Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Hemingway: Must-See Documentary for Bookworms

Watch a trailer for Hemingway above
Find the entire series (plus extras!) here.
By Laurie Allee
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The three-part PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is truly bingeworthy...

I'll be honest: I never really understood why Ernest Hemingway was so famous.  I had read The Old Man and the Sea in high school and probably wouldn't have finished it if I hadn't been assigned a term paper worth a quarter of my grade.  At 16, I wasn't terribly interested in an aging fisherman or (spoiler alert!) the giant marlin he finally managed to catch.

In college, I read A Moveable Feast, and while it made me really want to find a time machine to go back to expatriate Paris, I still didn't regard Hemingway as much more than an outdated, macho guy who was into drinking, fishing, hunting, and bullfights.  In the 1980s when Scribners unearthed the author's incomplete copy of Garden of Eden, the resulting novel felt stilted, sad, editorially manipulated and definitely unfinished.  

So I had not given Hemingway much thought in the last few decades.  One of my goals during the pandemic, however, was to utilize some of my newfound time at home to tackle a few of the great works of fiction I'd never gotten around to reading.  One of those books was The Sun Also Rises.  I had barely read Hemingway, and I certainly hadn't read the books considered to be his best.  So, I downloaded a kindle copy from the library, prepared to roll my eyes at the much-imitated staccato sentences, and expecting to suffer through pages of booze, bravado and bullfights in the name of my own literacy.  What I didn't expect, however, was to love the book.  

And I really, really love the book.   

Although the story is set in the 1920s, it feels immediately familiar.  The dialogue is fresh.  The people of the early 20th Century's Lost Generation seem eerily recognizable.   I've known beautiful, spoiled, flamboyant-yet-insecure women like Brett.  I've hung out drinking with tough, restless guys like Jake -- salty on the outside, casually cruel, enmeshed in debauchery, silently suffering with dark secrets and fiercely protecting soft romantic sides they would never, ever admit they had.  Maybe it's because I read the novel during the bleakest surge of Covid-19 -- also during a concurrent time of painful social crisis, despair, conflict, unrest and governmental breakdown -- but it really spoke to me.   The book's themes of aimlessness, loss, empty escapism and moral crisis gave structure and voice to my own chaotic mood.

When I finished the novel, I immediately started reading A Farewell to ArmsIf The Sun Also Rises was my Hemingway appetizer, A Farewell to Arms was a 7-course meal.  I couldn't put the book down, finishing it in a few days.  Set in Italy during World War 1, the story of a wounded American ambulance driver and the nurse he falls in love with is at first glance an archetypal tragedy.  But it's more than that.  How did I not know it is ultimately an anti-war novel?  How could Catherine seem so complex, modern and relatable when I'd always heard her described as a stereotype?  Why didn't somebody prepare me for that gut-punch of an ending?  

The novel is multifaceted in its tragedies -- from the sweeping, senselessness of war to the aching, unavoidable desolation of personal loss.  I would have never believed Ernest Hemingway could move me to actual tears, but I was crying at the end of A Farewell to Arms.  

As for the Hemingway prose so many literary types have often disparaged?  It's the kind of spare, unembellished writing taught for decades in MFA programs.  It has the kind of conversational tone that  essayists and film narrators and bloggers and ad writers try to imitate.  It is direct and (seemingly) effortless.  It's also very American in its pace and imagery -- like swing music, or action painting or New York City street photography.   

I kept reading parts of A Farewell to Arms aloud because it was so beautifully written.  Rhythmic like jazz.  Minimal like haiku.  Gorgeous.  I wanted to hear the words so much that I finished the novel by listening to John Slattery's incredible performance in the audio version.  (Read or listen to a sample here.)      

So, a few weeks ago when I saw the promotion for the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick docuseries Hemingway on PBS, I couldn't wait to dive in.  Trust me, bookworms ... you want to binge this one.  

If you've never read Ernest Hemingway, the series will make you want to read all of his work.  (I'm about to tackle For Whom the Bell Tolls.)  If you've read Hemingway, you'll love finding out the backstories behind his writing.  His stories were bigger than life, and yet his own life was somehow bigger than his stories.  In fact, what surprises me the most about Hemingway is that while his persona has become a cliché, he was actually weirder and even more mythological in real life.  He also protected one of those soft, romantic inner cores I mentioned earlier.

The series also demystifies his suicide by offering a devastating portrait of late 1950s/early 1960s mental health care.  I was left wondering if Ernest Hemingway wasn't as much a victim of mid-century treatments for mental illness and addiction as he was a victim of severe depression.  I was also struck by the way Hemingway was imprisoned in a cage of fixed, unwavering gender roles.  The Garden of Eden dabbles in gender fluidity.  Its theme of androgyny is a strange bookend to his life of cartoonish masculinity.       

Watch the series trailer above, and check out the entire series here.  

If you want to get started reading Hemingway, here is a sample of A Farewell to Arms.  You can check out most of his books for free from Open Library here.    

And just because I love spoiling you, check out this amazing Lux Radio Theatre production of To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  See? Finishing a long read pays off!
(Pssst.  I'm not finished spoiling my Hemingway fans.  Check this out...)

You can watch more literary videos, too!  Every month I embed a bookish film to watch for free.  Click here to see this month's pick.  

If you've made it this far, you obviously love books as much as I do.  So do these people.

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