Monday, September 12, 2016

Sadness, Mostly

I love Hemingway, but this book made me sad.

Or perhaps I should say:

I love Hemingway, and this book made me sad.

Islands in the Stream was a surprise addition to my reading list for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. It's been on my TBR list for ages, since it was published in 1970, 9 years after Hemingway's death by suicide. I remember that when it first came out my parents were very interested in reading it. This was unusual because their reading tastes ran in opposite directions, with Hemingway the only known intersection. Later they had spirited debates about which parts were "his" and which parts were written by someone else (their theory was that some parts were filled in by his fourth wife, Mary, who survived him).

It made me sad that it was published without the benefit of his final editing. I found it uneven, with some classic Hemingway sections and some that missed the mark. This is in contrast to my two favorite works of his, The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, in which there isn't a single word out of place. I wish he'd had a chance to rework the rough patches to his satisfaction.

It made me sad that the section with the cat and Thomas Hudson in Cuba wasn't one of my favorite parts. I adore cats and I identify with people who also love cats; the idea of a Hemingway passage with a cat in it sounds delightful. But it misses the mark, somehow. Cats and women share certain charactertistics -- beauty, independence, and a certain inscrutibility, to name a few -- and I suspect Hemingway failed to understand either.

It made me sad to find the man who wrote so wonderfully in his early work still writing about the same subjects years later: the rules of working that keep the drinking under control, failed relationships with mysterious, shallow women who seem a lot more interesting in retrospect, proving yourself as a man, coping with the death of those you love, and the loneliness of loss. Certainly those are themes for the ages, but what reads as hollow and unsatisfying in your 20s is desolate and heartbreaking in your 60s. I suppose after 40 years of living the life, I was looking for progress, for deepening insight, for something beyond the Hemingway code of "buck up and have another drink to get you through the difficult days, of which there are many."

Most of all, it made me sad to recognize the author, nearly visible behind the thin veil of fiction, struggling with the effects of depression, electroshock therapy, and a lifetime of heavy drinking and hard living, losing the people and things that meant the most to him, diminished in many ways, but still writing, still writing.


Up on the porch Thomas Hudson kept on painting. He could not keep from hearing their talk but he had not looked down at them since they had come in from swimming. He was having a difficult time staying in the carapace of work that he had built for his protection and he thought, if I don't work now I may lose it. Then he thought that there would be time to work when they were all gone. But he knew he must keep on working now or he would lose the security he had built for himself with work. I will do exactly as much as I would have done if they were not here, he thought. Then I will clear up and go down and the hell with thinking of Raeburn or of the old days or of anything. But as he worked he felt a loneliness coming into him already. It was next week when they would leave. Work, he told himself. Get it right and keep your habits because you are going to need them.


  1. I never wanted to read this for all the reasons that made you sad. As I think back, it is possible that I've read only The Sun Also Rises, and A Moveable Feast, two of my favorite books of all time and why I love the author's writing.

    1. You're probably wise to stand pat with those two books, Nan. They are my top favorites, too, and perfection can't be improved.

      It helped a little that I didn't expect too much from this book, but still.


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