My First Hemingway

World: today I simultaneously checked off book #1 out of the 100 I’m hoping to read in 2015, and finished my very first official Ernest Hemingway novel. I feel like a new person, I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and it was so, so good. It’s easy to see why he’s, you know, a pretty famous guy. He writes so well. Ah.

Somehow, in a novel of over 500 pages, I became so attached to a simple, almost cold and detached narrator who is describing his experience over a three-almost-four-day period of time. He (Robert Jordan) doesn’t even provide any context for his home life until, like, 150 pages in, and you find out the extremely sparse details of his family well over  halfway through the book, around page 350. Usually, to feel attached to a character, I need both of these pieces of information by the fourth chapter. Otherwise I have this weird inability to tell if what I’m reading is supposed to be taken literally, or if it’s some weird, realistic piece of fantasy fiction. That’s probably not the best way to read, but oh well.

But Hemingway! Ah! He did it, and I don’t know how, but I’m guessing it was the lengthy passages including minute details about nature, or about the here-and-now of the particular moment being described, rather than context for any of the characters, but especially the main narrator. But I still cried as I read the last ten pages, and I still feel emotionally drained as I’m writing this, because I have this weird, numb satisfaction of kind of seeing it coming, but not really seeing it coming at all. This will probably make no sense to someone who hasn’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls, and most likely it’s even a stretch for those who have read it, but I have faith that someone will understand what I’m trying to say.

It was such a good book. I kept playing with the idea of maybe getting bored during some of the rambling, over-saturated-with-detail parts, but then right when I felt impatient, Hemingway would slip in one moment of action, no matter how small, and I’d be wide awake and trying to take it all in faster than my eyes could read the words. Or, he would switch his narrator into this sort of schizophrenic, lovable, dual personality conversation with himself. Robert Jordan would just slip into it, and before you knew it you were involved in this frustrating, realistic back and forth between what’s right and wrong and what was actually happening.

Maybe that was part of why I fell so in love with this narrator with so little context: I’m a sucker for free indirect discourse because I think it draws you closer to a character than really any other writing device can; that’s why I’ve become so obsessed with almost all of Jane Austen‘s characters, too.

Either way (and I guess here I should insert a spoiler alert, even though I’m sure I’ve already more or less spoiled it when I talked about crying while reading the last ten pages), my heart hurt when he died. The whole story was so real and gritty. The talk of death and trust and murder and justice and war and all of that, discussed mostly through the thoughts of a cold narrator, should have made it obvious that the ending would not be a happy one. I naively held out hope though, the same way Robert Jordan did until almost the very end, or Maria did in order to let herself be led away by Pablo and Pilar. At this point, I’m just rambling self-indulgently for my own peace of mind, and so I can wrap my head around how much I loved this novel, so really I apologize.

I had two favorite passages that I know I’ll come back to, and will probably, three beers deep, contemplate tattooing somewhere on my body. I’ll include those at the end of this post, but really just read the book. The quotes are long, and probably don’t sound half as beautiful out of context. Anyway, I can’t wait until I finish all the unread books I already own so I can go out and buy more of this really great writer.

Oh, last thing that I almost forgot. I’m pretty familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I’d probably consider him one of my favorite writers of all time. Like I said, this was my first Hemingway. All I really knew about him was that he was part of The Lost Generation, and the character traits I gathered from Midnight in Paris (haha oops). So, being familiar with Fitzgerald and knowing they were in this same sort of genre and era, I kept looking for Fitzgerald’s same beautiful, almost flowery and vivid description and use of language in Hemingway’s prose.

I did not find that at all, and at first I was kind of disillusioned by that; I think I got off to a slower start with this novel because I was expecting that. But then, as I’m reading, I realize: Hemingway uses that same beautiful imagery in his descriptions and metaphors, but he just slips it in when you least expect it, like he slips bits of action in. I don’t know if this is making sense. I guess I found the beautiful language that I was looking for, just in much more concentrated and rare bouts that almost ended up being more beautiful, and easier to savor.

For Whom the Bell Tolls immediately following Fall of Giants makes for some heavy reading, despite throwing a little Not That Kind of Girl in between, which admittedly helped. I think my next book (book #2 of 2015, woo!) will be something lighter. I don’t know what, yet, but hopefully I’ll be blogging about it very soon. ◊

something came from her hand, her fingers and her wrist to his that was as fresh as the first light air that moving toward you over the sea barely wrinkles the glassy surface of a calm, as light as a feather moved across one’s lip, or a leaf falling when there is no breeze; so light that it could be felt with the touch of their fingers alone”                                                                                                                                                       – 173

He looked down the hill slope again and he thought. I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had… The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it… I wish there was some way to pass on what I’ve learned, though. Christ, I was learning fast there at the end… There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true. The way the planes are beautiful whether they are ours or theirs.”                                                                                                                                                               – 502-503

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