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.

 

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).

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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F. Scott Fitzgerald: Crazy Sunday (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 44)

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The singing reached Joel vaguely; he felt happy and friendly toward all the people gathered there, people of bravery and industry, superior to a bourgeoisie that outdid them in ignorance and loose living, risen to a position of the highest prominence in a nation that for a decade had wanted only to be entertained. He liked them – he loved them. Great waves of good feeling flowed through him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Crazy Sunday” has been anthologized frequently and found its way, via John Updike, into The Best Short Stories of the Century. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors and while I understand why this story could be considered great, it’s not my favorite of his stories.

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Joel, a Hollywood writer sometime in the 1930’s, gets invited to cocktail parties on Sundays by the wife of his boss, Miles. There’s an odd sort of triangle here in that Joel is in love with Miles’ wife, Miles’ wife loves Miles, and Miles is having an affair with another woman. The intriguing part is that none of this is a secret from any of them.

On the one hand, Fitzgerald’s writing-brilliant, as it almost always is – reveals all this information with a detailed restraint. He’s always been one to write about a good party or write about a bad party in a good way. The stuffiness of the Sunday cocktail parties at Miles’ house contrasts well with the intimate details of these three characters’ desires.

Then, out of the blue (literally) tragedy strikes. This is the part of the plot that makes me less than enthusiastic about the story as a whole. The beautiful restraint with which Fitzgerald writes gets blown away with something overly dramatic. Perhaps, I need to read the story again to get more of a clue as to why this story is great in the opinions of many.

Have you read this story? I would love to find out what you thought of it!

I read this story when I drew the Queen of Spades for Week 44 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Alcoholic Case

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 19

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “An Alcoholic Case” rates as a departure in his writing style. Fitzgerald’s typical ornate wording gives way to a more stripped down, cut-to-the-chase manner of writing.  I make no definitive conclusion; however, after the informative biographies I’ve read about Fitzgerald (So We Read On by Maureen Carrigan) and Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson), I’m curious if this story was in some way an attempt by Fitzgerald to write like his Lost Generation cohort with whom he did not always have the greatest relationship.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Picture obtained from goodreads.com)

A home health nurse is assigned to the case of an alcoholic and he tends to live up to the reputation alcoholics have among the nurses.  Broken glass becomes some sort of symbol whether it’s a broken bottle of gin on the bathroom floor or the broken windows in the bus the nurse takes home each evening.  Life’s brokenness and sharpness come to mind as I read the quick story – another exception to the typical Fitzgerald style.  This is probably the shortest story of his that I’ve read.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of this story to Fitzgerald’s own relationship to alcohol.  In both the previously mentioned biographies, Fitzgerald’s drinking binges were widely known and could have resulted in at least a few lost relationships in addition to contributing to his early death at the age of 44 (this story was published in 1937, three years prior to his death).

In Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson quotes one of Hemingway’s letters in which he laments his public’s expectations of writing longer novels as opposed to novels like The Old Man and The Sea.  At least ten years after Fitzgerald’s death, Hemingway wonders if this had any impact on Fitzgerald’s downturn as a popular author as The Great Gatsby was a short novel, also.  With a typical mean stroke (even after Fitzgerald was dead), Hemingway says:

“…I will bet it did more to wreck poor old Scott than anything except Zelda, himself and booze.”

Because I prefer Fitzgerald to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway to be Hemingway, “An Alcoholic Case” may not be my favorite of Fitzgerald’s stories, but it was worth reading.  Also, if one is looking for the light, fun and sentimental Fitzgerald, try his earlier stories – this one does not fit that mold:

She knew death – she had heard it, smelt its unmistakable odor, but she had never seen it before it entered into anyone, and she knew this man saw it in the corner of his bathroom: that it was standing there looking at him while he spit from a feeble cough and rubbed the result into the braid of his trousers.  It shone there…crackling for a moment as evidence of the last gesture he ever made.

I selected this story for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project when I drew the Five of Clubs.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Finally finishing “the Jazz Age”…

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I finally finished reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of short stories Tales of the Jazz Age.  Here is a quick rundown of each of the stories about which I haven’t already posted:

“May Day” –  For those who think Fitzgerald’s stories are too depressing and his characters too shallow, this isn’t the story that will change their mind.  I can’t get the phrase “I’m a li’l stewed, Edith” out of my head.

“A Diamond As Big As the Ritz” – I read this story prior to blogging.  It’s one of my favorites from this collection and it’s the one, in my opinion, from which a movie should have been made.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – This was the story actually made into a movie – an incredibly long movie for a short story.  I also read this before blogging.  It was an interesting story but I found it too gimmicky.  It wasn’t the only story in this collection I found to be this way.  Sometimes the gimmicks worked, sometimes they didn’t.

“‘O Russett Witch'” –  This story holds the record for longest length of time it’s taken me to read a short story.  It seems to go on and on.  Is Caroline a witch or isn’t she?  I don’t know.  It did contain some beautiful writing, though, such as this paragraph:

The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. 

“Mr. Icky: The Quintessence of Quaintness in One Act” – A short story that is an odd and sometimes humorous play.

“Jemina, The Mountain Girl” – An incredibly funny story that reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut would write.  Some from my adopted state, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, might find offense in this story.  I just find it funny.

All in all, Fitzgerald has more of a sense of humor than his Lost Generation cohort Ernest Hemingway.

Here are links to my posts about the other stories in the collection:

The Jelly-Bean

The Camel’s Back

Porcelain and Pink

Tarquin of Cheapside

The Lees of Happiness

Also, check out Hamlette the Dame’s great review of this collection over at The Edge of the Precipice!

Willa Cather: Paul’s Case

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 6

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Willa Cather

Smokey Robinson once sang “…a taste of honey’s worse than none at all”.  Based on her short story “Paul’s Case”, I would bet Willa Cather would have agreed – although, she would probably say a taste of “money” is worse than none at all.  I read this story for Week  6 of Deal Me In 2015.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I had several of Cather’s stories on my Deal Me In 2013 list.  While I enjoyed some of them, others left me a little flat.  Her stories that are set in Nebraska or the Southwest were beautiful and intriguing to me.  In spite of my infatuation with New York City, her stories involving artists in the Big Apple at the turn of the twentieth century just didn’t grab hold of me.

In the case of “Paul’s Case”, though, Cather does something different with New York City.  Paul, a teenager, lives in Pittsburgh and is somewhat of a delinquent at school.  He loves serving as an usher at Carnegie Hall so that he can rub elbows with the rich and famous – both the patrons and the performers.  His awe of the rich lifestyle contrasts with his contempt for his lower income neighborhood and school.

Cather simultaneously casts a small spark of sympathy for Paul’s situation (or “case” as the title suggests) and a repulsion for Paul’s attitude and character.  By less than noble means, Paul manages to run away to New York City and live the high life – for a little while.  As with many teenagers, Paul doesn’t realize that there is such a thing as a future and that his means will eventually run out:

It was characteristic that remorse did not occur to him.  His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could.

Since I’m on an F. Scott Fitzgerald kick, I’ll bring up the fact that Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read Onindicates that Fitzgerald “adored” Willa Cather.  Corrigan even goes on to say that some of the characters in The Great Gatsby were inspired by characters in Cather’s stories (Corrigan bases this on letters Fitzgerald wrote to Cather).  Paul in “Paul’s Case” has some definite Jay Gatsby attributes; however, I would guess that Gatsby ultimately gets more reader sympathy than Paul does.