Nabokov thought very little of these two highly celebrated authors and their books had sat on my shelf for too long unread, so I decided to give them a whirl. I think Nabby didn’t like them because the structure of their novels, how the plot itself unfolds rather than the writing per se, is pretty straightforward in each. He hated extended dialogue and books about society, too. But I really liked both novels. I’ll read more of theirs soon, Nabokov be damned! Here are the off-the-top-of-my head reflections of each while they’re still kind of fresh. I’ll rank each book out of ten, although I do agree with Nabokov that there are only two kinds of books, bedside and waste basket. These are both the former.
A Farewell to Arms–Hemingway:
So much is made of Hemingway’s macho persona and his “tough” prose that I was kind of laughing when I started it. The sentences are short. Punchy. Ceaselessly short. The dialogue is repetitive. The same bland expressions used again and again. “Lovely,” “my sweet,” and others in that vein. But I love confronting a famous authors baggage and going beyond it, finally.
I thought Hemingway the tough guy would glorify the fighting more than he did, but I should have paid more attention to the title. The novel lays bare how arbitrary and senseless war is–tragic and stupid. I’d describe his writing as journalistic in a sense. He was a journalist after all, but it feels like he’s covering it objectively, without colour. Though a description of the colour of a lake as steel grey blue was memorable.
The blurb on the back literally describes a scene in the novel to be among the greatest in literary history. This is nuts. It’s not even close, but I really liked the novel. Hemingway is known for his glacier approach to writing, that is the little you see on top is what he writes and it gives you the impression of what’s unseen underneath. Yes, and there’s something to this, but the writers I like describe in vivid and palpable detail the unseen underside of the glacier, which is all the more remarkable because it’s not something you come into contact with otherwise. The difference in reaction is awe and rapture versus excited approval.
Still, there was very good humour, and there is no bullshit in his writing anywhere. The love between Henry and Barkley seemed a bit phony at first, developing from nowhere, but I came around to it. Maybe, like in advertising, repetition worked on me, but I think it had more to do with Hemingway’s selection of details–the little everyday sacrifices they made for each other. They were invested in each other to the exclusion of everything else, that’s for sure. I think the general lack of sentimentality in the style of writing balanced the corny dialogue: “I love you,” “I love you.”
The retreat of the army is memorable, and I like the contrast between Henry’s dicking around in Italy when he wears and doesn’t wear his uniform. The way he feels and is regarded. Henry drinks a lot, even in the morning. There are good musings on life and death at the end that refreshingly is expressed in brief, drunk chat and not the obnoxious academic, solemn sounding stuff. This is the novel at its most impressive. But the end was exciting too. For a book that represents, as the back of the novel claims, “a new romance” for Hemingway, it’s very dark: Henry and Catherine’s baby dies and so does Catherine. No happy endings. War is like that, so is life. No wonder Hemingway shot himself in the head with a shotgun. More should have seen it coming, perhaps.
As I Lay Dying: William Faulkner
I tried to read Absalom, Absalom twice and was overcome with boredom each time. It felt like trying to see through an impenetrable cobweb. But Styron’s Stingo in Sophie’s Choice, the author himself speaking for the fellow Southern writer I imagine, gives such high praise to Faulkner, and I really wanted to give the big guy a shot.
There’s something about the Southern Gothic sensibility I find very attractive. It’s old-world, darkly funny, and there’s an endearing feeling of innocence that always seems on the verge of being corrupted. You’re watching human’s biblical fall with the foreknowledge it’s about to happen, and they toy with that, making it funny rather than sad or painful. Flannery O’ Connor stories are like that. There’s a ghost lurking somewhere. You don’t know if the author is laughing while writing, but they are, and so should reader. The amusingly tragic Bundren family plods along, suffering their flaws with a good spirit.
Each chapter has a different narrator doing a first-person description of the journey. To recap, the mother of the family dies in the beginning and her wish is to be buried in Jefferson. The plot of the book is the journey. I think Nabokov resented this easy structural format, as he liked oblique references that don’t announce themselves. He thought writers who use italics to identify for the reader that a character is thinking something were hacks. He was demanding!
But Faulkner plays with internal dialogue, what a character says to himself, versus the images and content of what flashes through a character’s subconscious. The former is made up of speaking language, the latter can use diction the character doesn’t possess because it’s about the images passing through his mind, not the way he himself would describe them. This is a neat trick that allows Faulkner to use words that these uneducated country Southerners wouldn’t know. Bellow characters are either autodidacts or professors, allowing the author to speak almost as himself through the characters. This is another way of doing that.
I found the book to be very funny at times! The father is such a good hearted idiot and it’s charming how the people around him resent him but can’t resist helping him. I became accustomed to the way they talk, like being in a foreign country for a while where their accent stops becoming novel. I think the dialogue, of which there’s a good deal, is better for the content than strictly the captured patois. For poor country people there’s a lot of religious and existential musing. This is right. It’s a solid reminder that technological advancements or formal education have no real bearing on intelligence. I think people commonly believe that the masses become more intelligent as time goes on and they partake in advancements in various fields, suggesting people were more commonly stupid. Nope!
This book was not very long, and the way the pages were broken up made it breeze by kind of fast. I felt like the chapter always ended with four or five lines on a page and the rest blank, then the next page started a third of the way down. The whole thing was 260 pages. I find it’s very easy to continue another chapter when you see it’s only a page or so long, and most of them were very short. I read the book in four days. Apparently it was written in only 6 weeks. If only such efficiency was everywhere!
There were old or local words I needed to look up to understand exactly what was happening at times, and straightening out the characters at first required going back to reread some little sections, but going backwards in the book was rewarding and I expect I’m going to pick up the book again soon for pleasure.
Faulkner, cool guy! He joined the high to the low brow very successfully, something I demand of novelists. Intelligence and humour, too. Nabby would disprove of the novel’s form, and I get that, but I love some of Faulkner’s sentences. The guy could turn a phrase.