So glad to hear you’re all excited about this book! I found it almost too easy to breeze through, and had to keep reminding myself to slow down so that I wouldn’t oversimplify it and miss the subtleties. So I started to underline passages. It made me feel like I was in college all over again! And as nerdy as I must have looked on the subway, it did help to slow me down and keep me focused.
In these first few chapters, we are introduced to the tactics and ritual-like way in which Hemingway sits down to write. Some are quirks that are the equivalent of wearing a pair of lucky socks (burning mandarin peels in the fire) and others really explain how he was able to change the literary landscape: “I would write one true sentence, and then go from there.” That really struck a chord with me. It’s a strategy that’s so simple, and yet it’s one of those things you forget when you’re stuck with a bad case of writer’s block. And it makes writing sound absolutely doable for anyone. It’s funny how he contrasts his writing mantra with Gertrude’s Stein’s opinion of it within just a couple of pages. Stein found that the things he wrote about were a little too real—or, in her words, “inaccrochable”—and not worthy of writing about. Hemingway doesn’t mince words when it comes to his feelings for Stein, and you plainly see he thinks she’s a whole load of b.s. It seems like she is, but also maybe some of this has to do with the fact that he’s a cocky twenty-something guy who’s just starting out. Yet he does respect her and keeps returning to visit her. So there must be something about Stein that rings “true” to him. It should be interesting to see how their relationship plays out over the rest of the book.
Another relationship that intrigued me was Hemingway’s with his wife. (By the way, does anyone have an idea why she calls him “Tatie”?) Hemingway speaks of their life together as such a nostalgic romantic, in that “all we need is love” kind of way. I don’t know, their connection seems a little hollow to me. Maybe having written it with the hindsight of about 40 years and three other wives behind him has something to do with it. Just the fact that he doesn’t fully develop her character probably is a clue about what he really thinks of their relationship.
Later on, the chapter “A False Spring” begins hopeful with him waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed following a goatherd down a cobblestone street, but there seems to be an underlying foreboding mood to the chapter. It’s like he is trying to convey that he was wistful of his naiveté back then. You get the sense that he’s experiencing all those first times in young adulthood when you start to be let down by the world. And while Hemingway certainly isn’t naive in the just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck-yesterday kind of way, he is just starting to lose some of the idealistic notions—the glamours of having money, the romance of being poor and in love, the gamble of making a fast buck—of a young man as he makes his journey to being a full-on man. Just look at when he describes his jealousy of James Joyce, not because of Joyce’s great literary talent, but because he can afford to take his whole “Celtic crew” to dine at the fancy-schmancy restaurant Michaud. And when Hemingway is finally able to enjoy his own hotshot Michaud dinner (courtesy of a big racing win), he discovers he isn’t very impressed after all—and to top it off, the meal doesn’t even sit well with him.
Really, I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s so much more we could talk about. I’d love to hear what some of your observations are so far. (Especially from reader Heather, who says her grandmother knew the Hemingways. Do tell—any surprising background you could share with us?)
Coming up, the chapters are on the short side, so let’s read the next eight (“Hunger Was Good Discipline” to “Enter Shipman at the Lilas”) for next week.
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