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Another Hemingway Encounter

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Kirsten Ogden’s post on A Moveable Feast reminded me of my own encounter with Hemingway.

I got through school without having to read him. I don’t know if my experience is typical, but it endowed my yellowing paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises with the aura of a bygone classic. Bygone not just because of my impression that no one reads him anymore, but also because of the baggage Kirsten mentions: the association with machismo, anti-Semitism and the trope of the hard-living writer. I’d picked it up a few times and not made it far.

During the week I was supposed to finish college, I found myself in the grip of a self-sabotaging reading mania that was coincident with my physical chemistry final. To graduate, I had to pass just this one class; it was in no way certain that I would. The night before the final, I turned to my bookshelf instead of my lecture notes and read until dawn Ordeal by Hunger: the Story of the Donner Party. Physical chemistry went unstudied, and I returned from the final feeling unusually fatalistic.

But also, finally, after twenty odd years of schooling, awash in spare time and a long, damp June evening. I picked up The Sun Also Rises and didn’t put it down.

I was taken with the straight reportage of scenes and scenery, a sense of immediacy amplified by the oblique way one piece of the story follows another. On the paragraph level and the chapter level, the sense of what’s important slips in and out of focus, as Jake Barnes, his expat acquaintances, and the object of his futile desire (Brett) richochet in slow motion from drink to drink, country to country. E.g.

“Well,” I said, “I hear you had a wonderful trip.”

“Wonderful,” he said. “Budapest is absolutely wonderful.”

“How about Vienna?”

“Not so good, Jake. Not so good. It seemed better than it was.”

“How do you mean?” I was getting glasses and a siphon.

“Tight, Jake. I was tight.”

“That’s strange. Better have a drink.”

Bill rubbed his forehead. “Remarkable thing,” he said. “Don’t know how it happened. Suddenly it happened.”

The novel is told from close up; causes and consequences remain largely out of scene. Maybe that’s why I’ve always remembered the following passage, in which a detail, the ear, is shown in its final resting place from a vantage point in the future, after Jake and his party have checked out of their hotel and left Pamplona:

The bull who killed Vicente Girones was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.

I experienced this passage like a moment in a dream, when the melange of characters and images take on meaning. The ear, like little else in the novel, is thrown into temporal perspective. While the characters stay lodged in the lubricated now, the ear has an end. It reminds one of one’s longing for explanations and trajectories in a world where none are given.