Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hemingway: historical fiction

I thought I should add a few more things about Ernest Hemingway before I move on to other authors. Reading EH’s books I admire his adventurous life and his ability to present complex material in a simple narrative. However, what makes EH great to me is that his stories resonate in me long after I have put his books down. RecentlyI have come to appreciate EH in a way that I think he never imagined. His stories were written 60-80 years ago therefore, when you read his books, you are taking a step back in time.

In “A Farewell to Arms” I was thinking about how Frederic Henry encouraged his wife to smoke and drink during pregnancy to keep their newborn small. No doubt doctors encouraged this as well, but it didn’t do any good since she died in childbirth anyway. It would be appalling to think of this today, but in 1918 I suppose this was the norm.

I was impressed that EH was able to write his detailed and well researched book about the Spanish Civil War “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while he was sequestered away in far off rural Idaho. Published in 1940, he predicted the coming devastation of WW2, Fascism vs. Communism and the future of war. Although WW2 had technically begun by the time the book was in print, I felt like EH could have been describing the events of 1945 in post-script.

I found it amusing how EH could not depict sexual scenes in his books, providing only suggestions of the deed done. This is not surprising given the values and reading tastes at the time compared to the graphic books of today. Likewise, I imagine this also explains why the dialogue where characters utter profanities was replaced with colorful language or merely “obscenity” this. This was particularly funny when characters engaged in heated arguments as in FWTBT where the dialogue is: obscenity you and the obscenity mother that brought you into this obscenity world. In contrast the “n-word” and other racial epithets are spoken without hesitation.

I thought that EH portrays an antiquated view of women as clingy, needy, vacuous arm candy. In both FWTBT, AFTA and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” the women appeared to me to be equating their own self-worth to their association and adoration of the protagonist. I do not fault him for this at all and he probably was expected to have characters like this in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.

I do wonder how much Hemingway also wrote about himself. Clearly his love of bullfighting came through in his character’s detailed descriptions in TSAR and FWTBT. When Hemingway was 62, at his home in Idaho, he crept carefully downstairs one morning as to not wake his wife. He then loaded both barrels of his 16 gauge shotgun, placed the gun to his head, and ended his writing career. Toward the end of FWTBT, the last book of EH I read, the main character Robert Jordan describes his grandfather’s suicide in an eerily similar way. Looking back it seems that Hemingway predicted his own death 20 years earlier, which is something that we only appreciate by compressing his life under the microscope of time.

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