Reading over a Lifetime

(as a regular feature, I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, July 4th, 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Homage to Hemingway” by Julian Barnes.  Poetry: “No Ideas but in Things” by Jessica Greenbaum and “The Circus Watcher” by Mary Jo Bang

In the delightful “Homage to Hemingway,” Julian Barnes writes an elegant story, exploring the art/life dialectic and what it means for readers and writers.  The homage to Hemingway is deep: explicit in content, structure, and theme (it is a better homage in that it doesn’t try to follow Hemingway’s prose style, which would come off as cheap parody).

Ernest Hemingway was The Big Writer for me at a formative time.  I was deeply immersed in his works, imbibing his style and themes.  As a younger man, I read his ouevre deeply and widely: as a young man, there may have been no writer I was more familiar with.  I connected to Hemingway in a meaningful way (through his works first and primarily rather than the personal mythology).

The last time I remember reading Hemingway was almost seven years ago.  This wasn’t a conscious abandonment: I had read most of what I wanted to read (For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, In Our Time, To Have and Have Not, The Garden of Eden, A Moveable Feast, many short stories), much of it more than once, and much of it with very distinct memory.  There were a lot of other things for me to read (personally and professionally), and I didn’t find myself compelled to return to this particular writer that I knew so well.  But years gone by without encountering the writer that I once thought the master?  That seems strange.

I don’t think, though, that Hemingway will be somebody that I only look back on as an important writer for Joe, 1997-2004, another particular cultural t0uchstone that marks a time but doesn’t imprint deeply.  I suspect I’ll return to Hemingway, maybe not now, maybe not soon, but someday.  I think Barnes’ protagonist is right when he says “People thought [Hemingway] was obsessed with male courage, with machismo and conjones.  They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.”  That’s the sort of writer that I’m going to need to come back to, again and again.



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