Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms: War Books [2/15]

I picked A Farewell to Arms to follow Birdsong because I thought the two books would be quite different. Hemingway is writing in part from his own experiences as an American soldier in the Italian army who whilst fighting for the same side is likely to have faced different situations from an English soldier in France. There were great differences in the authors’ writing styles. Hemingway is cold and clinical with description whereas Faulks does not shy away from long descriptive passages. I thought both books were very moving, but for different reasons: I knew the characters in Birdsong, I was attached to them, and I was given a lot of sensory detail about their situations. A Farewell to Arms was completely different: The matter of fact way that Hemingway describes events makes reading them feel like you are being punched in the stomach.

What made this book stand out for me against other WWI novels was its portrayal of the relationship between Catherine and Henry. Unlike Stephen and Isabelle in Birdsong, romance was flesh and blood in this soldier’s life and not just a haunting memory. However, I’m struggling to work out what Hemingway means by writing women the way he does. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that Catherine was the weak link in A Farewell to Arms and I think I’m inclined to agree. She seems to be slightly unnatural, maybe a bit one-dimensional. What is she really like? I’ve no idea.

The last thing I picked up on when I read A Farewell to Arms was how many soldiers died outside the battlefield. They were shot by superiors, caught the flu, starved, or succumbed to medical complications. Death takes on a completely different meaning during wartime and the grim reality of dying seems to spiral out of control.

What makes this such a worthy war novel is the ending.


Catherine and the baby dying hammers home the message that no good has come of this war. No new life, no regeneration – what has been destroyed by war will always have been destroyed. If Henry had gone on to live a happy life with wife and child the book wouldn’t have been the same at all – you can’t un-see things, you can’t undo war.

It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the Fiesta

I continued on my Hemingway kick by reading a full length novel rather than short stories: Hemingway’s first novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. The book follows a group of friends as they travel from Paris to Pamplona in Spain to watch the running of the bulls. Jake, the narrator, is in love with Brett. Brett is engaged to Mike. Brett is having an affair with Robert. Robert is in love with Brett… and so on. The relationships in the novel are quite modern, all the characters seem free to chase after whoever they like. Whilst this is a liberated portrayal, it doesn’t seem to make people happy. The opposite, in fact! The jealousy and sadness from these relationships is really touching.

Without ever mentioning the war, other than to hint about Jake’s injuries, the whole book smacks with the aimlessness of a lost generation. Hemingway isn’t judgmental about the way his characters behave, but maybe the whole book is a comment about whether the world provided for young men after the war. I’m sure there must be something to the writer of the novel being the most tragic character… There was understandably a lot of male insecurity after the war, as people tried to come to terms with what being a man meant. I think the characters in this book are struggling with this.

All these ideas are tied together with the bullfights; passion, violence, heart and soul, work, achievement, recognition, tradition, masculinity, bravery. Bullfighting represents everything the novel talks about. I really enjoyed this novel but I think it requires a lot of thought. On the surface the story is quite simple, but the more I think about it the greater its depths. I don’t think it is a book I could confidently say I understand after just one reading.

Men Without Women

I’ve just read the collection of short stories Men Without Women. I’m not often drawn to short stories but they suit Hemingway’s style – he says so much with so few words. I have to admit sometimes the stories were so subtle I had to re-read them a couple of times, but it was certainly worth it.

My favourite stories in the collection were two of his more famous works: Hills Like White Elephants and In Another Country. Both have a sadness to the relationships between men and women that seem incredibly poignant. In Hills Like White Elephants the story is entirely based around what isn’t said. The couple sitting having a beer before catching a train have an involved history and are struggling with how to move their relationship forward. There is truth and love, jealousy and emptiness; it is like a battle between them to see who can care the most whilst making the other as unhappy as possible.

In Another Country is a touching story dealing with war heroes, cowardice, guilt and grief. Big themes for a seven page story! The feeling I have when reading Hemingway’s writing is that he fully knows his subject. It was something I thought when I read The Old Man and the Sea too. Unlike other writers, he doesn’t smack you in the face with how much he knows, or how much research he has done. Instead there is just an underlying authoritative tone, where I was quite willing to accept anything he said as truth.

Brilliant, but not quite as epic as The Old Man and the Sea.

Fish, he said softly, aloud, I’ll stay with you until I am dead

Designed by Chris Wharton

If you’d asked me to read a hundred pages about fishing, I would have laughed. But Ernest Hemingway’s hundred pages about fishing are like nobody else’s. The Old Man and the Sea is a literary work of genius where Hemingway shows himself to be a master of his craft. In A Moveable Feast he talks about the work involved in writing, making sure every word counts: this story is the proof of it. I can’t imagine anything that would improve it.

The old man is a fisherman in Havana who has gone eighty five days without catching a fish. A bit of a laughingstock, he sails in search of the ‘big fish’ he feels fated to catch. The story is mostly told by the old man speaking aloud to himself, and the fish, and is very descriptive about the tides, the lines, the bait. I was surprised at how interesting it all was – I love being by the sea but fishing is never something that has struck me as interesting before. I think it’s a testament to the skill of the storyteller. If you (like me) have never thought of fishing as beautiful before then imagine reading about it in language like this:

He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

A lot of his writing is informative, very matter of fact, so how does it come to be so beautiful? Perhaps it is the way the story becomes representative of grander ideas, like heroism and the grief that comes with destruction. The man and the fish are treated as equal and respectful adversaries. The old fisherman is quite philosophical:

It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

I really enjoyed this book because of its weightiness. Fishing is the old man’s life but also his burden. The struggle to kill the big fish is necessary but full of sadness. Nobody can write like Hemingway. NOBODY! Try reading this book and not being moved. This is my favourite part:

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.

Hemingway’s writing has a quality to it that really moves the reader, whether describing Paris in the 1920s or a Havana fisherman. I’m looking forward to reading more Hemingway to try to pin down the indescribable: I love his writing, I just don’t understand why.

Hemingway’s Side

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I suppose I read this and The Paris Wife the wrong way round, and am consequently a bit biased in my opinion that Ernest Hemingway was a bit of a bastard and Hadley Richardson was hard done by. HOWEVER, it was interesting to see how much Paula McLain had used this book in reference to her fictional version of the Hemingways’ life in Paris.

That book struck a chord with me and I’ve been dying to read one of his novels ever since. My verdict: despite the man, I love his writing. Its sparse, utilitarian feel means no word is unnecessary. So very readable; the anecdotes about some of my favourite writers of late (F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford) made this a real treasure. How cliched, but Paris in the twenties as a writer sounds like a time never to be recaptured.

As a side note, the edition I got is the restored edition which was published earlier this month. It has been updated to include some of Hemingway’s drafts and sketches that didn’t make the final original text. I’d recommend getting an edition with these extras in because you see how considered and evaluated Hemingway’s writing is, and how much effort must have gone into every last sentence.

Hemingway is a Dude. Examples.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

“The bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another and the love and the good work and all that came out of it is not part of this book. I wrote it and left it out.”

“I held my hand against the silky weight and bluntness against her neck and said something secret and she said, “Afterwards.”
“You,” I said. “You.”

“This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain

Yesterday I got tangled up with the Hemingways. Their years spent in the 1920s literary scene in Paris and their beautiful and awful marriage. By the end of the book I was feeling pretty glad that somebody was giving Hadley Richardson (Ernest Hemingway’s first wife) a voice that deserved to be listened to. Because, oh, she had a hard time! The novel covers a little of Hemingway’s personality and life in the years leading up to the establishment of his literary career with The Sun Also Rises. There is a sense that the demise of this first marriage opened (eventually) a floodgate that lead to a kind of unsettled melancholy that plagued Hemingway for the rest of his life.

For a novel that is marketed (here in the UK) as looking a bit chick lit, there is a fair bit about the literary scene in Paris to counteract the fluff. Special reverance is given to the craft of writing and its approach by different authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce – at times this book is a whos who guide to american writers of the 1920s.

I did really believe in Hadley’s character. Most of the time I thought her unwaivering devotion was an excuse to not attempt to achieve anything on her own terms. However, the demise of their marriage – whilst I always knew that is how the book would end – made me so surprisingly angry on her behalf.

I’m definitely going to read A Moveable Feast, Ernest’s account of their life together in Paris, but this book will stay very vividly in my head for a little while.