hemingWay of the Day: on the menu

My favorite bar has an every-Tuesday-night event called Imperial Andy’s Historical Cocktail Tuesday. Andy is my friendly British bartender. He finds a historical event coinciding with each Tuesday’s date, makes up four themed cocktails to go with it, and produces a one-off menu telling the story. I have long wanted to be a part of one. Many months ago I used the book my mother gave me (for Christmas?), A Reader’s Book of Days, to find a Hemingway event: July 8, which fell on a Tuesday in 2014, was the day (night) he was injured in WWI, which led to his meeting the nurse he fell in love with, who would jilt him, who would be the model for the novel A Farewell to Arms for which he is so well known. This event would also be a big part of his self-myth. I’ve had my short write-up of this historical event and its significance waiting since maybe January for July to come along so I could cue Andy to do a cocktail list for it. Obviously the possibilities are endless! Well, I ended up having an un-reschedule-able appointment on that Tuesday evening; I was pretty disappointed. But the week before, I dropped my piece of writing off with Andy anyway. He’s become a great friend. I said hey, if you use this, would you just save me a copy of the menu please? He said he would push the historical event back a week if I could make the following Tuesday! Which I could.

On Tuesday, July 15, I walked into the bar and he had his menu ready for me – but it stated the date of Hemingway’s injury as July 15! I said, you didn’t even acknowledge your rewriting of history! Won’t somebody call you on this?? He said, Julia, there’s only one customer I know who would call me on this, and I think I’m safe from that person tonight. Why? It’s YOU, Julia. Oh. Okay. (I’ve made a note to check every Tuesday’s historical event for accuracy from now on.)

I enjoyed the drinks. And while we talked over drinks, we somehow came around to the concept of the green man. I told him Kingsnorth’s story as I remembered it offhand from an article my father sent me some months back (Andy being logically at least a little interested as a historical cocktail man as well as a Brit), and I sent him the link to the article too. And then, just on a whim, I looked up the date of the Battle of Hastings: October 14, 1066. Guess what day of the week October 14 falls on this year. You got it. That will be another Imperial Andy’s Historical Cocktail Tuesday. Too bad that’s not the week my father was planning to be in town… maybe he can reschedule.

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Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

Vaill’s story of three love affairs, set against the Spanish Civil War, yields a nuanced perspective on war journalism and romance.

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During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s Hotel Florida was a meeting point for war correspondents, press officers and foreign intellectuals. Amanda Vaill (Everybody Was So Young) uses the hotel as a focal point to examine the war through the lives of three men and three women. These six individuals–all leftists of various stripes and pedigrees, converging on Spain from all over Europe and the U.S.–allow Vaill to range freely through the history of the war, which raged from 1936 to 1939.

Vaill follows her subjects chronologically, shifting locations through Francisco Franco’s rebellion against the Popular Front government and the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War. Arturo Barea of Madrid serves as a censor for the Propaganda Department, finding his leftist politics and commitment to truth well matched by his new assistant Ilsa Kulcsar, who comes from an Austrian resistance cell and speaks many languages. Meanwhile, Ernest Hemingway feels stifled in Key West; a new war to cover provides him with an excuse to get away from his wife and find fresh material to revive his stagnant writing. The attractive young journalist he’s just met, Martha Gellhorn, is also eager to get to Spain. Finally, a young man named Endre Friedmann is exuberantly pursuing his passion for photography in Paris when he meets the charming Gerta Pohorylle. They set off for Spain together with their ideals on their sleeves. Taking new names–Robert Capa and Gerda Taro–they will find fame and love and change the face of war photography forever. One of them will die on Spanish soil.

In addition to explaining the complexities of the Spanish Civil War, Hotel Florida lives up to its grand subtitle. Vaill examines the meaning of truth as conceived by each of her six players–writer, journalist, translator, censor, press officer, photographer. Their romances, all born of war, and the deaths to which they bear witness bring emotion and heartbreak. Buttressed by plentiful research, Vaill’s prose exhibits touches of Hemingway’s own writing style and a gift for narrative that keeps Hotel Florida accessible and engaging.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ideals.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

Teaser Tuesdays: Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

hotel florida

I am, of course, enjoying immersion in the beautifully composed Hotel Florida, a history of six individuals in the Spanish Civil War.

“THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE,” wired Scott Fitzgerald after the screening he saw, at which Hemingway had spoken about la causa and the loss of Lukács and Heilbrun. Fitzgerald sensed in his old and now distant friend an attachment to the film project, and to the war in Spain itself, that had “something almost religious about it.” As so often, he saw Hemingway more clearly than Hemingway saw himself.

I appreciate the larger truth in these lines about the relationship between Fitzgerald (who doesn’t much play into this story) and Hemingway (who is one of its stars).

Also, I am thrilled to note just a handful of pages later an extended excerpt from Goethe’s poem, Der Erlkönig, which I memorized in its entirety for my German class in high school. (In German.) That was fun.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am quite pleased with Hotel Florida, about the Spanish Civil War and concentrating on six individuals – three couples – who experienced it. I’m offering a little more book beginning than usual today, because I think this way gives a good feeling of Amanda Vaill’s work; so bear with me.

hotel florida

Three book beginnings…

Author’s Note:

“It is very dangerous to write the truth in war,” said Ernest Hemingway, “and the truth is very dangerous to come by.”

Prologue:

On July 18, 1936, at Gando in the Canary Islands, a short, balding, barrel-chested man in a gray suit, carrying a Spanish diplomatic passport in the name of José Antonio de Sagroniz, boarded a private seven-seater de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft that had arrived at Gando three days previously and had been waiting on the tarmac for him ever since.

And chapter 1:

Arturo Barea lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of a forest in the Sierra de Guadarrama, northwest of Madrid, with his head in his mistress’s lap. It was mid-afternoon on Sunday, July 19, and the resinous air was loud with the sound of cicadas.

The effect I noticed immediately here, is the connection between the Hemingway quotation and the Hemingwayesque first line of the first chapter. For one thing, note all the sensory detail in that second sentence. This is instantly recognizable to me as Hemingway’s style. And most pointedly, recall the opening line of Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

I surely don’t need to tell you that this parallel was established on purpose. For that matter, Vaill ends her book with the opening line as (she tells us) Hemingway wrote it in his first draft:

We lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest…

I like her use of structure here, the bookending of her book using Hemingway’s own words. I find that this really pulls it together.

Rather more book beginning than usual, I confess. Thanks for your patience. And let me say that Hotel Florida is about much more than Hemingway; but he is the most widely known of her six individuals, and arguable the biggest and most colorful personality, so I think the occasional emphasis can be excused. That said, I really enjoyed learning so much about her other characters. They include Martha Gellhorn, journalist and Hemingway’s partner (mistress during the war, wife after); photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro; and press officers Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. As usual, you’ll have to stay tuned for my book review, but for now: I recommend.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

hemingWay of the Day: How To Tell If You’re In A Hemingway Novel

This is totally silly, and doesn’t make Hemingway sound terribly smart, or interesting; but there’s room for that in this world, too. The man was sometimes a caricature. In fact, I’ve been doing some musing lately as I read Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War, by Amanda Vaill. It’s a lovely book, that examines the experience of six individuals (three couples) in the Spanish Civil War; Hemingway and Gellhorn are two of the six. I have some thoughts to share, but will save those for that book review. (Hint: good book.)

Today for giggles and deprecations: How To Tell If You’re In A Hemingway Novel. Enjoy.

from Liz: Sean Hemingway interview on alternative endings to A Farewell to Arms

She does it every time, you guys, because she a) knows me and my tastes quite well and b) scours the internet and the podcasts and whatnot constantly.

Liz sent me this: an interview with Ernest Hemingway’s nephew, Sean, on a radio show called “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (acronym TTBOOK, which is cute). It opens with a movie clip (from a movie I’ve never heard of, which is a reflection on me, not the movie) about Hemingway’s very well-regarded World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms: the movie’s protagonist is upset about the ending, as many of us have been and will be. Sean Hemingway has recently released a new edited version, A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition, which includes all the alternative endings that Hemingway wrote before settling on the one we know. There were 47 of them.

Click the above link to listen to, or read, the interview, which includes a few of the alternate endings. (I started by listening – which was good, for the movie clip, and for hearing Sean’s voice; but then I got impatient and read through the rest.) Um, this should be clear, but if you haven’t read the book, beware of spoilers in the interview!

I was intrigued because, as interviewer Steve Paulson says, these alternate endings give us a real window into Hemingway’s process and his difficulty, himself, with the ending. And as Sean points out, most of us have lost a loved one, and the difficulties Hemingway had working out how to end this book are analogous, at least, to the difficulties we have in letting go.

Do I want this new edition? Do I want to reread the novel, or just the 47 endings? I’m not sure; my appetite is certainly whetted by this interview, but I don’t think I’m up for a full reread. For one thing, although much-lauded, A Farewell to Arms is far from being among my favorite Hemingway works. I’d reread it before I reread Death in the Afternoon, but that’s about it. And I still haven’t read everything he wrote, either, so it would be hard to justify. I could run through those endings, though… we shall see.

Thanks, Liz, for another great reference. Go check out the interview – it’s short.

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