Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hemingway and American Letters

Nathan Heller has a piece on Slate about Hemingway, the greatest American writer. It's cliche to say that for such a famous writer, Hemingway inspired an amazingly small body of secondary literature. It's also cliche to credit this to his prose, which is the definition of transparent Golden Age English-language modernism, clear and pure and not admitting of interpretation. (I think Asimov has been undeserverdly omitted from this particular canon.) Updike and the later so-called phallocrats of the 50s and 60s who claimed to walk in his footsteps were Silver Age writers.

Among the many (appropriately) understated parts of the article: "It's also a strikingly linear novel (The Sun Also Rises). Few time cuts or flashbacks appear, and its narration has the effect of plodding forward, never looking more than a few feet ahead. Yet the book seems viscerally vivid and alive, as in its description of bull-running:

There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. … You could tell by the degree of intensity in the shout how bad a thing it was that was happening.

"How bad a thing it was that was happening" might be the greatest thing that has ever been written ever. I love Spain and I speak Spanish and I have been there many times - what a great country - and I have even had to scour news reports Stateside when an American woman was gored for the first time among the morons of Pamplona, to make sure it wasn't my American woman. But I have never run with the actual bulls, which is just as well. Because finally, Death in the Afternoon is, transparently, a record of where in Spain it is good to get drunk and look at women, and/or at orchestrated death, of man or bull. But especially the former. If you are a person who is not especially interested in the former, then Death in the Afternoon is probably not the best volume to help you improve your life. But I would argue even if you are not interested in these topics then you might still get something out of Death in the Afternoon, and if not, then you will walk home alone. To die alone with the smell of the oaks and the passing cars that splash the mud on the road. In the rain.

Since I'm posting this on a (partly) political blog, I have to admit that one of the things which made an impression on me in my favorite Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls - was the discussion of the term "Republican" and what it meant for Americans versus for Spaniards. American Robert Jordan clearly understood the benefit of having the government hold the land in the mountains and forests, to manage it for the benefit of ranchers, and the Spanish anti-Franco forces he was fighting with (on the same side as the Soviets) were impressed that he was a third generation "Republican". Sadly, this nuance may be lost on modern members of the GOP.

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