“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Hemingway, New York Journal-American (11 July 1961)
I’m lucky enough to have at least one friend who will devote time to reading projects. We just finished our Hemingway list started a year-and-a-half ago. Our goal was similar to the Vonnegut project: read the author’s works in chronological order. With Hemingway, we skipped the poems, letters, biographies, etc. and went to the book-length prose–fourteen books total.
Overall, what I find interesting in doing these extended readings of a corpus is how much these writers do that doesn’t fit with the generalizations often presented as critical summaries. These are necessary evils, I suppose, but they are also a shame. I know I’ve made assumptions about understanding someone’s work based on little evidence. For example, I remember the anthology commercials that played three seconds of every song and I assumed I “got” acts like Buddy Holly from those brief samples. I didn’t, and when I finally put the time into listening to Holly, I was pleasantly surprised about what I found.
With Hemingway, one of those stereotypes is his concise, sometimes telegraphic and repetitive, style. I believe he was a master of style, despite his quote about “masters.” He had plenty of quirks, some I like and some I don’t, but he wrote plenty of sentences longer than five words. There’s quite a range of syntax and diction in his work. Another benefit of reading through so much of someone’s work is you get to see the masterpieces and the mistakes. Our “masters” are human, after all.
I like and dislike as many of his men as I do his women and he wrote with sensitivity and emotion beyond simple masculine chest-thumping. He could sometimes write about food and wine as well as he could about war or bullfighting or hunting.
I think Hemingway’s ultimate masterwork is the short stories. I think it was difficult and rare for him to achieve the brilliance of the short stories in longer forms. Then again, I think it’s difficult for any artist in any form to achieve what he does in some of the short stories. Technically, they weren’t part of our reading project since we both had read the collected short stories before making our list.
Here are my top five of what we did read:
1. A Moveable Feast (haven’t read the 2009 edition)
2. Across the River and into the Trees
3. The Old Man and the Sea
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls
5. Garden of Eden
I guess I would argue that these are also his “best,” though that could change depending on the day.
Torrents of Spring:
If you follow the link, you can read a post I made right after reading Torrents. I think I may have been unfair about Hemingway’s humor writing. I think his “satire” (or was this a way of getting out of a contract?) is terrible, but Papa could be hysterically funny sometimes.
The Sun Also Rises:
Hemingway said that he wanted to redeem the lost generation and that he wanted to recreate the rhythms of the King James Bible. Ultimately, I don’t believe he’s successful. We read Lady Brett as a matador and Jake as the bull. This metaphor gets used later and altered. The artist becomes the matador in later works. He repeats “in the fiesta” three times in two sentences. That’s one of the stylistic burps that bothers me in the book.
A Farewell to Arms:
Mostly like this one, too. Some of the dialogue is awful. Catherine is almost grotesque at times. Henry’s decision-making, especially about the baby, just doesn’t make sense to me. The war writing in this book is really good. Many consider this the quintessential World War I novel but I can’t speak to that subject. I feel like Sun and Farewell are the most popular novels, but I just didn’t feel like they were as successful as some of the later ones.
Death in the Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa:
Overall, really good books. Some of Hemingway’s finest passages are in these memoirs, especially when he veers away from the main subjects of bullfights and safaris. Not great books, but essential for Hemingway fans, I think. Surprisingly good. Death has a section entitled “The Natural History of the Dead” that is one of my favorite Hemingway pieces.
To Have and Have Not
This book is so much fun at first, like a Florida-noir novel or something like that, and then tanks. I read that the opening was originally made of two short stories and they were pretty good as is. The novel brings up some interesting ideas like communism, but Hemingway doesn’t pull off the multiple perspectives in the way that someone like Faulkner could. Uneven.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and into the Trees, Old Man and the Sea
These books represent three different stylistic peaks for late Hemingway. I think For Whom is the best of the war novels and achieves something stylistically and structurally that he had been trying to do in the novel form since Sun. However, there are some really annoying quirks in this one. The Spanish rendering of familiar address as “thee” and “thou” achieves almost the opposite effect of the one I think he wanted. I understand why he does it, but it’s clunky. The “mucking muck” swearing sections are mucking awful to read and come off as silly. Again, I understand what he is doing, but I don’t think it works ultimately.
Across the River to me is possibly his best “literary” novel. It’s what happens when the war hero faces down his own death coming upon him from within rather than without. I feel like this is a “sleeper” hit, in the way that Mother Night is for Vonnegut. It’s a quiet, beautiful book.
Old Man is the book that I think achieves the KJV style he set out to replicate in Sun. It’s biblical and mythic. The symbolism here is handled at times about as well as C.S. Lewis could handle it, and despite that, the book is a deceptively simple masterpiece.
Islands in the Stream
Islands feels unfinished or at least feels like he hadn’t quite tweeked it enough. He worked on this book for a long time. I think it’s a reversal of To Have but much better. It redeems that work in some ways. There are some, possibly purposeful, stylistic shifts between sections. The third section, where the main character is referred to constantly by both of his names has echoes of For Whom. By the way, I hate that aspect of both books. When I’ve read 400 pages about a character, I will understand if you call “Robert Jordan” or “Thomas Hudson” by his first or last name.
A Moveable Feast
One of my favorite books. Young ex-pats in Paris in the ’20s.
Dangerous Summer is just okay. There’s a lot of extra to make this a book: photos, an intro that goes to page 40 (that’s mostly about Old Man and the Sea [Really?]), the glossary from Death.
Garden of Eden
There’s a lot here for Hemingway fans and some surprises for those who think Papa is just the stereotypical masculine cartoon image that seems to get in the way of his work.
After two tries, maybe this manuscript should be left alone. Originally released as the novel True at First Light, Kilimanjaro was later put out as nonfiction. While interesting to read as a Hemingway safari journal, it never hangs together as a book.
Six Word Summaries/Responses
My reading pal suggested we write six-word responses to each of the books we read in celebration of the six-word story often attributed to Papa. Here are mine:
Torrents of Spring: “France was a long way off.”
The Sun Also Rises: Lady Brett’s running of the “bulls.”
A Farewell to Arms: Sometimes the rain isn’t a baptism. (Alternative: “Priest every night five against one!”)
Death in the Afternoon: Writing equals bullfighting without puncture wounds.
The Green Hills of Africa: Writing equals hunting without gunshot wounds.
To Have and Have Not: Should have left the stories alone.
For Whom the Bell Tolls: It tolls for thee, mucking fascists!
Across the River and into the Trees: Where the market becomes the museum.
The Old Man and the Sea: Life is great victory, great loss.
A Moveable Feast: A Gossip Girl for lit nerds?
Islands in the Stream: Sometimes I like the song better.
Dangerous Summer: A posthumous not-so dangerous bummer.
Garden of Eden: Behold! Adam and Eve . . . and Marita!
Under Kilimanjaro: For Hemingway scholars and completists only.