Monday, July 12, 2010

Over my head

I belong to a book club, and we've been reading classics that we somehow missed in high school and college. Given that I was an English/creative writing major, it always surprises me what I missed. We just finished reading A Farewell to Arms. It's my first Hemingway novel. I've read a few short stories, but nothing longer. I owned The Old Man in the Sea, but could never get anywhere in it when I was a teenager.

A Farewell to Arms is a very easy read, but for me it was... odd. Endless descriptions of countryside that doesn't come into play in the story. And what's up with the bizarre repetitious dialogue? I swear, if that chick says she'll make him a good wife one more time, darling, I'll shoot her myself. I never could connect to a single character, because I never saw anything recognizable in any of them that I could latch onto, and I don't do well with books where I can't get emotionally involved. Call it a casualty of growing up on opera... I need to care and care deeply. And besides, the heroine was nuttier than Kirby's mother's fruitcake. What the heck did our hero see in her? Their whole love story baffled me. I literally sat there sometimes, brow wrinkled, wondering if these characters were supposed to be for real. And then the book just sort of peters out and ends... I think I'm just far too straight-forward and literal for a book like this. And as usual with something classic and highly praised that I don't get... it makes me feel stupid. Like clearly, I've missed the genius that's obvious to the rest of the world, and I'm the dolt in the corner with the dunce cap. (Poetry is the main literary offender in making me feel stupid. I just don't get poetry. But famous authors will sometimes make me go away and hide my tears of shame too.)

Speaking of opera, my favorite parts were whenever opera was mentioned. I loved the little bits about the tenor trying to get an engagement to sing at la Scala, and having chairs thrown at him during performances. Now that I buy! And I liked Rinaldi probably the best of the characters. I perked up watching the Italian army come apart at the seams during its retreat, gruesome as it was. Finally, some plot kicked in! But I simply never could engage enough with the hero and his loony-tune nurse to care about them.

I am slightly curious to see one of the movie versions, just to see if they're any more engaging. Despite all that, I'm really glad I finally got to sample a Hemingway novel. But as of now, Hemingway is not an author who meshes with my needs as a reader.


  1. Anonymous1:41 AM

    Never read A Farewell To Arms, but while I was doing my degree course we read through The Sun Also Rises and had pretty much the same reaction you had - I don't think I've been so bored reading so short a novel before or since. The characters are unengaging, the narrative seems inconsequential...there's just nothing there of interest. It was my first encounter with Hemingway, and I haven't rushed to read any of his other works since.

  2. Hemingway may be an acquired taste. But it's sometimes a mistake for a reader to read a book with a "What's in it for me?" approach. Quite natural of course these days, but with some authors, as with some painting and music, you need to take a brief hiatus from your own reality and sensibilities, and suspend belief. Kind of like watching some old movies. You need to take them for what they are if you're going to understand them. As a movie fan, I'm sure you can relate to this.

    Try "The Sun Also Rises" that your first commenter mentioned, or "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and consider not just Hemingway's prose, but his era, which is the entire context of his writing. He's writing about the times more than the individuals.

    You might still think it's boring, but with an open mind, you just might catch a "what's in it for me". You never know.

    As for the sometimes repetitious diologue, Hemingway, like any artist, could occasionally evolve into habits that were gimmicky. But his style was new for the era and had a profound impact on American literature. Could be he's a dinosaur now, but we're still digging up dinosaur footprints. They left a long trail.

  3. Thanks Jacqueline - good to hear from someone who appreciates Hemingway. I may try another novel later. Moving on to other classics right now. As a writer, I'll read anything, as I learn as much (sometimes more) from stuff I don't like as stuff I do. But life's too short to persist on one thing when there's so many other things to sample.

    We also just read The Great Gatsby, and that book I enjoyed, most particularly just his writing style. He has a beautiful way with words.

  4. Well, my high school English literature classes focused on *British* literature so I never read Melville, Hemingway or Steinback. *shrug*

    I do read new-to-me classics once in a while but I am more likely to pick up Dickens than Hemingway. The American studies portion of my reading is focused more on Revolutionary-era history and biographies (*eyes Benjamin Franklin biography on nightstand*).

    A book discussion group sounds so lovely!

  5. Hemingway had this theory about writing he called the "Iceberg Theory," which pretty much means he wrote about the things you could see and hear only, and left all the emotions unmentioned, but that he tried to get readers to sense that they were there, hidden under the water like the majority of an iceberg. So I can see how a literal reader like yourself would find his stories lacking in connectivity, if you're used to having authors share what characters are feeling instead of implying it. With her every "I'll make you a good wife, darling," the girl's silently telling us how afraid she is that she won't make him a good wife, that she's unsuited for any kind of real relationship. Just like Rinaldi, with his easy patter and friendly ribaldry hides his fear of being wounded or killed. Etc.

    I saw one of the movie versions when I was in high school, the one with Gary Cooper. I was bored to tears. But I really liked the movie version of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" back then. Much more actiony. I haven't read that one yet, but it's my brother's favorite Hemingway novel.

    My favorite Hemingway book is not a novel, but rather his memoir about being an expat writer in Paris between the wars: "A Moveable Feast." You might find that more enjoyable, as it's all about the struggle to write.

    Wanna know something funny? "The Great Gatsby" bored me and left me going, "Huh? That's it?" I haven't read any Fitzgerald since.