Notes: The Sun Also Rises

Longing. Throughout the pages, even the epigraph, we’re reminded of what’s been lost. We see in in the expatriate Jake Barnes, who’s told by his friend Bill:

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You have around cafes.

Jake is cut off from his home. He’s cut off, too, from being a man in the traditional sense. We don’t know his exact injury, but we are told a war wound has caused his impotence. So, he becomes a man in the expatriate sense, spending his time talking and not working, obsessed by sex though without any means of release. He passes from cafe to cafe, lost.

It’s pain that drives him back to a memory, a fragment of longing. After he’s punched in the head he walks back to the hotel:

“Walking across the square to the hotel everything looked new and changed. I had never seen trees before. I had never seen the flagpoles before, nor the front of the theatre. It was all different. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town football game. I was carrying a suitcase with my football things in it, and I walked up the street from the station in the town I had lived in all my life and it was all new. They were raking the lawns and burning leaves in the road, and I stopped for a long time and watched. It was all strange. Then I went on, and my feet seemed to be a long way off, and everything seemed to come from a long way off, and I could hear my feet walking a great distance away. I had been kicked in the head early in the game. It was like that crossing the square.”

Pain does not simply remind him of his past; it pulls him into the presence to see things anew.

Hemingway’s great restraint is never to name the longing, the lostness, never to go into soliloquies about the pain of Jake, but to narrate. He gives us dialogue and action, and the prose itself is lean and athletic. There is no navel gazing, only the rush of events, and the longing for that which has been lost.

Advertisements

Criterion Collection (Part I)

Criterion Collection

The challenge? To choose your top ten books that you would want, leather bound, and placed on your mantle. I decided to limit it to fiction. Here are the first five in no particular order:

don quixoteDon Quixote
The titular character and his squire, Sancho Panza, travel throughout Spain on hilarious adventures. It’s worth reading because you’ll laugh out loud (especially if you choose the John Rutherford translation, which focuses on making things accessible to the 21st century reader, rather than a literal interpretation). But it isn’t just the first modern novel—a hundred years before anyone writing in English would gain acclaim by following suit. It’s the first postmodern novel, with its direct references to the writer, to the reader, to other texts. Part Two of the book refers liberally to Part One, and Cervantes references another author who tried to write Part Two (this was real) and throws him under the 17th century bus. When I read it, I was astounded that it was written 500 years ago.

wolf hallWolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies
From the oldest book on my list to the most recent (and I’m awaiting the final book to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light). Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies follow the story of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. More than bring a sympathetic look at Cromwell, they are a master class in writing fiction. Mantel gets in and out of scenes with incredible pace, each scene buzzes with conflict, and yet themes such as power, fear, and faith. If you just read one, I’d actually recommend the second: Mantel has less propensity to use “he” without proper referent as she writes of Cromwell (in the first novel, “he” almost universally refers to Cromwell, despite who has been referenced last). Also, in tracing the fall of Anne Boleyn, it has a stronger plot structure. But both are rewarding—especially to the writer trying to pick up some tips along the way.

for whom the bell tollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway burst onto the scene in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises and followed it three years later with A Farewell to Arms. After his career hit a lull in the 1930s, For Whom the Bell Tolls revived it, as both a critical and commercial success. It follows Robert Jordan as he fights in the Spanish Civil War and is assigned to blow up a bridge. Hemingway uses archaic language to translate the Spanish “vos” and “vosotros,” which lends an air of credence to the novel—it sounds, at times, like a translation. This is the most gripping of his novels, with a pitched battle scene at the end, and it deals unsentimentally with the atrocities of war. A beautifully written book with memorable characters. For me, it is Hemingway’s novel that most provides what good fiction is meant to be: a lucid dream.

bros kThe Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, with some of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It had me laughing at points, from the first pages when Fyodor decides to confront his wife, congratulates himself with a bout of drinking, and promptly is too drunk to go through with his original design. But that’s simply the underestimated side of the novel. From Alyosha leaving the monastery, to Ivan meeting with the devil, it’s a powerful novel of ideas (in fact, it embodies what it means to be a novel of ideas). While Tolstoy admired him, he thought Dostoevsky wasn’t artistic enough. True, the novel pounds ideas into your head (like a good Russian?) rather than exploring them simply through story, but the ideas are some of the most profound in all literature, and the story itself ends with a fascinating trial.

love in choleraLove in the Time of Cholera
When I first thought about which Marquez book I’d include, One Hundred Years of Solitude seemed the natural answer. But upon a second thought, I moved toward Love in the Time of Cholera: the story is stronger, I think. In keeping it more dense and focused on a love triangle (though, over a very long period of time), it holds conflict better. The theme of love, and the various types of love and how it affects us, is intriguing, and Marquez deals with a deft touch. Of course, his prose is wonderful. What does it say about the writer that I also thought about Chronicle of a Death Foretold? On another day, I could probably be persuaded to any of the three, but today I’m going with Love in the Time of Cholera.

How can a writer train himself?

Hemingway, again, in a dialogue with new writers (Mice, he calls them; he refers to himself as “Your Correspondent”). I can’t help but think that his advice isn’t simple good for writers, or artists, but everyone who wants to live deeply and live well. Especially the third paragraph.

Mice: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

* From Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips

Revisioning

In my creative work, my recent mantra has been revision. Looking at the word itself, this isn’t a cleaning up of the text–it’s an entirely new look at the text. It’s a way to fill the text with greater reality. In writing parlance, it’s the best way to develop characters, themes, plots–by writing them again.

Revisioning (or, revising) allows the writer to enter more deeply into the text and find out what’s working, and what’s not.

But rather than tell you about my process, I thought it’d be more fun to show you. Here’s a scene from a story I’m still working on. A teenage girl is leaving her house to go to the movies with a boy. The reader doesn’t yet know the mother’s occupation, but it will soon become clear. The story is set on an imaginary island in the Mediterranean and written in the second person.

Earlier draft:

Before you leave for the cinema, your mother returns. She wears her yellow gloves. You will bring germs inside our house you tell her. I was preoccupied she says. Where are you going?

You put a leg over the green bar. The cinema.

With that boy?

Yes.

I was only at the rectory. You know that.

Then why do you wear gloves at all?

They make everything look cleaner.

The left pedal squeaks again and you tell yourself to find something for it. You look back to see your mother and her tiny yellow gloves, the orange sun above her, and then a cypress comes between you, a cypress growing out of white rock that the road curves around, and then you don’t have to pedal for the next two kilometers.

As the writer, I sense a few issues in the first paragraph. I’m not sure the reader can see the scene yet. Also, I’m not convinced the girl (you) would mention the germs on her mother’s rubber gloves–at least not at first. Here’s the revised version:

Before you leave for the cinema, your mother returns. She wears her yellow gloves. The light is diffuse and apricot-colored as you wait for her, holding the handlebars. She sighs four times entering the yard.

This allows a little more of how the mother is feeling, as well as the scene. I still think there’s more work to be done on these sentences, but it’s an improvement. In the revision process, I really wanted to show that orange/pinkish evening light, and for an agricultural island, apricot proved a good fit (after some research that they could grow in the area–at least the protagonist would be familiar with them). I liked it’s connotations–the sweetness of the fruit and image itself. I also introduced the bicycle (without the random reference to a green bar).

From here, we go into the conversation:

Where are you going?

You put a leg over the green bar. The cinema.

With that boy?

Yes.

She removes the band from her hair with her gloves still on.

Now, the green bar makes sense. With the mother, I’m ramming home “cleaning woman” without explicitly saying it. Plus, the mother’s preoccupation–and forgetting to remove her gloves–portend to other plot elements going on. Finally, offering the beat here (the mother taking off her headband) shows the mother is unsure of what to say, opening room for the young woman:

You will bring germs inside our house, you tell her.

Now it’s time for this line. The young woman says it as a defense-mechanism in order to change the subject. By attacking her mother, and attacking in a place where her mother would be defensive, the young woman is able to gain control of the conversation and drop the topic about the boy.

I was preoccupied. And I was only at the rectory. You know that.

They why wear gloves at all?

They make everything look cleaner.

I kept these lines because they develop other themes going on in the story, especially with the mother.

Ciao, you say, and the left pedal squeaks again. She does not reply and you smile because of the conversation. You look back to see her watching you and wearing her tiny gloves, the orange sun above her, and then a cypress comes between you, a cypress growing out of the white rock, and then you don’t have to pedal for the next two kilometers.

The final paragraph shows how the girl controlled the conversation–and she knows it. That’s what she’s thinking about–not the squeak. I also cleaned up the prose a bit.

Revisioning is a process, more than anything, to question: why would the girl say this? What is going on here? What’s behind this conversation? It’s a chance to literally see the story again and find deeper layers that were present but needed to be unearthed to be seen. It’s a chance to get the story right–going over it again and again until each word says what you want it to.

Hemingway famously rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times. It’s tremendously important as writers to revise, but I’d argue it’s also important as people: revisioning is what allows us to reflect and grow, to unearth deeper layers in the mundane and everyday life. To find the story behind the story.

Revise today. Change your routine and see what you see. Think about what you would do differently–do better–if you had this day again (because you’ll have many, many days similar to this one). Stare at the way a tree moves in the wind, or how a loved one smiles at you (just don’t stare creepily), and always ask yourself those main questions: what is really going on, and why?

Alone-ness

I had time tonight to read one of my favorite chapters in literature: the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms.  I know: probably the same chapter you were thinking of.  The story shows the sadness of war, and yet love blossoms in the midst of it.  In the last chapter, Henry’s lover Catherine goes into labor, and we see Henry going back and forth from the hospital to a cafe, and there are some beautiful and true stream-of-consciousness moments when Henry sits in the cafe, worrying that Catherine may die, and his son with her.  Upon re-reading the chapter, I found the stream-of-consciousness especially gripping (And what if she should die? She won’t die.  People don’t die in childbirth nowadays…Yes, but what if she should die? She won’t die.  She’s just having a bad time…She can’t die. Yes, but what if she should die? She can’t, I tell you.).  I talk to myself in the same manner, two voices battling and obsessing in my head, and Hemingway captures this perfectly.

In the middle of this chapter, in the middle of his wife in labor and possibly dying, is this seemingly random moment:

Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants.  As it commenced to burn…they fell off into the fire.  Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going.  But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell into the fire.  I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and life the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground.  But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on  the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it.  I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.

I remember when I first read this passage.  I was upstairs in Wheaton’s library sitting an a carrel; I could see the clock tower from the window.  I remember reading it and being moved by the profound sadness and loneliness of it.  Frederic Henry can’t or won’t save the ants from the fire, like he could not save the men going to war, like he could not save his wife or son (though that occurs later in the story).  I remember sitting in the library at Wheaton feeling my own mortality — not only in a way that meant I would die, but in a way that meant I was limited: I cannot be the messiah, for myself or for others or for ants.  I remember sitting there and feeling alone and isolated, yet not in a despairing way: in a cathartic and satisfying way.

I felt that way tonight, with my wife and daughter gone, after a fairly frustrating day at school.  I felt mortal in a limited way; alone.  I don’t know how to describe this other than to stress it wasn’t a terrible, despairing aloneness, but rather one that shows me that I am made for connection: connection with other people, connection with the numinous.  So, I re-read this wonderful passage, and saw once again my aloneness; I saw once again my sin and imperfection and mortality.  I am not the messiah.  I am a man, and to quote another Hemingway story, who sometimes needs to, “continue, slowly, and wait for luck to change.”

So I wait tonight.  In my aloneness, which is not quite loneliness, yet not as bright as solitude.  I read Hemingway.  I find catharsis.  I pray.  I talk to my wife on the phone, eight hundred miles away.  I pray.  I talk to my father.  I read Hemingway.

May we all find catharsis in our aloneness, for the catharsis reminds us of all the others who have gone before us, all the other stories like ours, and at that point is hope; at that point aloneness changes all the way into a lovely, lovely solitude.