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.”


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.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (audio)

zThis is a fictionalization of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The main events of their lives are fairly well-known: married in 1920, Fitzgerald was a professional writer who never saw the success in his own lifetime that his friend Hemingway did; the couple lived back-and-forth in France and the US; Zelda was “the first flapper” according to Scott; they were famously wild partiers, alcoholics, and rather nut jobs; Zelda was eventually institutionalized, and died in a mental hospital. They had one daughter. These main events are followed in the novel, which is told first-person by Zelda herself.

It started well. I really did love Zelda’s voice – as written by Fowler, and as read by Jenna Lamia. She’s spunky and irreverent, and likeable. She reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara from the very beginning, which is both a compliment and a caution: is she entirely original? I enjoyed what Fowler created in her fictionalized Zelda Fitzgerald, but I worried that she was overly informed by hindsight. Scott talks like he writes; Zelda speaks as if aware of her audience, aware of the legacy she’ll leave behind – which she wouldn’t have been, regardless of her faith in her husband, because his fame as we know it today came largely after both their deaths.

Ernest Hemingway likewise speaks in a caricatured version of one of his own heroes. This is a common technique when writing Hemingway into fiction: I recognize it from Midnight in Paris. I’m comfortable with people criticizing, even despising Hemingway; he’s my hero, but I certainly see his flaws. But I wish they wouldn’t make him into a cartoon, because that, I think, he wasn’t. He could be ridiculous, and he definitely overdid the machismo, but he was a complex human being, troubled, tortured, insecure, boastful and antagonistic; wouldn’t it be more fun, and more satisfying for a novelist, to write him as a full person than as a cartoon version of his own fiction? Ah well.

Expand this concept to apply to Scott Fitzgerald, too. I’m less qualified to speak about his life, having read much less about him than I have about Hemingway. However, I feel confident that neither Scott nor Zelda could have been as black-and-white as Fowler’s fictional characters are here. Scott Fitzgerald is a monster in this novel! Despicable, horrendous, a nightmare. I suspect that in life, he was, like Hemingway, capable of monstrosities, but also a full human being, with likeable bits alongside the flaws. Such a well-loved and artistically accomplished alcoholic would seem to have to be conflicted, ambiguous, and – importantly – multi-facted. Fowler’s characters lack facets. Similarly, though I have read still less about Zelda, my general understanding of her was that her dissipated party-girl period lasted well out of her early 20’s. The fictional Zelda we meet here becomes rather saintly after giving birth to her daughter. She is the squeaky-clean foil to Scott’s ogre; and I suspect that the one is as realistic as the other.

In contrast to this novel, I am simultaneously reading the yet-to-be-published The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing. Z suffers by comparison; Laing’s (nonfiction) work is very well researched, beautifully written (although I’ll try not to turn this into a review of her book!), and, to my point here, respects the dueling forces for good and evil in her subjects, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And Hemingway.) Possibly I would have appreciated Z more if it were presented not as historical fiction but as alternate history, since I am increasingly concerned that it’s not true to the history of the Fitzgeralds as we know it. Even then, however, fully developed characters should have complexity rather than read as saints and devils, so my concern remains.

The net effect of having read this book in the end is that I feel the need to go read up on Zelda a little more thoroughly; I’ll be looking for a biography next. She always struck me peripherally as a colorful, conflicted character: just the kind I like, that is. I’m always most interested in those individuals who offer both sympathetic and distasteful qualities in the same package; they’re so engrossing that way. One of Fowler’s major flaws, then, would be in having omitted my favorite character feature: ambiguity.

I began by enjoying this book, and Zelda’s voice and personality. Much of the middle troubled me, as the black-and-whiteness of the characters emerged. Scott was such a terrible husband that I was just frustrated and angry with him; and while these can be useful emotions to evoke in your reader, Fowler didn’t take me anywhere interesting or cathartic or instructive with them. Zelda briefly considers leaving Scott (because she is, after all, a saint and a martyr) and then realizes she can’t afford to support herself as a single woman, so she decides to stay. Very cut and dried, you see. Towards the end, when the couple is separated by Zelda’s incarceration in various mental institutions, I liked it a little better again; maybe removing the hateful Scott cheered me. But then it was disappointing to end with Scott’s death – Zelda lived another 8 years! but those years are handled only in an epilogue. Why couldn’t she have continued to speak in her own voice until she died? Perhaps this novel should have been called Z: A Novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald told through the eyes of Zelda. Hmph.

In closing, clearly, my concerns were many. I credit Fowler for entertaining me (at least early and late) with a likeable Zelda in a spunky Southern drawl, well read by narrator Lamia. But I was dissatisfied with many aspects of the art of the novel as executed here. Subjects like the Fitzgeralds offered so much opportunity for nuance, and catharsis, and analysis, that was not undertaken. Complex characters were flattened into single dimensions. And my limited knowledge of their lives makes me hesitant, but I worry about the historical accuracy, and I wish more information were given to indicate where the fiction begins. Several letters from Zelda to Scott and other friends are quoted; are these real letters? I don’t know; and I’d like to know. Credit Fowler with inspiring some further reading; but this experience in itself was less than satisfying. I can’t recommend that you spend your time on this book. There are lots of books written about the Fitzgeralds; start elsewhere. Me, I’m considering Tennessee Williams’s play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel.

Rating: 4 fingers.

hemingWay of the Day: as an archivist

Oh my word, Liz does it again. Never was there an article more designed to make me sigh and daydream. From PRI’s The World comes

This came to me from Liz, who got it in turn from Jessamyn West (blogtwitter). A solid pedigree right there. I swoon; this is my dream job.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 17-25; conclusions

(See my first two reviews: lectures 1-7 and lectures 8-16.)

First I’d like to share another example of something that I wished to debate with this professor. The discussion below contains spoilers regarding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my very favorite book ever ever (possibly competing with The Odyssey and The Jungle), so if you haven’t read it, you might skip this part of my review.

Spoiler begins

At about 32 minutes into lecture 19 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Part IV), regarding the scene late in the novel when Robert Jordan’s leg is broken and Pablo is going to lead his small band onward without him:

The symmetry here is between Robert having a broken leg and Pablo having much head. He is the brainy one. This is the ultimate rewriting of the power dynamics in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We’ve been going along with the assumption that it’s the person with the knowledge and the technology, the person with the knowledge of the world, the person that speaks several languages, we’ve been going under the assumption that that person is going to be on top, that the future belongs to him. The ultimate irony of this novel is that in fact this is the person who’s going to lose out, who’s going to have no future at all.

While I see her point about the disruption of power between the educated, foreign-empowered Robert and the rather much maligned and dissipated Pablo, I couldn’t disagree more about the disruption of the reader’s expectations. I realize I can only speak for myself, but I think I can find some Hemingway to back up my impressions.

When I read this book for the first time (in a beach camp in the little town of Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico), I had a strong sense of foreboding about Robert’s fate, and indeed, the fate of Pablo, Pilar, and the rest. Robert’s daydreaming of his life together with Maria in other times and places – in Paris, in the United States, as the wife of a professor entertaining undergraduate students – has a tone of wistfulness, as if Robert suspects this will not come to pass. He likewise daydreams about suicide – his father’s, and the avoidance of his own – and is increasingly pessimistic about the fate of this band of guerrillas. The end of El Sordo has an air of doom about it, which reflects further than those who die on the hilltop; the odds are admittedly against a little guerrilla group in these mountains. When I read this book without knowledge of the ending, I felt sure that Robert and Maria wouldn’t make it out of these hills together and alive; I suspected Robert’s demise specifically, and worried for the rest of them as well. And while I know this is just one person’s reading, I think there’s evidence that Hemingway directed me toward these suspicions. So I’m not sure Dimock has grasped it when she says she’s turned all our expectations on their head. Hemingway has disrupted the power dynamic, yes, but intentionally and with foreshadowing; I’d argue that one of the messages of this novel lies in his statement on war and the value of military technologies, in the way that Dimock shows, but he didn’t surprise us with it so much as build us steadily towards this ending.

Spoiler ends

I am arguing with Dimock here not because I think she’s unintelligent or anything, but because I enjoy debating literature I love. I just wish I could be there and ask my questions and make my points, engage the prof and my classmates. In other words, I would like to be back in school again. What else is new.

I both enjoyed very much, and was very frustrated (see above) by Dimock’s study of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think this is natural. Next we studied Tender is the Night, which I reacted to similarly but less strongly; that’s a book I’ve read, though not recently, and I feel less strongly about it than I do FWTBT; it might be my least favorite Fitzgerald (I thought The Last Tycoon, for example, was better), but ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this semester of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: for me personally, did this class help me understand and enjoy Faulkner, or make me want to read more of him? And to that, a resounding “no.” I am discouraged by Dimock’s repeated confession that he is difficult, makes little or no sense, that she often does not understand what he’s up to. I was turned off by the other two works discussed in this course, and the final four lectures on Light in August shed precious little (wait for it…) light.

I now want to go back to school and study more literature; and I want to avoid William Faulkner from here on out. Those of you who enjoy him are welcome to your enjoyment and I’m happy for you. I’ll be over here.

As for Wai Chee Dimock’s course: I think she fails to articulate her thoughts sometimes; also, I disagree with some of them, but respectfully. I would certainly be happy to take courses from her if I were going back to school. As for this course via iTunes U, however, I give the combination of Dimock’s speaking style and the poor audio recording quality a C-, at best. However, I listened to all 25 lectures at ~50 minutes apiece. If you’re interested, they’re out there, and for that I’m grateful. We’ll see if I have any success with iTunes U in the future.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 8-16

Well, compared to my earlier review of lectures 1-7, I confess I’m a little less enthused with this second set of lectures. (By the way, for clarity’s sake, I downloaded all 25 lectures at once with no indicated break. These breaks for review purposes are random and my own.) I continue to find some audio issues – volume variations, breathiness, background noise – distracting and a little frustrating; I can better understand other users’ complaints as I go on and as this annoyance builds. And I have decided I do not want to read any more Faulkner. It’s not encouraging to have this professor repeatedly confirm that he is difficult; and what I’m learning about the two studied works I haven’t read (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) is not motivating. I am perplexed by Dimock’s characterization of As I Lay Dying as “Faulkner’s version of To Have and Have Not” (this is at 15:00 or 14:55 of lecture 16, if you want to hear more). I confess listening to Dimock acknowledge Faulkner’s esoteric nature, combined with being thrilled to hear Hemingway discussed, is only serving to cement me further in my feelings about these two men. And that’s not really the purpose of academia, is it! I wish I could attend this class with classmates and participate in the study sections she refers to; I’d love to write papers as assigned and get feedback on them; maybe one day I’ll still go back to school and do these things, but for now, listening to these lectures is… still worthwhile, but sometimes frustrating. I hear things I don’t agree with, or need further explained, and there’s no platform for that. I could criticize and pick apart Dimock’s thoughts here, but it doesn’t feel entirely fair. I’d feel much better about doing it in the format intended: class discussion. Besides that, it’s difficult to articulate my arguments for you here, in front of this keyboard, after having listened to the lectures while driving my car and thus not taking adequate notes! These are the limitations of “study” under these terms as a busy professional. I’m still listening. But part of what I’m getting out of these lectures is just more regret that I’m not a full-time grad student!

I will choose one concept to argue here. It struck me hard enough that I made a note and went back to listen to this quick bit at home so I could share with you.

This is in lecture 16, covering For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the record, my favorite Hemingway novel). Dimock reads briefly from a conversation between Robert Jordan and Anselmo (whose name, inexplicably, she pronounces more like Ensalmo; it drives me nuts) in which Anselmo says of the gypsies,

To them it is not a sin to kill outside the tribe. They deny this but it is true.

Dimock comments.

Usually, for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period, right? So there’s just no qualifying after that… [but for the gypsies] outside your tribe you’re free to kill anyone. That’s an incredible charge to level against the gypsies.

She continues on to argue that this accusation, that gypsies lack some moral rectitude that the rest of us possess, is a statement that Anselmo is making about the gypsies’ inferiority; she goes on to discuss Robert Jordan’s apparent ignorance of Spanish culture & history based on a comment that he makes about the Moors. Well, I’m not so sure that Robert Jordan is all that ignorant, but that’s another argument. I think Dimock missed a key piece of irony in that statement about gypsies killing outside their tribe. What struck me about Dimock’s response was her dismissively clear-cut understanding of “our” rules about killing: “the injunction is again killing, period.” First of all, the groups that Anselmo and Robert Jordan belong to (the Abraham Lincoln brigade; guerrillas; Spanish republicans) certainly don’t have a universal injunction against killing people: they kill fascists, don’t they? In other words, depending on how you define one’s tribe, they also feel that it’s permissible or justifiable to kill outside the tribe. Or let’s take this a step further: nowhere does Anselmo, or Dimock, note that it’s okay or not okay to kill humans outside one’s tribe. No, she states that “for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. People kill sentient beings by the billion: to eat them, to take their habitats, as collateral damage during our search for fossil fuels, on and on. To take a more modern approach, we as a society not only kill all nonhuman things as a matter of course and without a second thought; we also seem to accept under certain circumstances that it’s justifiable, at the very least, to kill nonwhites, or non-Americans, or non-Christians; in the post-9/11 United States, there was (is) a certain acceptance of our right to kill Muslims or brown people who live in certain countries! Now, Hemingway didn’t live to see 9/11, but this brand of ethnocentrism is not unique to my generation’s experience. I believe that Hemingway, unlike Dimock – and likely Robert Jordan too – saw and intended the irony in Anselmo’s statement about gypsies killing outside the tribe. It’s all a matter of how you define one’s tribe. Dimock herself pointed out in an earlier lecture that Hemingway’s work is simply dripping, saturated, with irony. I think she missed a fine example here.


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