I'm Just Saying…

June 13, 2010

Ernest Hemingway Lied To Me!

Filed under: Books,The Writing Life — jillamyrosenblatt @ 6:20 pm
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I think every reader has a love affair with Hemingway. I have no scientific evidence to back this claim but I’m sticking to my theory. I am a latecomer to the Hemingway experience. In my thirties, I read The Sun Also Rises. The cursed, thwarted love of Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The lost generation! Drinking! Spain! The running of the bulls! I could live without that last one but you get the point. The next book I read was A Farewell To Arms. Wounded ambulance driver Frederic Henry and his nurse, Catherine, fall in love. Risking everything, they flee to Switzerland, all for love, true, passionate, devoted love. Spoiler alert: Catherine gets pregnant, the baby is stillborn, Catherine dies, everything goes to shit. Ah, but it’s so romantic.

Hemingway’s books are romance and ruin, triumph outmatched by torment, and above all, an overwhelming, all consuming commitment to the idea of everlasting love.  Everything a hopelessly romantic girl wants in her novels. So I thought.

Aside from his tragic end, I confess I was ignorant of the details of Hemingway’s life. So when I read the autobiographical A Moveable Feast, my chick lit heart fluttered reading the gorgeously simple description of Hemingway’s life and love with wife Hadley. “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other,” and “…it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything.”  I was so thrilled with Hemingway’s version of romance that I mentioned A Moveable Feast in my novel For Better or Worse, as a model for the romance between my characters Ian and Elizabeth. 

I didn’t finish A Moveable Feast. I didn’t want to read any further. Those sentences were the perfect ending. Hemingway had described love using his “iceberg principle,” leaving much of the work to the reader’s imagination. I was only too happy to fill in the missing pieces with thoughts of continued romance and blissful happiness.

I happened to be in a bookstore one day when I picked up a book about the life of Ernest Hemingway. It was then that I found out Ernest and Hadley didn’t have the distance. Ernest moved on to Pauline. They didn’t last. Neither did Ernest and Martha, or Ernest and Mary. Did he love them? I’m sure he did. But none of them lasted. What happened to A Moveable Feast? This was not the Hallmark Channel movie of the week bio I had created.

I was upset. I wanted a refund. Ernest Hemingway lied to me! I had filled in the blanks only to be confronted by harsh reality. No fair! Now I can hear your reproaches. “Leave Papa alone,” you will say, “he had his own problems.” And you’re right. After all, this was not fiction but real life. I knew his end. What was I thinking?  I assumed that Hemingway wrote fiction of love thwarted, love denied, love destroyed but it was not that way for himself. I assumed Hemingway had found in life what he denied his characters in fiction.

In actuality I had it backwards. He denied his characters the love he continuously searched for in life and never seemed to find. I fell into the reader’s trap. I mentally wrote a different life for him, a temporal happy ending, simply because that’s what I wanted.

I wonder if we as readers have lost our tolerance for the unhappy ending. We want our “happily ever after” and we won’t take anything less. Perhaps it is for the simple reason that so much of real life has an unhappy ending or at the very least, an unresolved ending. Everything lost or nothing gained; at the very least, nothing changed. Tell someone you have written a “realistic ending” and they will brace themselves. There’s no joy in Mudville. 

A few years ago The Guardian reported on a survey conducted for World Book Day. A whopping 41% of those polled preferred a happy ending. It further reported that of people polled over the age of 40, only 1.1% wanted to read an unhappy ending. It comforts me to know when it comes to opening a book, I am not alone in my expectations. There are others who would much rather read Bronte’s Jane Eyre saying “Reader I married him,” then Frederic Henry leaving his dead wife behind saying “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”  

And so I had my love affair with Hemingway. And I subjected one of the giants of literary fiction to my insatiable emotional need as a reader to see things “work out” and for everyone to “be happy.” I must confess I hoped for a medical miracle for Jake Barnes so he could be with the Lady Ashley. And deep down I knew Catherine wasn’t going to make in A Farewell to Arms but I kept hoping, even to the last page.

Ernest Hemingway didn’t lie to me. He told the truth, his truth, a “realistic” truth, and that’s all you can ask any writer to do. But I can’t help thinking it would’ve been nice if just one of his stories had a happy ending. I’m just saying…

J.

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