Saturday, December 02, 2006

Reading. Hemingway.

The last time I read Hemingway I was in high school, in an English class called 'Desire and the Marketplace.' (Or maybe at that point it was called 'Love and the Marketplace"). I cannot remember what else we read in that class, aside from Pride and Prejudice, maybe The Great Gatsby, but the common theme of our course was love and human relationships, and how they fit into society as a whole, or something like that. I can't find the paper I wrote about The Sun Also Rises, but I know I never loved Hemingway the way I did, say, Steinbeck. It would take me nearly ten years to make my way back to him, and I find everything has changed.

By now it must be clear that I have an inordinate fondness for long, meandering sentences that go in circles and lead nowhere. Hemingway is different. I remember describing the brushwork of the fourteenth-century Chinese painter Ni Tsan (in an art history class many years ago) as being characterized by spare, vertical strokes or swift, sideways flicks of the brush; Hemingway's blunt quickness with words reminds me of those brushstrokes, stark black dabs against white emptiness. It takes time to come to terms with that swiftness, as if everything around you is moving faster than your mind can comprehend. Someone once described the music of a band I loved as being "like a sunset in fast-forward;" this is what Hemingway is like.

You are all a lost generation, goes the first epigraph, from a conversation with Gertrude Stein (the second epigraph is the part of Ecclesiastes from which this novel takes its title). That lost generation which had fought in World War I and had consequently moved aimlessly, ghostlike, forever afterwards. But then every generation which goes through a war is lost in some way. Scarred. (It is strange now to flip through these pages and see notes that I have written in the margins, lines beneath sentences that must have once meant something to me). I must confess the first time I read this novel I didn't understand it at all. I thought it was about loving someone you couldn't have, about lost chances, and trying to avoid the truth by drinking all the time (and I can't believe that I forgot how much drinking there is), or running away to another city with another lover. I am not sure I understand it any better now.

But there is beauty in the swiftness of Hemingway's words, the rapid-fire conversation that flashes past like the blurred landscape outside a train window. Everything is heat and bright sun or black night and the burn of brandy and the coolness of chilled wine and the flick-flick-flick of ash from the end of your cigarette. The words burn a little more brightly now for me now, after all this time.

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