Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Papa Don't Preach, You Put Me To Sleep

In or approaching South America, I told Matt why I'd never read any Hemingway works. The primary reason was that I was never assigned one of his works in school. The secondary explanation was more tenous. As a professed superfan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway's friend-turned-rival, I chose to support my alcoholic author by ignoring the other one.

The literary scholar was unimpressed. "You should probably, you know, read one of his books before you dismiss them," Matt said.

Two months and a borrowed copy later, I sent a text message to Matt.

"I'm halfway through 'A Farewell to Arms'. Does it get any better?"

The response came quickly: "Not really."

I strongly considered abandoning the novel, but decide to push through to the bitter end. My planned future amount of hatred toward Papa Hemingway necessitated finishing my reading assignment. I accomplished the feat this week, and would like to share a few points with you.

As someone with a great interest in World War I, I was struck by how dull this story of a WWI ambulance driver actually was. My paperback's cover says AFTA "glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature", which is the last statement I would attribute to Hemingway's snoozefest. AFTA has precisely three mildly intense chapters (XXVIII through XXXI), wherein the protagonist's Italian army unit retreats from the Germans. The remainder of the book is the opposite of intense. The following excerpt is, unfortunately, illustrative of the book as a whole -- Lieutenant Henry has a drink and a boring conversation with a friend (in this case, the nurse he fell in love with / impregnated):
"I wish I could ski," Catherine said. "It's rotten not to be able to ski."

"We'll get a bobsled and come down the road. That's no worse for you than riding in a car."

"Won't it be rough?"

"We can see."

"I hope it won't be too rough."

"After a while we'll take a walk in the snow."

"Before lunch, Catherine said, "so we'll have a good appetite."

"I'm always hungry."

"So am I."

We went out in the snow but it was drifted so that we could not walk far. I went ahead and made a trail down to the station but when we reached there we had gone far enough. The snow was blowing so we could hardly see and we went into the little inn by the station and swept each other off with a broom and sat on a bench and had vermouths.

"It is a big storm," the barmaid said.


"The snow is very late this year."


"Could I eat a chocolate bar?" Catherine asked. "Or is it too close to lunch? I'm always hungry."

"Go on and eat one," I said.

"I'll take one with filberts," Catherine said.

"They are very good," the girl said, "I like them the best."

"I'll have another vermouth," I said.
Would you consider that intense? Did that put you on the edge of your seat? Is your heart racing? I didn't think so. If you would like to read an intense, glowing recount of WWI, avoid Hemingway and choose "All Quiet on the Western Front."

The above excerpt was not the only filler tossed into the manuscript. AFTA is chock full of scenes that go nowhere. I assume that Hemingway used the novel to record actual events and conversations that he experienced during the war. This would be fine if said events contributed to the fiction he created, or if they were symbolic, or if they were interesting; unfortunately, they are not. It's too bad blogs didn't exist in 1929. He could have stuck his snacking recollections at, concentrated on text that furthered the plot, and cut out 150 pages in the process.

Lord, I wish he would have.

(I'd have read that blog, too.)


Floyd said...

Who are you to criticize Papa Bear? Read "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and shut the hell up. Spoiler Alert: It doesn't end well.

I still can't believe you didn't finish Catch 22. What's happening to you, Dan?

dn said...

I've heard Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" many times over, so I don't see the point in reading the book.

TCK said...

Really great points, Dan! Who knew that Hemingway wrote like that, with simple, taut sentences? I, too, expected his books to be full of explosions and trench-warfare-gore scenes, described with action-packed verbs, held together with verbose and complicated sentence structures. That's what he's most known for, right? That, and characters who always get right to the point, never talking around an issue for pages at a time. Why doesn't Henry just get to the point? Here's how I would have edited the above passage you quoted:

"War is hell, Catherine! A nasty, intense hell full of fiery explosions!"


"Yes, Catherine?"

".......I'm fucking pregnant!"

Now, there's a scene with a point to it! Hemingway could have saved us so much time! What a insightful blog post!

Gav said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dn said...

Hi Ted. I didn't think you read my blog... maybe you saw the link that Floyd posted over at the Hemingway Anti-Defamation League?

You raise a valid point. Comparing AFTA to "All Quiet on the Western Front" simply because they both are set during WWI is unfair. Still, the only way I could classify AFTA as "intense" or even "worth my time" is by comparing it to the phone book.

I am curious if either you or Floyd enjoyed AFTA? Or if you only support his other works?

Alison said...

How were you never assigned Hemingway in school? That's the most unbelievable part of your post.

I'm a Hemingway fan. A little bare-bones prose is nice every now and then. I haven't read "A Farewell to Arms," but I liked "The Sun Also Rises." And holy cow, what about "The Old Man and the Sea"?! I also enjoy his short stories quite a bit. Maybe you'd prefer those?

Floyd said... read Um, I'm sorry that I called you a Republicano sympathizer.

It's been years since I read AFTA, but from what I remember I enjoyed it. The seemingly meaningless prose, to me, represented the mundane in the midst of events that were anything but. The simple things in life, such as conversations about food and the weather, stand out more vibrantly when contrasted with the horrors of war.

I've actually been meaning to go back and read some of my Hemingways, but I've got too much to learn about Russia before I start rehashing old classics.

And yeah, read "The Sun Also Rises." And "Old Man and the Sea" is excellent, and should only take about an hour or two to read.

Cara said...

I'm on your side on this one. Hemingway=not good. In your face, Ted. And oddly enough, I also have not finished Catch-22.

Gav said...

I, as well, did not finish Catch-22. However, since then I've acquired it on MP3, and would be willing to share if anyone is interested.