Friday, September 23, 2011

Nobel Prizes: Ernest Hemingway

We are quickly approaching the announcement of the new winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2011.  Although the date has not been set, the rest of the Nobel prizes will be distributed in the first week of October.  In honor of this occasion, I have decided I will write a short series on previous Nobel laureates I like.  To be honest, I am not familiar with many of the past winners, so this series will not be as long as it potentially could be.

I want to start with Ernest Hemingway, who won in 1954.  Hemingway is known for the directness of his writing, as he intentionally tried to express himself in as few words as possible.  You will certainly not find any long, sweeping passages of description or tedious anecdotes in his prose, as some other famous authors are known to include.  I have to confess that I know I do not have Hemingway's gift for brevity, which may be why I admire his skill so much.  Somehow, he still gives us enough detail to fully imagine the scene and grasp the story, but without wasting our time on it.  He also carefully selects each word so that they express meaning succinctly without needing extra phrases.  Like the language, the content of his stories is also direct and pointed.  He writes with an embedded cynicism and a twinge of darkness about the edges.  Although I don't find him to be hopelessly depressing, I do come away with the sense that the world is imperfect and doesn't usually work out as we wish it would.

Regrettably, I have only read three of his works and I will just discuss A Farewell to Arms this time.  Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think this is his most popular novel today, though it may not be his meatiest.  Set in World War I, the story follows the plight of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver serving the Italian army.  I always think of Catch-22 and A Farewell to Arms as a pair, for they both strip the glorious notion of war and give us the gritty reality of WWI.  While Heller does this with a black sense of humor, Hemingway uses a fateful love story. 

The object of Henry's love is Catherine Barkley, a Scottish nurse who cares for him as he recovers from extensive knee surgery.  I like the way that she doesn't fit into any stereotypes, for she is not just a beautiful, sweet girl who is swept away by the glamour of a soldier.  Instead, Catherine is a woman who has already experienced great heartbreak and has clearly removed the wool from her eyes.  She has a bit of spunk, though her craving for affection and love is very strong and real.  The two fall in love, and I find the imperfections of their relationship very endearing and realistic.

However, Hemingway did not write a simple love story.  A Farewell to Arms is primarily a story focused on the realism of war.  The violence and deaths that occur seem utterly senseless.  All of the characters indulge in different ways to escape the realities of war.  Even the romance between Henry and Catherine is a kind of escapism, along with ever-present alcohol.  A great disillusionment works its way over the story and seeps into readers' hearts as well.  Although he entered battle voluntarily, Henry loses his motivation and yet is filled with guilt.  The crumbling effect that starts to take over the storyline continues until the very end, making this a dark and memorable novel.

I think that the Nobel Prize commissioners must have appreciated Hemingway's directness and realism.  I really enjoy his writing and the depth he pours into his characters.  Unfortunately, Hemingway did not feel deserving of his award and eventually committed suicide.  However, he left us with a number of phenomenal pieces of literature to read, and I am glad that he is forever marked in the halls of Classic Literature.


IngridLola said...

Which is your favorite Hemingway that you've read? Mine is A Moveable Feast, for sure. I wasn't a huge fan of A Farewell to Arms cause I really didn't like Catherine. I LOVE Heminway's writing, though.

Amy said...

Hi Ingrid,

I feel like I haven't read his best works yet, like A Moveable Feast, which I'm sure is really interesting. (Imagine living in Paris with all of those artists!) My other Hemingway pieces are Old Man and the Sea as well as In Our Time, and I think the latter is my favorite of the three. However, it's a little hard to write about very well because it's a short story cycle and I don't know how succinctly I could articulate my thoughts about it.