Hemingway, in love and hatred.

I read The Old Man and the Sea and thought I hated Hemingway but maybe I just hated the man whose shelf I found it on. No. I think I did hate Hemingway. I know I did because when people would say “Ernest Hemingway something or other…” I’d say “pfff, Hemingway” and walk away.

I never read anything else of his but I carried on in my contempt. It’s easy to do that when all you know of a man is that he liked hunting and bullfighting and valor and war and other things I don’t care for. I knew nothing, not really, but for a time it was a political act for me to know nothing about revered men. Let him be a Great Man to others, I thought. Pfff. I busied myself with bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldua.

Later, when I realised that hate generalises but love is particular, I cautiously opened my bookshelf to great men but I changed their title and simply called them Writers. And that is how I came to read For Whom the Bell Tolls and that is how I finally learned how to love Ernest Miller Hemingway. I love him for this one book, this beautiful novel about the Spanish Civil War. The Sun Also Rises may be misogynistic and bigoted, and I’ll decide on the others in time, but For Whom the Bell Tolls is magnificent, compelling, truthful and brutally rendered.

I love him for this passage on dying and living:

If one must die, he thought, and clearly one must, I can die. But I hate it. Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

I love him for writing about the depraved and terrible things that were done on all sides. It’s easy to tell what the enemy did to you. It is another thing to say: and this is the cruelty that I am capable of, this is what I have done. I love him for saying that your beliefs and politics don’t exempt you from life and its miseries and inevitabilities: “there are no people that things must not happen to.” This is the truth, no?

I love him for capturing the tenor and tone of the Spanish language.

I love him for this reminder (that I may otherwise think trite but cannot while reading this novel and thinking, constantly, about the brevity of life):

Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.

I love him for making me see it: death and pain and doubt and trust and bargaining and begging and passion and deception and lies and ideals and sorrow and fear and how it profits no-one (though he would say that the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for). But I say, it is a fine place but hatred profits no-one and love is the thing. Three days or three thousand days, love is the thing, love is the thing, love is the thing.


3 thoughts on “Hemingway, in love and hatred.

  1. It’s so funny, my relationship with Hemingway is very similar. I read The Old Man and the Sea in high school and detested it — and that might be putting it mildly. That book should be outlawed (joking). Like you, I also thought he was a brutish, misogynistic ass who hunted big game and liked bullfighting.

    After college though, I became obsessed with The Lost Generation, mostly through Fitzgerald — sadly, quite like the main character in the latest Woody Allen movie. I thought all the best writing happened in Paris in the ’20s. Eventually, I decided I should give Hemingway another chance and read “A Moveable Feast.” I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. This annoyed me. But I picked up “The Sun Also Rises” and actually loved it too. Yes, racist in parts, and definitely misogynistic in parts, but by then I had a greater understanding of history and culture than I had in high school. More context. I actually eventually presented a paper at the MLA about Jews in expat literature. I was surprised that I most appreciated Hemingway’s thoroughly unique voice which could be so light and beautiful and so expressive. I’m still not crazy about most of his short stories, but I enjoy his prose.

    I haven’t read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” yet, but I’ve always meant to, and your review makes me eager to try it soon. Thank you. (Sorry for the length. I like to talk about books.)

    • I’ve had this “Loved it loved loved it. This annoyed me” reaction to quite a few novels and writers. It’s a big question for me still, after years of feminism and doing a Masters in Gender and Women’s Studies: how do I reconcile those two parts of me? The person who wants to boycott anyone and thing that is remotely sexist, racist or bigoted… and the person who’s a sucker for a beautiful sentence.

      I fear to say it, but I think the lover of words and language wins out.

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