that the carnage of war is so profoundly beyond description that it handicaps its witness, leaving them unable to speak of what they’ve seen. Bierce’s illustration of the Civil War is a true meditation upon the psychology of warfare specifically because it deals with the trauma of the experience.

As someone born after the war and with no combat experience at that point, Crane had no way of understanding the type of anguish that Bierce presents. The description of the decaying body in chapter 7 is graphically described, and yet Fleming’s experience of that body is limited to “a shriek” and the fear that it will reanimate. If this book was in fact a realistic description of a soldier’s experience of the abject, there would not be a paragraph-long, impressionist description of the body. In all, I think Crane’s prose style is wholly inappropriate for illustrating the mind of a soldier and it negatively reflects upon Crane’s lack of combat experience.

Crane’s shortcomings as a war writer are forgivable if we look at the book as historical fiction, so I want to be clear that my problem isn’t with the author himself. My issue is that some critics and scholars don’t recognize Crane’s privilege in being able to use descriptive language to describe war. As a non-veteran, there was no trauma nor anguish which could impede upon Crane’s attempts to describe combat. While this may make for a beautiful book, it does not make for a realistic one. A true realistic war narrative illustrates the extent of the character’s anguish by illuminating that inability to properly communicate it.

To call Crane’s book the most realistic Civil War narrative is an insult to veterans in general and especially those who were able to channel their experiences into their writing. Only they can know the reality of combat and I think it’s a serious injustice to say someone like Crane knows it better.

A Moment for George Wilson

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“He was a blond, spiritless man, anæmic, and faintly handsome.”

Poor, poor George.

George is a minor character, but he’s one that has continued to fascinate me in the many years since I first read Gatsby. I have been through a number of different theories about him and the only thing that remains constant in my reading of him is that he’s without a doubt one of the most tragic characters in all of literature. He’s poor, his wellbeing depends upon the assholes who pass through his garage, and his wife pretends he doesn’t exist (“walking through her husband as if he were a ghost”). He’s not living any kind of life at all and it’s repeatedly alluded to that he’s a walking dead man.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me empathize with him way more than with any other character. Sure, Gatsby’s a truly pathetic creature and we can feel bad for him because he’s so delusional, but what about George? He has so little hope, and the one moment when he’s so close to moving West and turning his life around, Myrtle is killed. As a human being, I can’t read that and be like “That’s sad. Moving on”. The continual tragedy that is his life should be considered an important element of the novel’s pathos, because while Gatsby was able to die with a dream intact, George dies a shattered man. If great literature does anything, it teaches us how to empathize with others, and more often than any other character, I find myself empathizing with George and his struggle to survive.

Huckleberry Finn: My Favorite American Hero

c06-48In my personal opinion, there is no hero more important in American literature than Huckleberry Finn. He has the archetypal American hero characteristics, but he also has an innocence and vulnerability that is fairly absent from the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper and Harper Lee. For example, Huck is a loner, something which defines a lot of archetypal American heroes, but he is also shown to be a very lonely boy, which we see in the first chapter when he says, “I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” Although Huck can survive on his own, you can see throughout the book that his status as an outsider is something that upsets him, revealing an active emotional presence within a character who is “supposed” to remain stoic if he were to be a “true” archetypal American hero. To me, this aspect of Huck’s heroism is something that makes him delightfully relatable. I don’t like reading books where the protagonist is perfect or untouchable because of their moral perfection or courage in the face of fear. Characters like Huck are perfect because of their imperfections and for me, it’s why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is infinitely more enjoyable than so much American literature that came before it.

I know everything I said here is basic literary observation and super obvious to literally anyone, but I wanted to take a minute to celebrate one of my personal heroes. I hope I’m worthy of being called full of sand one day.

Reflecting on “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway

a-farewell-to-armsI’ll never forget how much I cried the first time I read this book. Because I couldn’t put it down, I was coming off of a 24 hour reading binge as I was finishing it, and suddenly my exhaustion combined with the tragedy of the end and I just kind of lost it. I had known what happened at the end, thanks to Pat’s furious monologue in Silver Linings Playbook, and yet I still felt like I’d been punched in the face. I couldn’t believe that you could survive war, which is in itself an unnatural thing, and then suddenly die during childbirth, which is considered perhaps the most natural of all occurrences. Furthermore, the first time I read the book, I believed that Catherine and Frederic were truly in love, which made Catherine’s death much more tragic. I was also furious with Hemingway for being like, “I sat with her until she died and then I left the hospital. The end”. If you’re still fairly new to Hemingway and you read something like that, you feel like you’re being cheated out of a real ending and it’s infuriating.

I’m not sure when I decided to write about A Farewell to Arms for my thesis, but I knew when I finished it that I would want to read it again. There was so much about it that just didn’t make sense to me, like why Catherine always sounded so clingy and insecure or why Frederic seemed infuriatingly apathetic. The characters were just so strange, and while I knew that Hemingway had a particularly unique way of writing people, I felt that this was a real stretch from anything I’d previously read.

As my thesis progressed and I became more fluent with trauma and how it operates, I started to see the characters as horribly wounded individuals who are, when the book starts, still trying to get over what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced. Obviously I get into detail about this in my thesis, but I wanted to write about it on here because I wanted to remember how it felt to re-read the book and move from confusion to compassion for the characters. I continue to be amazed at how Hemingway illustrated mental and emotional trauma, as trauma itself evades language and is considered nearly impossible to describe. It’s not Hemingway’s most “famous” book, but it’s the one that’s touched me the most and it has a special place in my heart for inspiring my thesis. This probably won’t be my last post on the book, since there’s so much to say, but I got nostalgic for a second and wanted to remember some of the things it made me feel.

Reflection: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

frankenstein_1_sOne of my most pathetic memories is being 17 years old, sitting in a Melting Pot with my sister and her boyfriend, explaining the plot of Frankenstein, and having my eyes fill up with tears. Clearly, Mary Shelley’s book had an unusual hold over me, since when you think of Frankenstein, you probably aren’t crying. Here’s the problem: I read Frankenstein for AP English Literature, and our teacher taught it to us in a way which emphasized Mary Shelley’s issues with her mother.

Here’s what I remember: Shelley’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a feminist goddess who died while giving birth to Mary, her second child. Mary grew up cherishing her mother’s memory, but as she grew up, it appears that she became resentful at the fact of her mother’s death, which to her felt like an abandonment. She wrote Frankenstein when she was 18 years old, and while it’s remarkably sophisticated for such a young writer, there are emotions present within the narrative which speak to her despair at being “abandoned”.

The way we examined it in my class, we saw that Mary’s mother could be the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein, who is so repulsed by his monster that he immediately flees from it and dismisses his part in its creation. Eventually, when the Creator and Creation meet once more, the monster says, “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.” I still think you can read this part and see it as Mary wondering why human beings are allowed to create life if they are only going to desert what they create. In other words, I read the book and see a young girl simply asking her mother why she wasn’t there for her.

The death of Mary’s mother wasn’t anybody’s fault, but I can see how Mary might feel betrayed by her loss. The book makes me emotional because even more than anger or bitterness, the Monster is characterized by a simple longing for the person who was supposed to love him the most. It’s that loneliness and despair that upsets me the most, and I think the Monster’s emotions are written so poignantly that it’s only natural to wonder if there is a real-life inspiration to his characterization. I realize that there are far more scholarly interpretations and I don’t doubt that they are credible, but I’ll always read the book and see within it the yearnings of a grief-stricken daughter.

Thoughts after (finally) finishing “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

71ahjkud8ulThough I studied the Spanish Civil War at some length during my time at Sarah Lawrence, I was never really interested in it as a historical subject. Everything I had read in class about it was so generic that I unwittingly learned to associate boredom with what was written on the conflict, and thus I unconsciously avoided books about it. However, For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of my boyfriend’s favorite books of all time, and we eventually made a pact to read each other’s favorite books. So, I put my disinterest in the subject aside because I knew how much it meant to him and I was sure Hemingway would make it interesting. I’ll admit that I gave up for a few months after reading about 40% of it. I felt bad because even though I’d been intrigued by the stories being told and the conversations between the characters, there was very little actual action. I also just didn’t care very much about the Spanish Civil War, which sounds bad but at the time, it just didn’t interest me. However, I had no idea that the place where I’d stopped reading was the moment right before things finally started getting interesting, which for me was when Robert shot the fascist soldier on horseback. It was a page turner after that, and thank goodness because I was experiencing some serious guilt for not finishing my man’s favorite book. I’ve concluded that it’s a very, very good book, and I can see why it’s many people’s favorite. It’s beautifully written and is rife with quotes to remember and write down.

To me, the novel is most profound in its exploration of how war actually operates, both generally and individually. To start, Pablo is a great example of how Hemingway seeks to prove that there is no “good” side in a war. We like to think our side is the good side and assume that our side fights with honor, but Hemingway shows us that war brings out the brutality in everyone who participates in it. This may be a message you’ve heard before and you may roll your eyes at its being repeated here, but this book shows the Spanish Civil War with a viciousness unlike any other war narrative I’d seen before. The massacre of a town’s fascists in chapter 10 is described in painful detail and is so upsetting that I had to pause in my reading of it many times. This scene matters though because it proves that a “good” side (here, the anti-Fascist side) is just as capable of shameful and dishonorable actions, even if they are done in the name of a just cause.

While killing in war is considered justified, the characters not innocent and deep down, they absolutely know that they are guilty. Pablo exemplifies how war alters our sense of morality and how the means with which we achieve the “greater good” are more significant in our lives than we admit. For instance, we learn that Pablo was once a highly skilled guerilla leader who enjoyed killing people and actually organized the massacre mentioned above. When we meet him, however, he is a broken and constantly drunk man whom the other comrades consider a serious liability. While everything Pablo did was for the sake of the Republican cause and he probably isn’t remorseful, he is clearly haunted by his actions and uses alcohol to forget what he’s done. In another example, when Primitivo hears the attack upon El Sordo’s band, he tearfully begs Robert to let their group go and assist them. Robert refuses his request and El Sordo’s band is massacred. Reflecting on this decision with Primitivo, Robert reminds him that, “There was no choice . . . and now it is better not to speak of it.” When confronted with shame or guilt, Robert’s instinct is to change the subject because he knows that if he is to be of any use to the cause, he cannot acknowledge his guilt. As he did in A Farewell to Arms and other works, Hemingway seeks to illustrate how people in war deal with their shame and how poisonous that unnatural mindset is.

Remarkably, Hemingway isn’t condemning anybody in this book. Whether the character led a massacre or simply let one happen, Hemingway isn’t trying to pass sentence on his characters because he knows that the real priority is to convey the truth of their experiences. The truth is that war is far from black and white and that to romanticize it as a struggle between good and evil is self-delusion. Another truth is that if you do survive a conflict like this, you are likely going to live with enough guilt that even in old age, you change the subject (as Robert’s grandfather would do).For Whom the Bell Tolls isn’t a perfect novel but it is fascinating in how it breaks war down into digestible pieces, all of which are written to strip war of its romanticized image and present it’s unbearable truths. The book is a commitment due to its length and content but it is ultimately worth it for how it reveals the truth of war through the lies the characters try to tell themselves about it.

My First Fictional BFF: Jane Eyre

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This girl and I go waaaaaaaay back.

I talk about it in my introductory post, but Jane Eyre changed my life because she really was unlike anyone I’d ever read. She was plain, definitely not pretty, but it didn’t really matter to her because she knew she was a smart and independent woman. After living through a childhood filled with mental, physical, and spiritual abuse, she makes it her top priority in life to maintain her self-respect and dignity. I love how much the book focuses on her strength of character, but I also really like how vulnerable she is shown to be when it comes to Mr. Rochester. While her self-respect and dignity are what make her a model individual, it’s her vulnerabilities that make her relatable. I believe this is a big reason why so many readers (myself included) continue to idolize Jane’s character. Having an independent mind and strong will are important for one’s character, but it’s just as important to stay in touch with your emotions, especially in the face of love and other adventures. Whether you love her or hate her is irrelevant to Jane because she makes it very clear from the get-go that she doesn’t need anyone’s approval. This character is an icon of proto-feminist literature, but for me, she was (and remains) the ultimate hero.

As I Read “Jamaica Inn” by Daphne DuMaurier

image005I love Daphne DuMaurier because she wrote Rebecca, which is one of my old favorites. I also used to be really into Gothic novels, so when I picked up Jamaica Inn, I was excited to rediscover a genre I used to love so much. However, as I approach the mid-point of the novel, I keep finding myself reluctant to continue reading it. It’s not the fault of DuMaurier’s writing and it’s not that I don’t like Gothic lit anymore; I still enjoy them both very much. The problem is that before I started the book, I had watched its 2014 BBC adaptation. And it was probably one of the most unbearably terrible things I’ve ever seen on television. As I read the book, I keep inadvertently picturing the seriously miscast actors as the characters, with the memory of their poor performances hurting my impressions of the characters on paper. This has honestly never happened to me before, where a tv show or movie ruins my impression of the superior work it’s based on. It makes me feel pretty bad because I know how talented DuMaurier is and I should be a good enough reader to ignore a bad adaptation while reading a good story. I’m going to try to keep going with it, but I’m going to have to trick myself into doing it.

A Toast to the World’s Scariest Grandma: Dowager Princess Clarisse Renaldi

When you think of the Grandma from the Princess Diaries, is this who comes to mind?

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How sweet. Add a cigarette, sidecar, and tattooed eyeliner, and then you have the REAL Grandmère. I’m biased because I grew up with the books before seeing the movie, but books Grandmère is a QWEEN (see what I did there?). She doesn’t take anyone’s shit, calls people on their crap, and kicks ass as the Dowager Princess of Genovia. Grandmère is my favorite part of the books because she always had a vicious one liner hidden up her sleeve. I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Clarisse Grimaldi.