The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway)
Hemingway’s stock has fallen considerably during my lifetime, largely for reasons that have little to do with art. Some women do not care for him and the casual anti-Semitism of his characters can be distracting. His deep passionate engagement might strike moderns as less hip than the dryness of, say, the Language Poets. Yet his minimal style, of a piece in a way with that of Gertrude Stein, was subtle, expressive, and powerful. Few stylistic innovations can claim as much. While easy to parody, his manner is very difficult to use effectively. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” (Death in the Afternoon) Both the existential Angst of his bohemian wanderers in The Sun Also Rises and the redemptive response of some -- fortitude and a will to action – ring yet as true as they do because they are couched in a lucid prose that perfectly embodies their attitudes.
If his machismo can seem sometimes silly, at others it is the pure descendent of Natty Bumppo, Huckleberry Finn, and Ishmael. Then Hemingway’s heir, Norman Mailer, went on to write an excellent novel or two (with a more florid and subordinating style) and some of the most compelling nonfiction of the middle of the twentieth century.
Homage to Catalonia (Orwell)
Much as many of us may have relished 1984 or Animal Farm as one of our first “serious” reads, the fact is that Orwell’s novels are, with the possible exception of Burmese Days, a sorry lot, while his nonfiction is absolutely first-rate. Even the anthology favorites “Killing an Elephant” and “A Hanging” are filled with keen observations, memorable flashes of detail and insight. “Good-Bye to All That,” “Marrakech,” “How the Poor Die,” the marvelous piece on Donald McGill, not to mention the sustained performances of Down and Out in Paris and London and Road to Wigan Pier, all these reward a return reader.
I suspect the basis of Orwell’s appeal is the ethos implied by his nonfiction persona. Having just reread Homage to Catalonia, I have a fresh sense of the humanity he is able to construct on the page. One can even understand his turning informer in his last days. This self-image is carefully designed: He is regularly self-deprecating, stressing the absurdity and the discomfort of front-line combat more than the valor. He wonders what effect it would have on enlistments if young men knew that they would find themselves with parasites crawling on their testicles. He calls himself an “ineffectual” soldier, and the reader never knows if he killed a single Fascist, yet without elaboration, he reports his volunteering for every dangerous mission.
Part of his image is surely faux naïf. I suppose it might be that he found himself in the Trotskyite P.O.U.M. by chance, but he had been writing with obsessive sympathy about the poor since his first publications, and I wonder when he says he came to Spain to fight, not for socialist revolution but for “common decency.” (If for him as for me, these are nearly identical, he still chose to suppress the first term.) How could anyone in intellectual and artistic circles during the 1930s have been wholly unaware of the rivalries among the left forces? Yet he is totally convincing about the murderous sectarianism of the Stalinists, however many of their rank and file were people of integrity.
Homage to Catalonia is eloquent in the middle level of diction and syntax; its author fully exploits the resources of his language without ever departing far from the tones of an ordinary educated conversation. Not only an excellent history of the Spanish Civil War, the book is a valuable testament to a principled person’s reaction to the madness of history and the inadequacy of even the noblest will to put things right.
Sylvia’s Lovers (Gaskell)
The book includes marvelous local color and dialect and details the lives of sailors and small farmers in modest circumstances. If the colorful language seems sometimes overdone, it is all for the reader’s enjoyment. If the plot becomes exceedingly improbably, the goal is to please. The first volume seems to set up a love triangle with clearly recognizable characters: the lady, an only child and a bit vain, is courted by a shy and educated Quaker shop clerk and a rough yet bold sailor. The reader hardly notices that everyone is flawed. Yet as the narrative proceeds, it turns dark as a moral lapse by our very moral young man leads to tragedy. The story becomes more Christian, melodramatic, and ill-proportioned as it works toward a most unromantic denouement, but at its worst, it remains an entertaining historical page-turner even if, after one is told to believe that Hepburn, by pure chance, saved Kinread, one must accept their meeting again coincidentally upon the former’s return to Monkshaven. All this after their chance encounter when Kinread is impressed. Then there are those premonitory dreams, like lingering vestiges of the Gothic. And so it goes. Some critics think it Gaskell’s best novel; others condemn it as an utter failure. I believe I see both their points.