I keep this blog under my pen name, since I mostly use it as a hub for my fiction, and for thoughts about writing in general. But this week I was lucky enough to publish an essay through some day-job connections, and I wanted to share it here, too.
As part of a month-long celebration of the new Hemingway documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, our local PBS station commissioned artists and writers to respond to some of Hemingway's themes. The whole project was really well done. Hemingway's life and work is a rich vein to tap in to, and you can see that inspiration throughout the work that's been published so far. Check out the whole project here.
For my part, I knew right away I wanted to find an angle on Hemingway's story In Another Country, which has haunted me since the first time I read it. But as I tried to tease out the reasons for that, I found myself writing about Dad, 2020, and more. Here's how it starts:
In Another Country
“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more."
If you ask me, Hemingway is supposed to be funny. That's why his stories are structured like jokes. “An old man walks into the sea.” Fisherman goes out, comes back with some bones—come on, that's comedy!
Or what about In Another Country? Do you remember that one? Here's how it goes:
There's this soldier who's laid up in a hospital. He's been injured during the war. The injury has taken his calf, but this soldier used to play football. “Don't worry,” say the doctors, “our machines will make you better. You'll be playing again in no time!”
In the hospital there's also a major. This guy's got a withered hand, but before the war he was the greatest fencer in Italy. So the doctors put him on machines too, and show the major pictures of all the hands the machines have already healed. “You'll be fencing again in no time!”
Then, some while later and still far away from the war, the major receives some terrible news: His wife has died of pneumonia. “Ah,” say the doctors. “How about some more pictures of hands?”*
In Hemingway's story, the war takes from his characters what they hold the most dear. And in that, he points out, war is no different from life.
When I was sent home from work in March of 2020, I ripped two big sheets off my monthly desk calendar to last me through April. At the time this felt pessimistic. At the time, I thought, “Better safe than sorry!” It was the start of my retreat from the world, a withdrawal for my own protection as much as for others.
Not every retreat was so safe. My father, just a few years out from his diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia, began to suffer paranoid delusions while the country locked down. As he slipped further and further into himself, fearful of things we could not see or understand, he finally found a solution. While the rest of the world was staying inside, my dad left the indoors and began running away.
Okay, maybe Hemingway isn't funny funny. I should probably have called him “ironic.” That fits the bill a bit better.
Critic E. M. Halliday agrees. Here's what Halliday says about irony in A Farewell to Arms:
“It is as if the author had said, 'Do not imagine that the kinds of cruelty and disruption I have shown you are confined to war: they are the conditions of life itself.' It is thus only at the end that the full ironic ambiguity of the title springs into view.”
So, like I said: Not really funny ha ha.