August 12, 2011
The Importance of Reading Ernest
After I read The Paris Wife, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I became intrigued and somewhat obsessed with the Hemingway legacy. I have an endearing habit (I think it’s endearing; my family has other words for it) of becoming obsessed by details of things that interest me. There was the time we watched a documentary on Napoleon and I became a Josephine freak for a few months, reading biographies and spending copious amounts of time looking up tid-bits about her online. Years ago, I had this thing for the Temple of the Dog, a band with members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. If anyone has ever wondered about Temple of the Dog, I’m the go to person.
But I digress. Back to Hemingway. I decide to read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, because the characters are thinly veiled sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife. And because Ernest is a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal.
I buy the book, eager to read this minimalist style I keep hearing about– the lean, taut prose of Hemingway. On the very first page, (It wasn’t even an entire page. It began 2/3 of the way down) I encounter these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.
EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Aren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Isn’t Hemingway himself the icon of lean, kill-the-adverbs prose?
I read on, a deep furrow between my brows. After a few pages, I have the feeling that I’ve read this type of writing before. Then it hits me. It sounds like something S¹, my thirteen-year-old, had written. And the shallow characters bewilder me. I’m confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I try dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only gets worse.
My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, came to visit this weekend. He notices the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles, and picks it up. After telling me how brilliant it is, he asks how I like it.
“I don’t,” I whine. “He uses ‘then’ and ‘and’ way too much and he’s so wordy. Blah, blah blah. Where’s all that lean prose?”
My brother puts on his patient, let-me-explain-this-in-a-way-you’ll-be-able-to-understand face. “Before Hemingway, prose was very wordy, descriptive and long. You need to be familiar with what came before so you can see the differences.”
The dim light bulb went off somewhere in my head. “And after Hemingway, writers imitated his style. That’s why it sounds so ordinary to me.”
My brother nods, already immersed in the book.
“But what about the adverbs and the ‘thens‘ and ‘and’s?” I ask in a slightly less whiny voice.
My brother and D¹ say in unison, “You’re over analyzing it. Just read it and enjoy it.”
D¹ is compelled to continue because she loves analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruin it when you analyze so much.”
So, I confiscate the book from my brother and start over— just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That makes all the difference. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I couldn’t put it down; thank God it’s not that long. I even find myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes”.
Once I got past all my hang ups, I really enjoyed the book, and I “got” it. But if I had a day job (not that staying at home with the kids is a vacation), I wouldn’t quit it to become a literary critic anytime soon. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I rather think I’ll enjoy it.