My Spanish students were always very opinionated. They seized up at the awkward exam questions but with other topics – the test their Latin teacher gave them, feminism and bull fighting – they were fluid and non-hesitant speakers. Bull fighting, they despised: a cruel sport for machismo old men who ought to wake up to the modern age, morality and manners.
Even in Hemingway’s day, the custom of bull fighting was often considered barbaric. He seemed to predict the slow decline and even to accept the change, with reluctance. His book, which I’ve read and found fascinating, is however not barbaric. It’s odd. Between the dense facts and the strings of poetic description, the nostalgia and the adulation, are tangents on writing and society, parenthood and death. It’s not a book that pretends, but it is odd.
I suppose, from a modern point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is clearly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.
Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
My problem with Hemingway is that the first book I ever read by him wasn’t a novel. It wasn’t the Old Man and the Sea which is supposedly admirable piece of literature, but I found a little tedious (perhaps I’m just too young still to get it). It wasn’t For Whom the Bell Tolls, which has in it all that macho, yet defeatist, fighting in it. It was A Moveable Feast, which, published after Hemingway’s suicide, is a memoir of those years in Paris where Hemingway screwed up his first marriage and knew it.
And it’s the self-awareness that I kind of find myself admiring. It’s the self-awareness which I found myself compelled by in A Moveable Feast, and which the glimpses of throughout Death in the Afternoon compelled me to keep turning the page, even if I lost track of which matador was which. More than anything, though, the book was a reminder to be careful. We jump to conclusions so quickly and on so little evidence. We are fast to speak, fast to criticize, fast to cast out moral judgements, yet remain so unaware of what we’re talking about.
It’s easy to attack the visible cruelty, it seems so much more acute. But much harder is recognizing and attacking the silent and invisible cruelty that hides unseen. How many of our own enjoyments result in harm to others, whether they be people working in inhumane factory settings, through the land that’s damaged in the hunt from raw materials or the dumping of waste. How many animals live and die for us in our current lifestyles, how many are affected by our impact on the environment, and how many of them live good lives?
My Spanish students were children, eager to be heard, eager to have the right opinion. Their passion, their beliefs, their insistence that the world must become a better place was heart-warming. In many ways they were much better at expressing themselves than older generations who might wait to check their audience is on their side before opening their mouths. They had lots to say; they had much to learn.
On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.
My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.
Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.
“How do you feel today?”
“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”
What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?
When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.
That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.
I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.
It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.
On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.
Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.
For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.
This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.
I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.
I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.
Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).
Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.
María takes control of her own story. She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.
Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.
Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.