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.
“Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they come all her if they don’t know her name?”
“There was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened. At the distance of a star something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it.”
“There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman—the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.
The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries—something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey—a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute.
Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.”
“When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong.”
“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then-who knows?-maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.”
“Without getting up he threw deadwood on the fire, the sparks flying up with their truths and lies, a few hot points of fire landing on their hands and faces, not for the first time, and they rolled down into the dirt. One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by a sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough.”
“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices.
But they were made out of thin invisible steel.”
I hated this book the first time I read it. It was slow and bleak and nothing about it really hooked me like it should have. However, a midterm I was about to take was going to have Winter in the Blood on it, and I forced myself to re-read for the sake of a good read. I’m so glad I did because my opinion completely reversed upon that second attempt.
Winter in the Blood is about a genuinely unlikable (and unnamed) protagonist living on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. He’s highly self-destructive tendencies mostly stem from witnessing the death of his brother, which he blames himself for. It’s hard to say what the plot is, and it’s not even a redemptive arc because he only starts on that path in the last moments of the novel. I guess it’s a character study and a meditation on reservation life . . . ? I realize this sounds really stale and not appealing at all, and I’m sure my professor Billy would be annoyed if he read this. But I promise, James Welch infuses just enough dark humor and poignancy in the book that it makes for a thought-provoking and genuinely enjoyable read. Another reason I love this book is because it makes you care about a really unlikable guy. While he’s violent and disrespectful, he is also clearly living with an enormous amount of agony and guilt. When I read about how he kept his brothers things around and visited the spot where his father died, it became clear that he was deliberately haunting himself about his past. I couldn’t help but empathize with him, and I found myself rooting for him.
This book was my first foray into Native American literature and I would argue that it’s required reading for those interested in the canon.
In a way, The Emigrants is slightly obnoxious. As with most of Sebald’s work (or so I’ve been told), the text is filled with photographs of places or people or things that can somehow be related to the plot. It’s not a narrative technique I’ve encountered before, but I’m good to never experience it again if I don’t have to. I like using my imagination when I read, and it feels kind of patronizing to suggest that the reader needs visual cues. I understand that photographs are poignant for underlining the theme of memory in the novel, but there were too many of them that didn’t have any discernible connection to the plot.
Like with so many other books, I appreciated the book’s meditation on trauma and lost memory. Apparently, Sebald’s father was a Nazi officer who never spoke about the things he did or saw during the war. You get the sense as your reading The Emigrants that Sebald is trying to uncover those memories of World War II which were denied to him by his father. The whole book revolves around the narrator collecting the memories of four German emigrants who are simply perplexed at their own survival. Their pain is carefully illustrated with respectful amounts of curiosity and compassion on the part of Sebald.
The Emigrants is a good book but not one I necessarily look back on with fondness. I honestly like a lot of books that are really depressing because sad things can make for a beautiful or thought provoking read. This book isn’t really one of them because it doesn’t leave you with anything other than pity for a few fictional characters. A non-fiction examination of real-life emigrants would be way more compelling and it probably would leave you with that lasting effect this novel should have had. This book was very well received upon its publication and for many other readers, I can see it being a hit. However, this one just wasn’t for me.