This week, Lynne Lawrie muses on her reactions when reading one of the giants of twentieth century literature. What do you think? Do you agree with Lynne; or do you have a counter view?
“What follows are my thoughts on my recent foray into reading Hemingway. It is not a review.
Although I obviously knew of Hemingway, he did not cross my path until a few years ago when I visited Key West and visited his house there. It was an interesting visit, both in terms of the house, and the story of Hemingway’s life, ably told by dramatic guides – this was America after all. A particular quirk was the presence of more than fifty rather large cats. One jumped up onto my lap, and it simply didn’t fit on. I felt well and truly pinned down and had to wait for the cat to take up a new interest before I could get up. The cats have six toes; we were told that Hemingway bought some from a sea captain and, well then, they bred. There were cats in the cupboards, on bookshelves, on kitchen worktops, in the bath. Everywhere.
So, piqued by stories of Hemingway’s life I decided to read a novel he had written in Key West. To Have and Have Not is about a captain ‘rum-running and man-running from Cuba to the Florida Keys’ during the depression.
It included a number of racist terms that are not acceptable now. I do not wish to enter the revisionist debate here, but I can only say that each time I read one, I was shocked out of the story. And it took me a while to enter fully into the plot again. I find authors such as Graham Greene can evoke a setting so well, such as the heat and squalor in South America, that I feel oppressed by it. I did not feel similarly immersed in this setting at all, which in this story is significant. So, I was surprised that for an author of Hemingway’s heft, I didn’t care about either the plot or the characters. I decided not to read any more of his work.
Move on a couple of years and BBC4 have been showing a Ken Burns series on Hemingway. Again, I was drawn in by the life of this complex character. Indeed Edna O’Brien (I have no knowledge of her or her work) spoke in glowing terms and that his writing was ‘immortal’ and some of it ‘miracles.’ An actor read passages from this work, and I was struck by the beauty of it. Cue book number two. I have therefore recently read A Farewell to Arms.
It is a story is based on Hemingway’s experience in Italy in 1918 as an ambulance driver. His protagonist is an American called Frederick Henry, and he writes in the first person. The back cover describes it as ‘an unforgettable depiction of war.’ Maybe I have become inured by too many crime dramas but if I was expecting the gritty realities of war, the first world war no less, then I was disappointed. Of course, disappointed is not really the word, but it did not convey the horrors of war to me. I realised the lilting tone of the actor reading the novel in the BBC4 documentary added a certain depth to the words, less apparent on the written page. It didn’t grip me at all.
The second part of the novel is about Henry’s love affair with a British nurse he meets in Italy. I will not spoil the end of the story for those who have not read it, but suffice to say that the woman, Catherine Blake, in my opinion is totally unidimensional, and rather unbelievable. She speaks endlessly of their ‘grand day,’ how lovely it all is, that she wants to cut her hair to look like Henry, indeed she wants to be Henry. She has no emotion or interest except adoration of Henry. Is it possible that all this loveliness was a juxtaposition to the terrible war? Am I clutching at straws? Perhaps the succeeding ninety years since publication have taken their toll?
The ending was foreseeable, and again, I didn’t care about the characters at all.
And yet. And yet, I am tempted to read his collection of short stories, described above by O’Brien, just to be absolutely sure.
So. What am I missing? I must be missing something. I would be interested to know what others have made of Hemingway’s work.”