Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 1-7

This is a series of 25 lectures – a semester course, presumably – available on iTunes U here. The description provided says…

This course examines major works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, exploring their interconnections on three analytic scales: the macro history of the United States and the world; the formal and stylistic innovations of modernism; and the small details of sensory input and psychic life.

Some of the user comments/reviews on iTunes U accuse Professor Dimock of being difficult to understand; I’d like to speak to that first. These are not ideal audio recordings, it’s true. She’s a little faint, as if the mike was not pinned to her lapel but in the room somewhere (students coughing and rustling are audible); or maybe sometimes she has it too close to her mouth, and we get unnecessary breathiness. I had to crank my volume way up, and Dimock has some (natural, I think) variations of volume that had me making adjustments and occasionally jumping when she speaks up. And she does have an accent. And she does use “ums” and pauses; but again, I think most of us do. While she is not the most articulate, professional speaker I’ve ever encountered, I think she’s plenty fair for a college professor. (They don’t get to be professors by being professional speakers, kids, in case you didn’t know.) And the recording quality is partly to blame for the minor difficulties I had understanding these lectures. All that said, I found it entirely possible to turn up the volume, concentrate, and receive what Dimock had to say; and it was well worth it.

Now on to the content.

In the early episodes, I can’t say that Dimock presented any ideas that were wholly new to me. Here’s where I’ll take some credit for having read at least a little Faulkner, a medium-sized chunk of Fitzgerald, and most of Hemingway (repeatedly), and read similar proportions of biographical material on each, and studied literary criticism in the past. However, I haven’t tried to think in such academic interpretive terms in some time, and this warming up (if you will) of that part of my brain was useful and welcome. It felt really good to think in academic terms again.

I have to say that I couldn’t get on board with all of Dimock’s concepts. For example, her conflation of the “vagueness” of The Great Gatsby (that was, I believe, Maxwell Perkins’s word) with her “counterrealism” of same is problematic to me. I think you could be vague in your portrayal of realism, and I think you could be precise and use clear outlines in representing counterrealism; so I don’t think it works to substitute the one for the other. In addition, I’m 90% confident that in discussing Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp, she first asserts that childbirth is a manmade event (because it takes a man’s action to bring it on, of course) rather than a natural one; and then later comes around and asserts that it is as natural as rain (which I am much closer to agreeing with than the first assertion, by the way). I don’t always agree with her concepts, then, and I don’t always think that she is all that consistent or puts her arguments together all that well. However, all that aside, I’ve really enjoyed having these parts of my brain stretched out again, and I would very much enjoy being in this class to argue these points with her. So my disagreements and criticisms wouldn’t have me pulling out of this class, in other words, and I won’t stop listening now, either.

One big hope I had for these lectures was that they would help me to work my way through my difficulties with Faulkner. In that respect, they’ve been moderately successful. On the one hand, I am vindicated by Dimock’s saying that The Sound and the Fury is really difficult to understand! Now, I began that book at one point, years ago, and I don’t think I made it 15 pages; but already things are illuminated. So perhaps, as I suspected, Faulkner would become comprehensible to me if I had a good teacher looking over my shoulder and consulting page-by-page. I still don’t think I’m going to try The Sound and the Fury again anytime soon. But I look forward to hearing about my recent read, Light in August.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sections on Hemingway so far haven’t given me anything I didn’t know. I suspect I’m fairly well-informed, for an amateur, on that subject.

So in a nutshell, I’m feeling stimulated and am enjoying these lectures very much so far, and will be continuing through all 25.

hemingWay of the Day: on sadness

A profound and, I think, true – but not particularly uplifting – thought for the day today courtesy of Papa:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

From what I think might be an underappreciated and understudied Hemingway novel: The Garden of Evil. I know one person who I love very much who I think might be just too smart and wise to be happy. These words ring true. But hopefully also, intelligence can help us map a path through this quite depressing world we inhabit, towards happiness despite it all. That’s one of the things I really enjoyed about Derrick Jensen: his ability to show us how f*ed up everything is, and still find things to smile at.

Of course, these words about a dearth of happiness sound especially poignant coming from a man who ended his own life with a shotgun. Or maybe we’re thinking too hard; he put this line into the mouth of a character rather than his own…

What do you think?

hemingWay of the Day: on being drunk

I am hoping to pick up some Hemingway next week while I’m on vacation. It’s been a while since I’ve read any, and I miss him. To inspire myself (and maybe you?) I have chosen a rather classic few lines from my favorite of his books, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“No,” Pablo said, dipping up another cup. “I am drunk, seest thou? When I am not drunk I do not talk. You have never heard me talk much. But an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools.”

“Go and obscenity in the milk of thy cowardice,” Pilar said to him.

This is classic Papa because 1. it involves drunkenness; 2. it includes that oh-so-quotable line, “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (which I picture as one of those I’m-with-stupid t-shirts, but the literary version); and 3. Pilar’s line is on the one hand crass and on the other hand, linguistically interesting. Hemingway has used the word “obscenity” in place of a presumed (ahem) obscenity, like bleeping it out; and “thy” translates the Spanish “tu.” For Whom the Bell Tolls also features some interesting Spanish-language word order, to emphasize the feeling that these Spaniards’ dialogue has been translated for our benefit. I like the flavor that that adds to the book.

That’s our short taste of Hemingway today. Hopefully I’ll have more to tell you about soon!

movie: Hemingway and Gellhorn

Many thanks to my gracious in-laws for DVR-ing this HBO special so that I could watch it later on. You know this was a high priority for me! We had a lovely evening, the four of us, enjoying this newly released film about Hemingway’s time with his third wife (the shortest of his marriages), Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn met Papa in Key West while he was married to Pauline; their romance developed as they shared a common career as war correspondents. His marriage to Pauline ended just a few weeks before he married Gellhorn. While married to Martha, Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. During their barely four years of marriage, professional rivalry posed one of the couple’s greatest difficulties. Hem was not accustomed to having a woman challenge him in his area of expertise, and he handled it badly. They parted less than amicably, with Gellhorn doing the leaving (an unusual experience for the famous writer).

This film did an admirable job of covering this relationship. With just a few qualifying remarks, I can say I really enjoyed it.

The movie opens with Hem & Martha’s meeting in the famous Key West bar, Sloppy Joe’s. I was concerned, early on, because of the overly dramatic dialogue; Hemingway, I kept thinking, would never write dialogue like this. It was theatrical; every line could have ended a chapter (or served for a movie trailer clip). It was overwrought. But as soon as we met Pauline, I started to feel more at home. Pauline was exactly as I picture her. She played the hypocritical righteousness of the spurned wife perfectly. (Keep in mind, as Pauline demands that Hem be a faithful husband, that she stole him from his first wife, arguably in an even more shameful manner than Martha’s, since Pauline befriended Hadley en route to the husband-thievery.)

And it got better from there. I have to give Nicole Kidman credit: I wasn’t sure I could stomach her, not being a big fan; but she was great. Her acting was good and she communicated the Martha Gellhorn I know from the history books: spunky, competitive, impatient with Papa’s neediness and intolerant of his philandering (yes, there’s some hypocrisy again), an inexperienced journalist early in their relationship but later a real professional, and later still, dismissive of history’s desire to relegate her to (a famous quotation, used in the movie) “a footnote to someone else’s life.” (Hint: Hemingway is “someone else.”)

Clive Owen was acceptable as Hemingway, but I couldn’t feel him as Papa. Hey, I’m willing to allow that perhaps my own attachment to the character is strong enough to have created impossibly high standards. (Owens’s acting was perfectly fine, though. My father-in-law commented that Hemingway was a real drunken braggart asshole! To which I say, yes! He was authentically portrayed, as well!) I will say that I think Hemingway himself was handsomer than Owens, where Kidman has the opposite problem: she was, if anything, too beautiful, too glamorous, to be Gellhorn. Gellhorn was a lovely lady, don’t get me wrong, but Kidman is a knockout. See for yourself:

Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway & Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn

the real Hemingway & Gellhorn

While we’re discussing actors, I thought Parker Posey made a surprisingly perfect Mary Welsh. Who’d have thought? If you had told me who would play her role, I would never have believe she could pull it off – for one thing, look old enough! – but she was actually exactly the right person for that role. Casting director, I apologize for my skepticism.

I think the film’s strongest moments were definitely in Spain. The chronology goes: couple meets in Key West (overwrought dialogue abounds); they travel to Spain (lovely cinematography as well as great acting, great images, and – take note – fairly graphic sex); couple moves to Cuba and purchases the Finca Vigia, relationship starts falling apart; Gellhorn continues to pursue wars around the world, and the film loses just a little bit of its magic. Particularly when she visits Dachau and then Auschwitz and comments on the effect of those horrors on her psyche, I felt that it was handled too cursorily. Perhaps a film should not enter Dachau without investing the time, energy, and emotion that it deserves? That was a strange 30-second sideplot; it felt a little disjointed to me. By all means tell us about Dachau if it belongs in your story; but in that case take a minute to do it right. …This is really just a quibble, though.

Final scenes included Hemingway’s great descent into depression and craziness, and finally, his suicide. I had mixed feelings. If this is the story of Hemingway and Gellhorn, I’m not sure his demise really plays into it. But it was necessary, I suppose, to make sense of Gellhorn’s final remarks about his death 30 years past. Hemingway and Gellhorn’s deteriorating relationship felt accurately portrayed, and I liked the frame of an elder Gellhorn reminiscing the rest of the story for us, then going off back into battle. That part was accurate, too.

I wondered many times whether I was seeing real, authentic, historic footage of various scenes from the various wars depicted. I feel confident that at least *some* were authentic; but I doubt my own ability to draw the line. This is high praise.

I think one of the things it is easy to misunderstand, when watching a movie about Hemingway (this is true of Gellhorn, too), is that his life really was that wild, adventurous, exciting, dangerous, and filled with big names. He really did bully John Dos Passos that unrelentingly, and they really were friends (sort of, in the way men could be friends with Hemingway) through it all. The most outrageous parts of this film were perhaps the truest parts.


The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway

The Torrents of Springs has an interesting place in the Hemingway canon. It’s under 100 pages, but couldn’t be more different than the similarly short The Old Man and the Sea; the latter was a masterpiece, cost the author great effort, and won him a Pulitzer Prize, towards the end of his career. The former was early in his career and took him a matter of days to complete; it’s a work of parody and was intended to break Hemingway’s contract with publisher Boni and Liveright. The contract stated that B&L would publish the young up-and-coming’s first three novels unless one were rejected; in the case of rejection, the contract would be broken. Thus tricky Hemingway, who wanted to sign with Scribner’s, submitted this brief and, Hadley Hemingway’s word, “nasty” novella, had his contract broken, and carried on. The Torrents of Spring has never received much critical attention. It is accepted as it was presented: a lark, and not a particularly good-natured one. In my Hemingway studies, though, I wanted to see what it was about – perhaps all the more so because it has such a prickly reputation. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, the dissenter, apparently found it impressive.)

So I picked up this slim little book and read it in a day. It reads like a parody. (But I knew this going in. Hm. An unbiased reader I was not.) It’s a little ridiculous, consciously skipping over character development and explanations in favor of repetitious sentences.

In some ways it was the happiest year of his life. In other ways it was a nightmare. A hideous nightmare. In the end he grew to like it. In other ways he hated it. Before he knew it, a year had passed. He was still collaring pistons. But what strange things had happened in that year. Often he wondered about them.

But these strange things are not explained to me, “the reader.”

The author addresses “the reader” and asks for allowances to be made:

It is very hard to write this way… the author hopes the reader will realize this… I don’t want to rush the reader any… I only wish the reader could help me.

There is definitely a note of less-than-seriousness. It’s also simple, and less than proper in its treatment of certain minority groups (which latter fact is pretty standard for the time period).

If you think you hear Hemingway’s famous “voice” here, you’re not alone. However, I think I hear Sherwood Anderson‘s “voice” here, too. Anderson is one of the writers being parodied; but he also appears in an article years after the publication of The Torrents of Spring as Hemingway’s recommended reading, which is a little odd. But then, Hemingway did make a habit of pushing-and-pulling at his literary friends and rivals, who were too often the same people.

Oh, did you want to know what it was about? Plot is not this book’s strong point, but I’ll tell you briefly. Scripps O’Neil was married to a woman in Mancelona (Michigan), but she left him; he then journeys towards Chicago but ends up in Petoskey (also Michigan, and one of Hemingway’s haunts). Here he works in a pump factory and marries an elderly waitress with whom he quickly becomes disenchanted. His coworker at the factory, Yogi Johnson, who was in the war, worries about losing his interest in women; drinks with some Indians whose luck runs out; and regains his interest in women upon encountering a nude squaw. The plot is not the point; the point is the funny style.

I have to agree with the critics this time; this is not an important literary creation on the scale of Hemingway’s great works (like The Sun Also Rises, which like Torrents was published in 1926). But it’s amusing, and stylistically interesting. I wouldn’t go about freely recommending this to just any reader. I think you would want to be especially interested in Hemingway, or Anderson, or literary playfulness of their era, to appreciate it. If that’s not you – if you’re interested in exploring Hemingway generally – I can recommend much better books, and much better examples of his craft. The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea are my favorite of his novels; A Farewell to Arms is well-respected as well; A Moveable Feast is a lovely memoir of Paris; and I find his short stories marvelous (and nice short entries to his style if you’re hesitant). The best I can say about The Torrents of Spring is that it will not take much of your time! And is mildly noteworthy as an anecdote of Hemingway’s career.

Rating: 3 underhanded compliments.

movie: To Have and Have Not

The Howard Hawks movie To Have and Have Not is based loosely on Hemingway’s novel by the same name, which received a lukewarm-at-best reaction from critics. Faulkner was involved in working on the script, making this a pretty literary movie; add to this mix Humphrey Bogart, fresh off the success of Casablanca, and throw in Lauren Bacall’s first movie appearance, and you have a hell of a recipe. Bacall & Bogart met on the set, developing the on-screen chemistry they would be known for, and the off-screen romance that would end Bogart’s marriage to Mayo Methot so that he could marry Bacall.

And Bacall at 19 is a formidable screen presence. It was hard for me to believe her age – although, as Husband pointed out, 19 was a little older then than it is now.

she lights a cigarette for him...

The plot resembles that of the novel, but with a number of changes. The two agree: Harry Morgan (Bogart) is a charter fishing boat captain, accompanied by his drunken mate Eddie. A customer named Johnson has just walked out on his bill after fishing with Harry for several weeks, which financial hardship leads Harry to reluctantly take on the smuggling of illegal passengers onto his island. From here, they differ. The novel’s Cuba becomes the movie’s Martinique, under Vichy rule, just after the fall of France. The Chinese passengers in the novel become a French resistance couple in the movie; and most importantly, Bacall’s character is wholly a creation of the film. Harry’s family life in the book is quite different.

he lights a cigarette for her...

Bacall’s character is Marie but we know her as “Slim” (and she calls Harry “Steve,” for reasons I never grasped). She has shown up in Martinique alone and broke, and immediately she and Harry feel an attraction to one another. She sort of hangs around as Harry’s drama with the French develops. He goes ahead and transports the resistance fighters, out of financial necessity but also out of friendship with hotel owner “Frenchy.” The local Vichy government harasses him for his apparent sympathies. When one of his illicit passengers is shot, he is reluctantly convinced to play doctor, involving him momentarily with the French wife, which makes Slim jealous. Slim briefly takes a gig singing in the hotel lounge, giving us one great scene. Harry has a sweet, not entirely explained loyalty to the drunken Eddie; things wrap up with the three – Harry, Slim and Eddie – about to sail into the sunset together.

Not surprisingly, I was a little disappointed to not find a little more Hemingway in the movie, but that didn’t last long. To Have and Have Not is a snapshot into a moment in film history with iconic stars, smoldering romance, and likeable piano-playing sidekicks. It was very enjoyable.

hemingWay of the Day: as reported by his son Gregory

I’m stretching the definition of my hemingWay of the Day feature just a little bit. This is a quotation, not from Papa himself, but from Gregory H. Hemingway’s book Papa: A Personal Memoir. Here’s Gregory writing, and quoting his father.

He said he loved to read the Bible when he was seven or eight because it was so full of battles. “But I wasn’t much good reading at first, Gig, just like you. It was years before I realized that ‘Gladly, the cross I’d bear’ didn’t refer to a kindly animal. I could easily imagine a cross-eyed bear and Gladly seemed like such a lovely name for one.”

Isn’t that sort of darling? Aside from being funny, I think it’s a good example of what charmed me so much about Papa as seen through Gigi’s eyes: that he was often a tender and loving father. Here we see him reassuring his son the late reader. Gigi’s book is still resonating with me weeks afterward; isn’t it nice when a book does that for us?

looking back on early 2012… looking forward to a new trend

As I wrote at the beginning of the calendar year, I am moving away from challenges and lists and readalongs this year, hoping to follow more truly my reading urges, ideally with an emphasis on my TBR list(s) and shelf (shelves). Well, here we are two months (more or less) into 2012, and I see my reading urges taking shape. I wanted to share what I’m observing, and what I’m looking forward to.

First, what’s happened in the last eight weeks? I’ve read 25 books (wow! that many? really?), but I haven’t had really excellent luck. I really loved eight of them, which is a scant third: not very good stats. I loved:

If you have noticed a pattern above, so have I: I am leaning heavily towards a certain two bearded men whose first names start with ‘E’. (On a personal note, I have been toying pictorially with the three bearded men in my life…)

Ernest Hemingway, Edward Abbey, and my Bearded Husband

My newfound (or newly recovered) interest in Abbey has come out of my love of Philip Connors’s Fire Season, which I called my favorite book of 2011. I’m still not done being moved by it; Husband is actually reading it himself (a truly momentous occurrence), I am planning a reread at the earliest available moment, and we’re planning a summer trip to the Gila National Forest itself, possibly even to meet the author who has graciously been corresponding with me and overlooking my rabid fandom. The unfortunate coincidence of Fire Season‘s publication with the worst drought in Texas’s history, and a series of wildfires including one that touched my family, has had me thinking about some of the themes involved. I’ve read a few other pieces of nature writing this year (Liebenow’s Mountains of Light and March’s River in Ruin – both lovely, and both reviews to come in Shelf Awareness). But mostly I’ve been revisiting Abbey himself, who represents the epitome of nature writing, at least for me in my not-very-well-read experience. I can’t begin to go into what his writing does for me at this moment; that’s another blog post. But he makes me laugh, and cry, and think and feel, and plan trips. I am trying to take to heart his exhortation to “get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and comtemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves…”

And Connors, and Abbey, are shaping my reading, too, of course. I’m working on building my collection of Abbey’s books, and a few books about him; I have Aldo Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac coming to my local library; and I have my eye on Muir, although with a few reservations. (I did love his Stickeen as a child. If you see it, grab it.) I have a few books on New Mexico and the Gila coming, too, to help plan our trip this summer.

Again, my thoughts on Abbey are large and evolving, and I’m not feeling worthy of trying to communicate them today. But I’m working on it.

And then there’s the other bearded man. I do have still a handful of Hemingway works on his little shelf that I haven’t read; and I have several biographies of him and other related fiction and nonfiction. My love for Hemingway has not faded yet.

So I guess what I’m trying to say, very long-windedly, is that I am finding great joy in my reading these days by focusing on a few areas that are holding my interest: mainly, two authors I greatly respect, and the writings about and surrounding them. I hope to delve more deeply into Abbey (and similar) and Hemingway, as 2012 rolls on by. Of course my reviews for Shelf Awareness continue; but they take 3-4 reviews a month from me, and that makes up a minority of my reading, so I have time to do my own thing. There will always be some variety, too – this weekend I checked out the new Girl Reading by Katie Ward just because it looked good – but I am doing pretty well at putting down the books that don’t work for me, because I know there’s lots more Abbey et al out there for me.

hemingWay of the Day: on nightlife

Nightlife is a funny thing. There seems to be no reason or rule that controls it. You cannot find it when you want it. And you cannot get away from it when you don’t want it. It is a European product.

from “European Nightlife: A Disease,” The Toronto Star Weekly, 15 December 1923

So true, Papa, so true! I feel like I’ve spent all my life either trying to find the party or to escape it. (Is that a metaphor for something?) This article was a charming little assessment of the nightlife scenes in a handful of European cities – not a travel guide or anything, since it’s so dated (!), but a snapshot in time of one man’s experience, at least, and well presented, and funny.

Papa: A Personal Memoir by Gregory H. Hemingway

Gregory Hemingway, known as Mr. Gig or Gigi to his family, was Ernest Hemingway’s youngest of three sons; his mother was Pauline, Papa’s second wife. This is his memoir of his father, and it begins and ends with Papa’s suicide, and the ways in which that trauma shaped Gigi’s life. It is a short but monumentally touching and surprisingly well-written book; I think it is the most moving biography of Papa (who, presumably, you know I adore) that I have read. While Gigi does relate several of his father’s uglier moments, including crimes against his son, he emphasizes Papa’s humanity and good qualities. The story told here seems to be of a fundamentally good man who got sicker and sicker at the end – though I think he always struggled with mental illness, from being cross-dressed as a toddler through pursuit of success, fame, and the fading of his talent – and fell apart. There are other perspectives out there; many biographers and commentators see Hemingway as a monster, and I accept that that is one perspective, and has evidence to back it up. But I’m always drawn to the outlook that he deserves our pity for the illness he struggled with that finally killed him; and that is more what we get here.

Gigi tells heartwarming stories, and some bad ones (like Papa blaming Gigi for Pauline’s death). He shows what good advice Papa gave; he was a good teacher. He addresses some of the myths surrounding his larger-than-life father, even though he is often unable to refute or confirm them because he was so small (or living with his mother). And it’s all so beautifully done! Who knew Gigi was a bit of a writer, himself? (Make note of the tale of his plagiarized short story, back when he still hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps.)

To me, one of the most poignant things about this slim memoir is our present knowledge of where Gigi went from here. At the time the book was written, he was a practicing physician and still married to Valerie (whose own memoir of Papa I have on my shelf waiting for me). He would later divorce Valerie (after some 20 years of marriage) and go on to two more marriages; become a cross-dresser and take steps toward a sex change; lose his medical license; battle alcoholism; and finally die in a women’s jail in Miami. In his book, there is a general tone of “look at me, I’ve come this far” – not bragging so much as in relief to have resisted the darkness for this long. He seems to have a positive attitude. But there is also quiet acknowledgement, here and there, of the sinister element within himself that he has worked to resist. This same subtle awareness of the darkness inside is present in Papa’s work beginning at a young age, and the youngest son Andrew in Islands in the Stream, clearly modeled on Gregory, has a “badness” in him as well. The descriptive passage about Andrew, in fact, is quoted at the beginning of this book, before Norman Mailer’s (excellent) introduction, implying that Andrew’s darkness as well as Papa’s and Gigi’s is acknowledged by all the parties.

This book was like a gift to me from yet another tragic Hemingway man. It gave me lovely, appealing moments with Papa, as well as those ugly moments in which he could be so vicious. It was beautifully written. I loved getting to know Gigi better; he struck me as a very likeable, sympathetic man. But it was also sad, as reading about the Hemingways always is.


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