I decided to read the stories in this collection from back to front, as they have been printed in reverse chronological order. Doing this worked very...moreI decided to read the stories in this collection from back to front, as they have been printed in reverse chronological order. Doing this worked very well, since it gave a feeling of Greene's development as a writer, and I could see topics featured in his novels or non-fiction turning up in the stories too.
For instance, there is a story set in Mexico, written at the same period as 'The Lawless Roads' and 'The Power and the Glory'. There's also a short story about a young girl involved with a tearaway ('A Drive in the Country'), written in 1937, which looks forward to Pinkie and Rose in 'Brighton Rock' the following year and anticipates its climax - although in some ways the mood of this story is very different.
'A Drive in the Country' is among the stand-outs in the collection for me, along with three stories about children. The first is 'The End of the Party', one of Greene's earliest short stories, about a boy terrified of going to a party and being forced to play hide and seek.
Then there is the great story 'The Basement Room', longer than most of those in this collection, which was turned into a powerful film directed by Carol Reed, 'The Fallen Idol'. This is the tale of an ambassador's son forced to lose his innocence by finding out too much about the grown-up world. (I had read this story before, but only noticed this time around that it contains several jumps forward in time to show the boy as an old man whose whole life has been blighted by his experience - "the old dilettante".)
Lastly, 'The Destructors' is a chilling tale of a group of small boys living in an area bearing the scars of the Blitz, who decide to turn their energies to senseless destruction.
It's an uneven collection, and some of the other stories are much slighter, but even in the least memorable ones there are always strange thoughts and striking turns of phrase to bring the reader up short. (less)
Hemingway wrote this bitter-sweet memoir of his days in Paris with first wife Hadley 30 years on, drawing from two forgotten trunks of papers from the...moreHemingway wrote this bitter-sweet memoir of his days in Paris with first wife Hadley 30 years on, drawing from two forgotten trunks of papers from the time. All the way through there is an extra layer given from the fact that he is looking back, with contrasts between the hungry young writer learning his craft and the older man looking back near the end of his career and his life. The book isn't complete, but I think it still adds up to a masterpiece.
I was glad to read this in the restored version which contains passages deleted by his widow Mary Hemingway in the first publication, as well as several additional pieces which Hemingway himself had decided not to include before eventually leaving the manuscript unfinished. There's an introduction by his grandson Sean, who edited this version - this was very useful for readers like me who don't know much about Hemingway, since it gives the context of his life at this time, as he underwent electric shock therapy for his bipolar disorder, which affected his memory and ability to write and led to his suicide.
The portrayal of 1920s Paris is vivid, with loving descriptions of meals and outings and surprising details like a goat being milked in the street. Hemingway constantly drops in the names of Parisian cafes and meeting places, conjuring up a lost world. He also describes how he worked on his writing style at this time, making it as spare as possible, and he uses the same terse way of writing in these pieces.
The book contains portraits of famous friends from the time, as well as unknowns. I'm now wondering if I failed to pay enough attention to those unknowns, but my impression was that the strongest sections are those about the famous names, including Gertrude Stein and, especially, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Three successive sketches about Scott really add up to a short story showing the signs of his alcoholism and marriage troubles, and Zelda's mental illness, written in the knowledge of how it all turned out later. Hemingway repeatedly mentions discussions of writing that he had with Fitzgerald, and how he urged him to write 'true' work, not twisting his short stories to make them more commercial. I think he is taking his own advice here, and, although the actual conversations and incidents are bound to be partly invented, given the fact that it was all so long ago, he is trying to tell the 'truth' about Scott as he sees it now. But he is equally aware of how his own life has turned out - when he portrays himself drinking at every opportunity while worrying that Scott had a drink problem, the irony is clear.
Some of the portraits have embarrassing and unpleasant aspects - there's an overheard row between Stein and her lover, and an incident featuring too much information about Scott's sex life with Zelda. These moments brought me up short, but I don't see them as just badmouthing. They tend to come at the end of the sketches, or stories (Hemingway insists in his fragmentary drafted introduction that the book is fiction), and I think they are a pointer to the fact that there is more to these lives than he witnessed, that there was more going on behind the scenes. It's harder to defend the portrait of Ford Madox Ford, however, which largely dwells on remembered body odour. At least he left out the second piece about Ford, which is one of those in the extra section of this edition.
Hemingway sometimes seems kinder to himself than to his other subjects, with romanticised portrayals of how in love he and Hadley were - but again the chapter endings tend to tell a different story, with sudden mentions of how it was all going to go wrong, how he was going to betray her. And he is also honest about his gambling addiction, mentioning how he was always giving it up. There is a rather self-pitying piece he had decided to leave out, which centres on his marriage break-up and claims second wife Pauline seduced him - but the fragments of introduction give himself more blame and repeatedly suggest that Hadley is the 'heroine' of the book. He also keeps worrying in these fragments about how he has portrayed Scott Fitzgerald and mentioning that there was more to say. (less)
**spoiler alert** I'd read 'A Farewell to Arms' once before, many years ago, and the thing that had stuck in my mind was the love story - helped by a...more**spoiler alert** I'd read 'A Farewell to Arms' once before, many years ago, and the thing that had stuck in my mind was the love story - helped by a more recent viewing of the 1930s film starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.
Going back to the novel now, though, what really struck me more than the romance was the portrayal of the First World War on the front line in Italy. Hemingway's drawing of the weary ambulance drivers is very convincing, not surprisingly, since he served in this role himself as a teenager. One thing that really comes across is the constant hunger, as each snatched meal is sharply described. There are also telling incidents like the meeting with a scared young soldier who has deliberately removed the truss from his hernia, in the hope that it will get worse and he will have to go to hospital.
I've been reading a couple of writers whose style seems rather more highly-wrought lately, and it was refreshing to come to Hemingway's famously spare prose, with not a word wasted. At times he uses expressions which would seem like clichés in the hands of a lesser writer - such as "he was a fine boy", of one of the soldiers. However, phrases like this seem all the more poignant because they are so restrained, with such a distance between what is being said here and the novel's whole mood and setting.
The greatest section is Hemingway's account of the retreat from Caporetto, with the confusion, fear and escalating panic, culminating in the shock when our hero shoots a man for disobeying orders. I immediately realised that shooting was probably fictional, but was surprised to discover that Hemingway did not take part in the retreat himself at all, as the whole account rings so true. The introduction to the special edition says that he interviewed people who had been there, as Stephen Crane did for his battlefield scenes in 'The Red Badge of Courage'. The result is the same kind of painful/cinematic vividness.
The romance between ambulance driver Frederic Henry and nurse Catherine Barkley is not quite as compelling as the war scenes, but still powerful in itself, and the famous ending has a haunting quality. It's hard to believe that Hemingway wrote and rewrote the passage so many times, because the last sentence he settled on in the end has such a feeling of inevitability. (less)