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Ernest Hemingway/Giant of 20th Century Literature

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

On November 19, 1956, Ernest Hemingway recovered a trunk from the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The trunk contained, among other things, the notebooks that would become Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast (1964).

Hemingway was having lunch at the Ritz with his friend A.E. Hotchner. Charles Ritz, the chairman of the hotel, joined them. In the course of conversation, Ritz mentioned that there was a trunk in the hotel storage room that the author had left there in 1930. Hemingway didn’t remember leaving it there, but he did remember having a custom-made Louis Vuitton trunk at one time. He had lost track of the trunk and suspected that this was it. Hotchner recalled in 2009: “Charley had the trunk brought up to his office, and after lunch Ernest opened it. It was filled with a ragtag collection of clothes, menus, receipts, memos, hunting and fishing paraphernalia, skiing equipment, racing forms, correspondence and, on the bottom, something that elicited a joyful reaction from Ernest: ‘The notebooks! So that’s where they were! Enfin!’”

Hemingway had kept a meticulous journal when he and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, lived in Paris in the 1920s. He was a young, struggling writer at that point, and didn’t have much money, but he met many other expat artists and writers during that time, people like Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford. Hemingway recorded it all in his notebooks, and didn’t spare the less flattering details about his fellow artists.

Hemingway had his secretary type up the journals in 1957, and he worked on what he called his “Paris book” over the next few years. It was his last book, as it turned out. His health was in decline, many of his friends had died, and he was deeply depressed. He committed suicide in 1961, and his widow, Mary, arranged to have the memoir published posthumously. The publisher wanted to call the book Paris Sketches, but Mary Hemingway didn’t think that was a very catchy title. She asked Hotchner, Hemingway’s friend, if he would come up with a better one. Hotchner recalled that Hemingway had once referred to Paris as “a moveable feast,” and that became the book’s official title.

In 2009, Scribner published a revised version of A Moveable Feast that was edited by Seán Hemingway, the author’s grandson from his marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer. Seán Hemingway disagreed with some of the changes Mary Hemingway had made to the manuscript, in her capacity as literary executor. The book has also had a resurgence in popularity in Paris, after the November 2015 terrorist attack. Its French title is Paris est une fête; the publisher reported selling as many as 500 copies a day. Mourners left copies of the memoir along with flowers at informal memorials all around the Bataclan concert hall.

Ernest Hemingway was clearly one of the great writers of the 20th Century. His novels and short stories were among the most read in his time.

In her biography, Influencing Hemingway: The People and Places That Shaped His Life and Work, Nancy W. Sindelar (2014)introduces the reader to the individuals who played significant roles in Hemingway’s development as both a man and as an artist. Sindelar ranks the fiction works of Hemingway:

 

  1. The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway’s first novel is at the top of the list because it reflects his reliance on his traditional Midwestern values as he encountered new experiences and values in post-World War I Europe. Using friends and acquaintances that populated the cafes along Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris, he reveals his concern about the valueless life of these Lost Generation characters and begins his personal and literary search for meaning in what appears to be a godless world. In the midst of their heavy drinking and meaningless revelry during a fiesta in Spain, Pedro Romero, the matador, becomes a hero. He conducts himself with honor and courage, and it is here we see the beginnings of what will become the Hemingway Code.

The book also tops the list because it reveals Hemingway’s courageous attempt to write in a new and different way by portraying the bad and the ugly as well as the beautiful. Though The Sun Also Rises was well received by the critics, it was not well received by Hemingway’s acquaintances who saw themselves portrayed as self-indulgent, alcoholic and sexually promiscuous in his unflattering, but honest, characterizations. Nor was it well received by his mother, who said he had produced “one of the filthiest books of the year.”

  1. A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway’s second novel is a high on the list because it is the fictional account of events that changed and informed his world view. When Hemingway left the security of the Midwest and went to Italy looking for adventure as an ambulance driver in World War I, he got more than he had bargained for. The idealistic Midwesterner joined the war to end all wars, ready to display honor and courage, but was blown up in a trench. Then he fell in love, contemplated marriage and was rejected by the woman he loved. His confrontation with death, his subsequent wound, and his first experience with love all became catalysts for developing a code of behavior for facing life’s challenges.

A Farewell to Arms was the fictional result of Hemingway’s experiences in Italy and initiates what would become one of the most dominant themes in his novels, the confrontation of death. Though Catherine Barkley’s character seems dated to contemporary female readers, the book still demonstrates that Hemingway used what he learned in Italy to show that war brings out the best and worst in men and women.

  1. The Old Man and the Sea – After the unsuccessful reception to Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning novel to defend his reputation as a writer. Based on his experiences in Cuba, he created a character of an old fisherman. Alone in a skiff, the old man catches a great marlin, only to have it destroyed by sharks. The old man, who had been a champion arm-wrestler and a successful fisherman, was, like Hemingway, trying for a comeback.

The old man embraces the code for living that Hemingway first developed based on his experiences in World War I—the experiences in which a man confronts an unconquerable element. In fighting the sharks, the old man exhibits courage and grace under pressure, believing “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”The reviews and success of the book were nothing less than phenomenal. Appropriately, Hemingway was aboard his boat and out on the GulfStream when he heard via the ship’s radio that the book had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

  1. To Have and Have Not – Hemingway’s growing awareness of financial and social strata are reflected in To Have and Have Not. The characters are based on people the now famous author met in Key West—the working class he encountered on the docks and at Sloppy Joe’s, the rich who moored their boats in Key West harbor, and the illegal Chinese immigrants who were being smuggled from Cuba to Key West to promote tourism in newly formed Chinatowns.

In this Depression-era novel Hemingway comes close to arguing for social and political changes needed to help the working man. However, Hemingway does not see the New Deal remedies as the solution. As a result, the fate of the novel’s main character, Harry Morgan, outlines the limits of personal freedom, self-reliance and the absence of grace under pressure, and the closest Hemingway comes to a solution is for Harry to say, “No matter how a man alone ain’t got no f—— chance.”

 

  1. The Nick Adams Stories – This collection of short stories is a favorite because it provides insight into the life of the young Hemingway. As a child Ernest would accompany his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, as he provided pro bono medical services and attended to injured Indians, women in child-birth, and individuals in a variety of life-threatening situations in the Indian camps of northern Michigan. The memory of one of these trips appears in “Indian Camp.” Young Nick is with his father on a medical mission to deliver a baby. A Native American woman’s been in labor for two days, and Nick observes his father perform a Caesarian with a jackknife sterilized in a basin of boiled water.

Similarly, the reader gains insight into the relationship of Hemingway’s parents in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and understands Hemingway’s feelings of separation from his family and life in Oak Park after returning from World War I in “A Soldier’s Home.”

  1. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Based on his experiences as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, this novel contains the classic Hemingway elements—a main character demonstrating grace under pressure and a plot that combines the interest and conflicts associated with love and war. As with his other works, Hemingway uses his friendships and personal experiences. Robert Jordan is modeled after Robert Merriman, an American professor who left his research on collective farming in Russia to become a commander in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was killed during the final assault on Belchite. Maria is based on a young nurse of the same name who was gang raped by Nationalist soldiers early in the war. The novel’s three days of conflict takes place near the El Tajo gorge that cuts through the Andalusian town of Rondo, where a political massacre like the one led by Pablo occurred early in the Spanish Civil War.

 

Margaret Atwood/A Leading Writer of 20th & 21st Centuries

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

November 18, 1939 is the birthday of Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, best known for her searing explorations of feminism, sexuality, and politics in books like The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a dystopian novel that takes place in a United States, which has become a fundamentalist theocracy where women are forced to have children. She started writing the book on a battered, rented typewriter while on a fellowship in West Berlin. The book became an international best-seller. Atwood’s daughter was nine when it was published; by the time she was in high school, The Handmaid’s Tale was required reading. Atwood once said, “Men often ask me, ‘Why are your female characters so paranoid?’ It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father was an entomologist and the family lived for a long time in insect-research stations in the wilderness. She was 11 before she attended a full year of school. About growing up in near isolation, Atwood said: “There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books. I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on — no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.”

One day she was walking across a football field on her way home and began writing a poem in her head and decided to write it down. She says: “After that, writing was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared.”

Her first novel was The Edible Woman (1969), about a woman who cannot eat and feels that she is being eaten. Atwood likes to write in longhand, preferably with a Rollerball pen, and is even the co-inventor of the LongPen, a remote signing device that allows a person to write in ink anywhere in the world using a tablet and the internet. Her books include Alias Grace (1996), Handmaid’s Tale(1985), The Blind Assassin( 2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the flood(2009), MaddAddam(2013), and The Heart Goes Last (2015).

About the writing life, Margaret Atwood says: “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

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Kazuo Ishiguro/Superb Anglo-Japanese Writer

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

November 8th was the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (1954), one of my most favorite modern writers, best known for haunting, elegiac novels like Remains of the Day (1989), about an English butler working in a big house in the years before World War II, which won the Booker Prize.

Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at the age of five (1960). He didn’t go back for 29 years. Ishiguro says: “I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie. In England, I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan.” As a child in England, he pored over comic books and was obsessed with movies about cowboys and the American West, which influenced his later writing.

Ishiguro spent a gap year after university hitchhiking through America and working for the Queen Mother as a grouse beater in Balmoral, all the while hauling around his portable typewriter and guitar. He says, “I tried to be a songwriter, but the door never opened.” He decided to write a 30-minute radio play called Potatoes and Lovers, about two young people working in a fish-and-chips joint. They are both cross-eyed, and they fall in love. It was an odd plot, but he used it to apply to graduate school in creative writing, and he got in. His first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), was published to international acclaim.

Ishiguro’s novels include my favorite, Never Let Me Go (2005),  and             An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Buried Giant (2015), and The Unconsoled (1995), a 500-page book narrated by a pianist — a book that one critic said “invented its own category of badness.” It’s now considered a classic.

On his writing, Kazuo Ishiguro says: “You can think of me like an early aviator before airplanes were properly invented. I’m building some sort of flying machine in my back garden. I just need it to fly. And you know how odd some of those early flying machines looked? Well, my novels are a bit like that. I put them together out of anything I can think of according to my thinking to make the thing fly.”

In 2007 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

 

Ray Bradbury/Science Fiction Great

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

August 22 is the birthday of science fiction and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury , born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He spent a lot of his childhood in the Waukegan library, where he fell in love with L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. One summer he went to see a local carnival act named Mr. Electrico, a man who sat in an electrical chair and knighted audience members with a sword while electricity flowed through his body. When he reached Bradbury, he put the sword on his head and shouted at him, “Live Forever!” Bradbury couldn’t get that out of his head, and the next day he made his father drive him to the carnival again, even though his uncle had just died and he was supposed to be at the wake. Mr. Electrico introduced the boy to all the carnival performers and then sat with him on a sand dune and told Bradbury that the boy was the reincarnation of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, a man who had died in his arms during World War I. Ray Bradbury said that Mr. Electrico “gave me a future and in doing so, gave me a past.” The next day his family moved cross-country, and as soon as they got to their new house, Ray Bradbury got out a piece of butcher paper and started to write. That was 1932, when Bradbury was 12 years old, and he said that he wrote every single day of his life from then on. His books include The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Farewell Summer (2006).

Ray Bradbury, who said: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

And: “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”

And: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”

H.P. Lovecraft/Genius of Horror

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Perhaps the most prolific writer of pure horror, H.P. Lovecraft Is still recognized not only for his imagination, but also for the elegance of his prose. He is a cult hero of the many writers in this genre.

August 20 was the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft , born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called “weird fiction.” He was an only child, and when he was three years old, his father had a nervous breakdown and spent five years in a hospital before he died; he probably had a psychotic disease caused by syphilis. So Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two aunts, and his grandfather, who all lived together.

Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft’s work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available — books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, “There Are More Things,” in memory of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft said: “I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.”

 


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