A journalist makes nice with Papa Hem, via Tahrir Square and Old Havana
Hemingway wrote a few good books before he became a cartoon, and I own a couple of them. I stole my copy of The Sun Also Rises from my father, which he got during his school days. It’s the Scribner’s printing from 1954, hardbound and dark blue. I’ve always liked the way it feels in my hands, but not always the writing. The preening masculinity, the anti-Semitism. Hemingway’s postured simplicity.
None of it seems like something you’d want to keep alive, at least for a reader from my generation, but here he is anyway. 113 years after his birth, Hemingway’s legacy continues to survive by continuing to change, by which I mean we continue to find different things we want from him.
I recently reread The Sun Also Rises and found the book had changed since I last set it down, because I had changed, because the hands that held it had changed. I’m 27, so I’m older than my father was when he first read it. I’ve now traveled more than he has. I found I’ve grown into the book, or rather that the book has even grown into me, which is probably the opposite experience most Americans have when they get older and confront Hemingway’s not-so-darling tendencies.
Jake Barnes, the protagonist, is from Kansas City; so am I. He’s a journalist; so am I. He’s often sullen and guided by his own aimlessness, so at this point we’re practically related. And when I drift through the narrative with him, everything moves forward, always. Hem never pans over the past. He just writes what happens. Which sounds a lot like what I do on Facebook all the time, where it’s all rising action, and exposition is what I posted yesterday, and the only end to anything is the present.
The past, though. Maybe Hemingway never really gets into the past, but like any good predator, the past stalks Jake Barnes from a close distance to wait for the kill. The past gelded Jake during the war, and now Jake can never make love again. The past watches from the treeline while Jake’s soul bleeds out in all the cafes of Paris and Pamplona, while he tries to bury his longing through fishing and drinking and work. That’s it: the whole novel. You know all about how this works, don’t you? The past has broken Jake just as I imagine it’s broken almost anybody who’s lived at all, but Jake still manages to put left foot in front of right, marching through to the end of the book. He’s just so dumbly in love with the old girlfriend he can’t have anymore, Brett, and he’s powerless to do anything about it but fish and drink and work and watch her joy around with his buddies, lesser men who still have more to offer her than he ever can again. Hemingway marches it all ahead.
The way most of us march it ahead.
My story is that I didn’t fly for the eight years after September 11th, 2001 because I was too scared of planes. But then I got over it and galloped past all the good advice my mother ever gave me and started to enjoy the beautiful risk of being a journalist — the gift you get to witness history and then carry it with you. Life started to look more like one of Hemingway’s adventures, a long caper that took me to Egypt in November for a parliamentary election and a weeklong uprising on Tahrir Square, where I was repeatedly teargassed and witness to both euphoric celebration and terrible violence. For weeks afterward I startled myself awake at night with dreams that men were breaking down my door.
Like I said: you carry it with you. But I linger over the past much less than I used to, mostly because I can’t control it, but also because so much has happened that I have a hard time keeping track of it all. The past is a big wander the way most of life is a wander, and the thing I both hate and like about The Sun Also Rises is that it wanders so unapologetically, filling the gaps between the famous pretty parts with numbing descriptions of working and looking at hills and drinking, which are all things I often do and rarely think about.
Soon after leaving Egypt I slipped into Cuba, propelled by a dark brand of political curiosity, craving to witness a more crushing authoritarianism. But the most excitement came from hoping security didn’t discover I was a journalist; everything else was crippled streets and tourists with mojitos and a quiet book market on the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana where every vendor sells copies of Old Man and The Sea. A first-edition Havana printing, filled with effortless Spanish, was fetching about $35. I briefly scraped against the Castros’ brand of mellow totalitarianism when a former boxer got arrested just for talking to me; another Cuban, so eager to talk about his 1950s Chevy, fell into paralyzed silence when I asked about the policías especializadas. He gripped the wheel and stared hard ahead.
But the parts of the visit that now stick with me most vividly are the otherwise forgettable — the long Jake-in-the-café subplots of life — that never made it into my notebook: the two-day microinfatuation I had with an Iranian photographer I met at a salsa club. The quiet conversation I’d had with a Swede named Natalia about the Palestinian refugee camp she’d visited in Lebanon. My journal didn’t contain the strange and vulnerable expression Natalia wore as she described the camp’s lack of water, or what the Israelis had left behind; nor did it have the sand that had filled my shoes from the beach we had come from. I met a big-hearted Israeli painter who was staying in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, just down the hall from Room 511, where they say Hemingway wrote the first chapters of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Sometimes at night, when she was a little drunk, she’d retreat to her bathroom, where the light was good enough to paint. We talked about Egypt; she didn’t think its deposed autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, was so bad. I couldn’t stomach telling a new friend how savagely I disagreed.
It was only much later, looking back on this, that I realized how much the Middle East I’d so recently left had hunted me down in the Caribbean — how those corpses of the old world had followed me into the atmosphere of dull, perpetual complacency that haunts Havana, a city already burdened by its own ghosts.
But no, this doesn’t have to mean anything if I don’t want it to. I can be Jake Barnes and say none of the past or anybody’s pain that comes with it really matters, everything’s going to be alright, sweetheart, just hang on a little while longer — isn’t it pretty to think so? I don’t even have to write a dramatic ending to all this, because I know I sure as hell wouldn’t do that on Twitter, where sentimentality dies in front of everybody and the story just keeps moving ahead. That’s what Hem did for Jake — basically tweeted away his life, line by line and made a book of it — and doesn’t that seem so much truer to life? How everything just keeps going, and the curtain doesn’t drop, and there isn’t even a stage?
Imagine trying to announce The End on Twitter: “Good for you, @mattdpearce,” the story immediately continues, the whole world opening up like a feed. “When we grabbing a beer?”
Matt Pearce is a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times and a featured writer for The New Inquiry. Images from Egypt and Cuba © Matt Pearce