I took up this idea to read at least one book per month a couple of years ago. I used to read a lot. More recently, distractions and unread books piled up. Some were legitimate (kids) and some were not (picking a Real Housewives of New York episode over reading). I realized how much I missed books. How much they fulfilled me. How they helped with my own writing. I analyzed what I liked about each book and what I would have done differently–not that I claim to be any kind of authority, it’s my attempt at looking at literature critically for my informal continued education. It also spurs my creativity.
About the time I adopted my new practice, I realized that I’d never read anything by Ernest Hemingway. The great Ernest Hemingway. The larger than life man who inserted himself into wars to understand the story and people, hunted big game and lived an even bigger life, haunted by his own demons of mental illness.
I immediately set out to correct the error and picked up The Sun Also Rises, his first major novel. I couldn’t put it down. The love triangles, the bull fighting, the depictions of both the French and Spanish countryside, the incredibly blunt approach to 1920s relationships and social customs all fascinated me. I would recommend anyone read it.
Then I jumped to A Moveable Feast, his last novel published after his suicide. Hemingway, for those who don’t know, was adamant about editing his own work. It can be argued this book lost some of its magic because it was edited by others, but I think there’s more. It was still very well done, and a beautiful tribute in his own way to his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
Before writing this novel, Hemingway underwent electroshock therapy to combat his mental troubles. Even he said he was not the same person after. It showed in the writing. As I read the pages, they story was compelling, but the tone felt sad. As if he’d lost part of himself (and it went beyond his regrets about the way he treated Hadley). It was as though part of his soul had died and he wasn’t even trying to get it back. It was a very stark contrast to his first novel filled with charming arrogance. But it was also part of what made me enjoy it so much.
I took a bit of a break from Hemingway to read other books and in May of this year, I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls. My husband found a first edition for me, and I have a fascination with the smell of an old book. (It is my second favorite present from him after a cast picture of Monty Python and The Holy Grail but that’s for another time.) I couldn’t wait to dig in after being so impressed by the other two books.
A month in, I’d made it through less than 100 pages. I felt like I was betraying my new literary hero. I just couldn’t get into it. The Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s is the setting, and of course Hemingway had been there first hand. But the dialog ruined it. I get that he was trying to portray conversations actually happening in Spanish while writing them in English. It just didn’t work. It felt forced, contrived, and it took away from the story. I tried to push through and read more in early June, hoping it would get better but I quit after Chapter 12. The end of the flashback Pilar tells about “her man” Pablo and how he came to be this broken soul to Robert and Maria, that’s where I gave up.
I’m still a bit ashamed about not finishing the book but I can’t read a book if I don’t enjoy the story–no matter how acclaimed it might be. Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors and Countess Olenska is by far my favorite fictional character yet Edith’s autobiography drove me mad. I wanted to throw it at her after forcing myself about 2/3 of the way through her story.
I didn’t expect Hemingway to let me down. So for July I’ve gone back to modern literature and hope to review that book at the end of the month. I’ll have to take a break from Ernest and come back to him when the hurt fades. I’m open to suggestions if you have any to offer. If not, I’ll probably go with A Farewell to Arms because I want to know that it wasn’t just the war setting that put me off.
And on a slightly related note–if you’re interested in fictionalized historical novels The Paris Wife was a fabulous read and very well written. Ernest and Hadley struggling to make ends meet while living in Paris? An unplanned pregnancy? Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald (among others) in their circle of friends? What’s not to enjoy?