2 Aug 2012
The last few weeks I have been reading the unlikely combo of Jane Austen and Hemingway. I was actually on a book devouring roll having read 4 novels in about 3 weeks. Maybe it just seems like unusual progress after the long haul of Middlemarch lol.
I started with Austen’s Mansfield Park. I’ve never been much of a Janeite. I like her work but I don’t get giddy about it. However, that totally changed with Mansfield Park; I finally get the Austen love. I was obsessed with MP and could not put it down. It’s funny because MP seems to be the least popular of Austen’s novels. I’ve just got to be contrary I guess. I can see why people would dislike the main character, Fanny Price. She is a very quiet, controlled character; always doing right, frequently crying, or feeling dejected and out of place in her Uncle’s home. I really related to her shyness though and her isolation within the family. I preferred her to Austen’s more forceful, saucy leading ladies. I certainly like some sauciness but the combo of a sarcastic, biting narrator, and the same in the main character, is too much for me. It leaves me with no one to really feel for. Mansfield Park was much different in that respect. It is a much quieter book, there is not the same bouncy dialogue, as in Pride and Prejudice for example, but there is still tons of sarcasm from the narrator, she pretty much never stops mocking her characters, which is always good fun.
As for the plot of Mansfield Park, I was much more into it than other Austen works, probably because I genuinely cared for Fanny. *******SPOILERS AHEAD Avert thy eyes if you haven’t read MP***************
I really loved Henry and wanted Fanny to come around to him. I knew where Austen was bound to lead the story but I didn’t want to believe it. When the Henry bit went down I was all Noooooooooo. Imagine that boy from the Britney Spears Youtube vids: Why Henry Why!!! *SOB* Yeah that was me And I really did not want Fanny to end up with Edmund. What a boring pair plus kind off creepy. I know the cousin thing was okay back then but he was more like a brother. Ick.
A taste of Austen sarcasm in Mansfield Park
In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete; being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry.
Since I was feeling the Austen love, next I read Persuasion, which is the last of the JA novels I hadn’t read. Like Mansfield Park, Persuasion is a quieter story with a subdued main character. Probably my favorite aspect of this novel was Austen branching out to different types of people / sections of society. In most of her books you get almost exclusively upper middle classes but Navy men and their families are very prominent in this book (and not simply as flirts, as in Northanger Abbey). Austen’s contempt for status and appearance obsessed upper classes is also blatent. I think this is the most traditional society challenging of all Austen’s work. Some people say Austen was very conservative but in Persuasion I think you can see how she may believe in the maintaining of the classes, but she is fully against the upper classes neglecting their duty to those below them.
My favorite characters in Persuasion were Admiral and Mrs. Croft. They are so sweet! I love how able Mrs. Croft is, she goes everywhere, around the world on a ship even, with her husband. The thought of them bouncing through the countryside and tipping over their carriage cracks me up. The Croft’s are the only example of a wonderful marriage in Austen’s books that I can think of.
After Austen I did a 180 and decided I needed to read more Hemingway. Previously I had only read a couple of his short stories, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast. I loved the last two, was almost obsessed with A Movable Feast, so I expected goods thing but didn’t know if Hem’s other novels would be too war focused for me. I started with A Farewell to Arms and was surprised to find it was more love and relationship focused and less scenes of battle. Like when I read The Old Man and the Sea, I found my mind completely wrapped up in A Farewell to Arms after I put it down. The most engrossing thing about the book for me was reflecting on how the entire story and characters are not necessarily meant to be “true” or multi dimensional, rather they are completely formed and recalled from the main character (Frederic) Henry’s memory. It’s all from Henry’s perspective and his memory is warped by guilt, hopelessness, and knowing how it will all end. At first I was annoyed by his love interest Catherine ( I swore if she said Darling one more time I was going to gag). It’s easy to see Catherine as a poorly written character with the theory that Hemingway doesn’t understand women and can’t write one without making them into some sort of angel/whore stereotype. But I don’t think that is the case. I see Hem’s female characters written as his male characters and entire plots are written, with the depth all below, or even previous the plot, and to be formed by the reader’s own mind (his Iceberg theory). We see Catherine only through Henry’s memory. She and all the characters in the story are distorted reflections. If you think about how you remember people from your past, it’s not a multi-dimentional view. I think we tend to remember the idiosyncrasies, unusual vocab or speech patterns they used and we construct an imagine of them from their most distinct elements. Our memories are also very distorted by the emotions we have tied up in that relationship. It’s very easy to look back and remember someone as perfect, as eternally giving, and forget all the disagreements you ever had.
Next I read The Sun Also Rises. Like Catherine, the female character in this book, Lady Ashley, is a puzzle. Hem likes to let little pieces of the past slip into the story and it’s only when you walk away from the book and put all these pieces together do you start to understand the actions of the characters. Lady Ashley on the surface just seems like a drunken ho but when you begin to understand her past relationships and consider that the hopelessness created by WWI was not confined to the men who served in the war but how it wiped out for an entire generation the belief in or possibility of the “normal happy life”, you begin to understand the stupid things she does and why she is so hungry for a distraction. I actually respect Hemingway for showing that it was NOT just the men who suffered but, like Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, many women were driven nearly crazy by the suffering that was all around them.
In The Sun Also Rises the war is just a looming black cloud, it ruined the past and obscures the future. There is barely any plot to the story, let’s be honest the only real “action” is drinking (if you don’t have vicarious liver damage, than you’re not reading Hemingway). If I learned anything from Moby Dick it was that plots are over-rated and so, I loved The Sun Also Rises. Even if you are one of those people that wants “a story”, read this book to the end anyway because the last line is ah-mazing. I’m going to live the rest of my life in constant trepidation, just waiting to spring out my Hem quote on someone.
So while there’s not much that really happens in this book there are some great characters. I grew to understand Lady Ashley but I never liked her much. Who I loved was Bill. Jake is our main character and Bill is his one friend that is not a complete utter pita; he’s also very funny.
I could go on forever about how the characters in both of these books are constructing imaginary lives because the war made them aware of the illusion of a “future” and about how to me the term Lost Generation so perfectly sums up their inability to, within the rubble of the War, find the path that leads forward into life BUT it’s getting late and I must get back to reading For Whom the Bell Tolls