Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Week with Hemingway

I got into Hemingway last week. I didn’t mean to, since I’d checked him out in the days when I still had good legs and thought he was a bit of a bully. I didn’t like it that he’d been mean to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (does any one ever just say, “Alice Toklas” and leave out the “B”?). 

He got all peculiar when he overheard them speaking to one another behind closed doors and then told the world about it in A Moveable Feast. So I dismissed a man who was touted as one of America’s greatest authors because I knew everything, after all.

Nevertheless, I have been mad about the 20's in Paris since I was 20, myself. Had big plans for a garret in an arrondissement, just so I could say the word, “arrondissement.” I’d paint there and become famous but, because of the time factor, I’d miss Gert since she’d up and died when I was only nine. Alice was still around, but it just wouldn’t be the same. Still, I could wander around the Luxembourg Gardens and the boulevards and stand on the quais and watch the Seine and smoke cigarettes and wear a beret. 

It would be fine.

However, I didn’t do that after all and ended up in California, and had marriage and kids and discovered avocados, the usual California experience. 

It was also fine.

Years went by. A Moveable Feast stayed in my bookcase.Then, two weeks ago I read The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain. She told the story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. The story was so engaging that I did nothing of note in my house the whole week I was reading it and when I finally put it down, I thought I’d better read some Hemingway after all. 

I only had the aforementioned Feast and a battered, yellowed, binding-rotted copy of A Farewell to Arms. This would not do, so I tapped a few keys to Amazon and its cheaper, used-copy list. In mere days, The Sun Also Rises came to my door. I battled the plastic bag that encased it and pulled it out. It was a little worn, not worth fussing about, and I opened it to the title page. Hello! There was a name at the top right hand corner, “Fiona MacD.” 

Well, Fiona, nice to share a book with you! Did you like it?

Oh, dear, Fiona. You did the unforgivable. You wrote in the book. The first words in chapter one were boxed in a wobbly blue pen. So that you would remember it, dear Fiona? And in the same blue pen, three quarters of the way down the page, another name is boxed in. 

You will never forget this, will you, Fiona? At least until the test is over. Is it for high school?

So now I turn the pages in trepidation. On the third page, underlining, done in such a quivering line I wondered if she had been reading on a boat. I started to fantasize about my new friend, Fiona. 


Surely that, with the wonderful name. My mind’s eye gave her red-gold curls and a milky skin. Then I went whole-hog and sprinkled faint freckles on the tip of her nose. She was behind, however, in her class and she needed to emphasize the proper words in the book so that she could get it right when she was quizzed.

I believe Fiona was young. An innocent. It took more than a few chapters until she realized that the hero was impotent. She noted in a margin that “tight” equaled “drunk.” Her handwriting was difficult to decipher in places. It was a mix of cursive and printing, the words crammed into each other. She boxed many of the names; Brett was captured in blue on several pages. 

As the story went on, the underlining and notes tapered off. I wondered if Fiona had given up on Hemingway. He did have a terrible habit—of his time, of course, but still hard to handle---of using words for minorities that would easily start a fight, or worse, today. 

If Fiona was reading this in olden times, perhaps it didn’t bother her; perhaps she was used to hearing those words among her family and friends. The paperback is 251 pages long; Fiona stops underlining by page 177. Did she get captured by the story, and just not want to bother making notations? 

Or did she give up? 

This was her own book, I see, as it has “FM” stamped on the page edges. Did I come by this from an estate sale where all the books that had belonged to Fiona went off to Amazon at a fraction of their original price? A little something for the heirs, the wee Fiona, Jr.s and the Declans and Seans?

Is this what will happen to my own books someday in the not-too-distant future?

I finished The Sun Also Rises. I found that the descriptions of the rivers and woods and grasslands and trees and sun through the trees and sun on the rivers and dust on the roads and more rivers and woods and sun and trees a bit much. 

I did feel as though I’d seen some Spain, yes, but I maybe saw more of that Spain than I needed. Still, it was interesting to have a sidekick along with me, a youngster, figuring out what she thought was important, or at least, who all the characters were, one from the other. I worried when she stopped underlining on page 177, worried that she quit. 

I know that I, myself, started skimming a little as time went on. The characters were always drunk and I ran through my own mind the times I’d been drunk and how I’d always wanted to fall asleep. Not get into fights or sleep with the bullfighter. While it’s true that I never knew a bullfighter, I won’t let that fact get in the way. 

I understand, because it’s been written about (I wasn’t here yet), that everyone was a mess after World War I, and why wouldn’t they be? So, figuring out how to survive that war after being wounded and often feeling without hope, I suppose that drinking and bullfighting and affairs are as good as anything, especially in picturesque Paris and Spain.

My verdict on Hemingway is still out. He really was awful to Miss Stein and Friend. And he wrote that book when he was pretty much all grown up and should’ve known better.