A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

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Everybody Behaves Badly

…this new Pamplona story already contained something for everyone. Its terse, innovative prose would titillate the literary crowd, and the simplicity of the style would make it accessible to mainstream readers. And if that deceptive simplicity didn’t do the trick, the story promised to stand alone as a scandalous roman a clef featuring dissolute representatives from the worlds of wealth and ambition.

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Things I found interesting from reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

  1. Non-fiction about fiction is my favorite kind of non-fiction.
  2. Hemingway epitomizes the theory that great artists have a selfish streak.
  3. Hemingway wasn’t just selfish; he was mean.
  4. The Sun Also Rises launched Hemingway into the literary stratosphere.
  5. The majority of this book is set when Hemingway was a no-name and F. Scott Fitzgerald was a superstar.
  6. In spite of Hemingway’s mean streak, he had a lot of people supporting his art.
  7. Sherwood Anderson was instrumental in introducing Hemingway to the Paris literary world, even though his popularity faded as Hemingway’s soared.
  8. The characters in The Sun Also Rises were thinly veiled portraits of people Hemingway knew and hung out with in Paris.
  9. This didn’t go over so well with the real-life people.
  10. Fitzgerald predicted that Hemingway would have to have a different wife for each of his novels.
  11. While he was writing each of his four major novels, he did have a different wife.
  12. Blume refers to Hemingway’s style as sparse, terse, bare-bones as many would describe his style, but also refers to it as “high-low”, in the sense that it appealed to both literary types and mainstream readers (see quotation above).

The Sun Also Rises

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

After reading Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises for the third time, I found that the ending still gets me. When it comes to romance, I’m a sucker for ambiguous less-than-happy endings. The unrequited passion between Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley encompasses all of the post-World War I disillusionment of the 1920’s – the war being the reason they are not together.

Reading it this time around, I was well aware of the personal nostalgia I feel for the novel. I read the novel when I was a sophomore in high school and while it was not the first Hemingway novel I read (that would be For Whom The Bell Tolls which I read the summer before tenth grade), it was the one that made me a solid fan of his writing. Up until tenth grade, I was mostly a science fiction and fantasy reader (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but reading Hemingway, and The Sun Also Rises specifically, was the first time I realized there could be something more than plot that intrigues me about a novel – such as simply how the author puts words together or what they say or don’t say.

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As well as noticing what I have always liked about the novel, certain things jumped out at me as “new”. In my previous readings, I didn’t realize how much humor Bill Gorton provides with his joking and sarcasm. His every line is a good chuckle. And then I stumble on this little lecture given by Bill to Jake. I didn’t remember it, either:

“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 obessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

At the time of writing this, perhaps Hemingway didn’t include himself in the group of expatriates with whom he would become associated? Perhaps he found reason to criticize them with this little jab? Close to a century later, though, it’s almost as though he is lecturing himself through Bill Gorton – a small example of life imitating art.

I was prompted to read The Sun Also Rises again in preparation for reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s recent book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Look for another post about it sometime in the near future.

 

A Classics Club Rewind

Back in March of 2014, The Classics Club used a question I submitted for their monthly meme and last month they used it again as a Classics Club Rewind:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

Here is my original post regarding this question but I thought I would try to add something to it. My favorite literary period is still early Twentieth Century. This year I read the book The Fellowship about The Inklings, a group of Oxford authors which included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing in the early Twentieth Century, they were confronted with the post-World War I disillusionment that much of the world was facing. The authors of The Fellowship come to the conclusion that Lewis and Tolkien and the others commited the “heresy of the happy ending”. So much of their fiction contains good ultimately triumphing over evil.

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On the other hand, the writers on the US side of the Atlantic like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were redefining style and providing social commentary that still stands up today. These authors were not quite as keen on the happy ending. I can’t say I have a preference over a happy ending or an unhappy ending. If the story works, it works. In early Twentieth Century novels, the unhappy endings are as cathartic as the happy endings are hopeful.

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While I’m on this topic, a new book about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises came out in 2016 called Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume. It’s on my list to read at the beginning of 2017, but I think I’ll reread The Sun Also Rises first.

Speaking of the early Twentieth Century, I’m currently reading Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz. Even thought it wasn’t written in the early Twentieth Century, it’s set during the Harlem Renessiance of the 1920’s. I’m about half way through and I highly recommend it.

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Ernest Hemingway: Big Two-Hearted River (Deal Me In 2016-Week 15)

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Is it possible that Ernest Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River” doesn’t have an iceberg?  Is it possible that there is nothing below the surface of “Big Two-Hearted River” except fish?

From various readings about Hemingway’s life, fishing was a beautiful experience for him. So it comes as no surprise that he needs no other ulterior motive to make writing about fishing a beautiful experience.

In this story, Nick Adams, a recurring Hemingway character, takes a train to somewhere in Michigan. I’m guessing at Michigan, here, simply because Lake Superior is mentioned and other Nick Adams stories are set in Michigan.

All of the Nick Adams stories I’ve read give the sense of a past and a future. “Big Two-Hearted River” is no different; however, the present is more of a focal point than in other stories. And the present involves Nick setting up camp and fishing with vintage Hemingway descriptions. Nick is fishing by himself and while an alone-ness prevails over the story it only enhances the beauty of the experience. There is something different here from loneliness or isolation:

Out through the front of the tent he watched the blow of the fire, when the night wind blew on it. It was a quiet night. The swamp was perfectly quiet. Nick stretched under the blanket comfortably. A mosquito hummed close to his ear. Nick sat up and lit a match. The mosquito was on the canvas, over his head. Nick moved the match quickly up to it. The mosquito made a satisfactory hiss in the flame. The match went out. Nick lay down again under the blanket. He turned on his side and shut his eyes. He was sleepy. He felt sleep coming. He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep.

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I read this story because I selected the King of Spades for Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. “Big Two-Hearted River” is included in my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

A Fourth Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the fourth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds. To celebrate, I am posting my top ten favorite short stories that I’ve read in 2015.  They are in order from 10 to 1.

10.) Here We Are by Dorothy Parker- A very funny story with one of my favorite quotations of the year:

“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

“My,” she said, “it seems like longer.”

9.) Miami-New York by Martha Gellhorn- One of Ernest Hemingway’s wives seems to have more of a sense of humor than he did.

8.) Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers – One of my favorite narrators comes in the form of a cat.

7.) The Country Husband by John Cheever – A depressing but brilliantly written story about life in the suburbs with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as the soundtrack:

Then Donald Goslin, who lived at the corner, began to play the “Moonlight Sonata”. He did this nearly every night. He threw the tempo out the window and played it rubato from beginning to end, like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity – of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know. The music rang up and down the street beneath the trees like an appeal for love, for tenderness, aimed at some lonely housemaid – some fresh-faced, homesick girl from Galway, looking at old snapshots in her third-floor room.

6.) The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx – I liked this story so much I read more of Proulx’s Wyoming stories from her collection Close Range.

5.) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the story that has pushed me beyond simply an appreciation for Oates’ work. It’s by far the scariest story I read this year.

4.) In the Gloaming by Alice Elliot Dark – Tear jerker? Yes. Sentimental? No. Saddest story I read this year.

3.) God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen by Ernest Hemingway – A disturbing story with one of my favorite first lines:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

2.) A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow – The title by no means gives away how funny and irreverent this story is.

1.) A Voice in the Night by Steven Millhauser- My fascination with Steven Millhauser’s work only increased with this story and it contained one of my favorite final lines:

A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another. Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse. Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be.

 

David Foster Wallace: Good People

Deal Me In – Week 30

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According to Joyce Carol Oates in an introduction to this story, “Good People” is different from other stories by David Foster Wallace.  Since this is the first story I’ve read by Wallace, I can’t speak for the truth of that; however, I am now curious. I have to say that this story caught me off guard. It wasn’t anything like I expected.

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Lane and Sheri are college students who, based on their conversation, are religious – an Evangelical Protestant Christian type of religious. Though the words are never used, Sheri is pregnant and they are contemplating an abortion. Comparison to Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is inevitable. To himself, Lane doesn’t think he really loves Sheri. They meet at a picnic table by a lake where Lane comes to the conclusion that Sheri will want to keep the baby but will lie and say she wants to let him “off the hook”.

The story is told entirely through the thoughts of Lane but the puzzling and, I admit, appealing aspect of the story is that there is virtually no proselytizing or politicizing in the story’s tone or purpose. The title comes from Lane’s mother referring to Sheri as “good people”.  I’ve always found this phrase humorous – a person (singular) being good people (plural). The story’s strength is not simply showing Sheri as “good people” but in showing Lane and Sheri as real people.

Lane’s thoughts at the end don’t bring any conclusion to the situation but are curious nevertheless:

…why is he so sure he doesn’t love her?  Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates and I read it when I picked the Four of Diamonds from my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story List. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.