Friday, May 13, 2005

Hills Like White Elephants

Currently reading: "The History of Love" - by Nicole Krauss
"Letters to a Young Novelist" - by Mario Vargas Llosa
"The Sandman Companion" - by Hy Bender
Next up: "A Farewell to Arms"/"For Whom the Bell Tolls" - by Ernest Hemmingway (???)

So, here's how the conversation went:

Him: I think that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is Hemingway's best work. It's like he figured out how to use his minimalism...but early Hemingway - ugh!

Me: I've never read Hemmingway's novels, but I've read some of his short stories, and I like them a lot...

Him: You like his short stories...?

Me: Yeah. And there's this one in particular that I read in college that I remember really liking called...

Him: Don't tell me it's...

Me: ...Hills Like White Elephants

Him: (cringing) Oh God! I HATE Hills Like White Elephants! And I was over here thinking 'Please, don't let her say Hills Like White Elephants!'

Basically, he doesn't like it, because he feels that, while it's a great "exercise in revealing information", it doesn't really tell a story. He thinks that nothing happens, that there's no change. He also doesn't seem to like short stories that are about "one defining moment, " and he obviously doesn't care for Hemmingway's minimalist writing style.

Meanwhile, I find that those are my favorite kind of short stories...also, I couldn't have disagreed with him more as far as "nothing happening" in this story. I argued my point, but it was hard to do, because I hadn't read the story in so long. Neither had he. So he read it last night. I, meanwhile, found a copy online and read it today. Just recently, he responded to an e-mail I'd sent asking him what his verdict was on the story. Incidentally, we also spoke briefly about "The Yellow Wallpaper", which is one of my favorite short stories ever, and he thought it had to do with post-partum depression. Here's how our recent conversation went down:

Teresa Jusino to Adam 11:56 am (4 hours ago)
I knew it. The Yellow Wallpaper has nothing to do with post-partum anything, but with depression and mental illness in general. This is a brief essay (like a page long) that Gilman herself wrote explaining why she wrote the story:
By the way - what's your verdict on "Hills Like White Elephants?" I'm curious now...

Adam to me 3:10 pm (57 minutes ago)
Yellow Wallpaper -- I like the essay. I assume the fact the character had just had a child wasn't a coincidence. Gilman must have noticed there was often a link between depression and childbirth.
Hills Like White Elephants -- I actually enjoyed it more this time than the four or five times I've had it assigned to me. But I would say that minimalist short stories are not my cup of tea. If you like them, you should read some stories by Donald Barthelme. He's a minimalist writer that my cousin Erik likes so much he wrote his honors thesis about him. I, on the other hand, don't think he's the greatest writer, although I appreciate the fact that he's one of the only writers today who is still doing risky stylistic experiments.

Teresa Jusino to Adam 3:35 pm (31 minutes ago)
Yellow Wallpaper - it's true that the child probably wasn't a coincidence, though I think that might have less to do with what we know as "post partum depression" and more to do with everything that makes a woman a woman....I think that's where the link between depression and childbirth is important...
Hills - I actually just read it again myself (found it online). Yup. Still enjoy it. And as far as "nothing happening" in it....I totally see the woman's thought process as what's happening. You see her fluctuating between ignoring it, making him feel guilty about it, revealing that she's willing to sacrifice the child if it means that they'll be a happy couple and then, once she's made the decision, not being happy about it, or happy with him (making him stop talking, because he's annoying her). That IS the story to me. Also, what I didn't really think about before, but just did now, is the fact that she starts drinking right from the beginning - knowing she's pregnant. So maybe the "abortion" has already begun, the decision had already been made, and this story is about her trying to talk herself and himout of it? Second thoughts.... But the fact that this story can be explored inside out this way is just another reason why I think it's so good. Oh well. If it's not your cup of tea, it's not your cup of tea. I'm not a fan of green tea myself.... ;)

So that was our literary discussion of the day. And now I know that I need to read not only more Hemmingway, but also this Donald Barthelme person. Anyway, you can decide what you think about Hills Like White Elephants yourself, as I've posted the full text below. Happy reading!

Hills Like White Elephants

The hills across the valley of the Ebrol were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid. "

"What should we drink?" the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table. "It's pretty hot," the man said. "Let's drink beer."
"Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain.
"Big ones?" a woman asked from the doorway.
"Yes. Two big ones." The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer. "No, you wouldn't have."
"I might have," the man said. 'just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything." The girl looked at the bead curtain. "They've painted something on it," she said.
"What does it say?"
"Anis del Toro. It's a drink."
"Could we try it?"
The man called "Listen" through the curtain. The woman came out from the bar.
"Four reales." "We want two Anis del Toro." "With water? "
"Do you want it with water?"
"I don't know," the girl said. "Is it good with water?" "It's all right."
"You want them with water?" asked the woman. "Yes, with water."
"It tastes like licorice," the girl said and put the glass down.
"That's the way with everything."
"Yes," said the girl. "Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe."
"Oh, cut it out."
"You started it," the girl said. "I was being amused. I was having a fine time."
"Well, let's try and have a fine time." "All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn't that bright?"
"That was bright." "I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it--look at things and try new drinks?"
"I guess so."
The girl looked across at the hills. "They're lovely hills," she said. "They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees."
"Should we have another drink?" "All right." The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
"The beer's nice and cool," the man said.
"It's lovely," the girl said.
"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all." The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
"I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in."
The girl did not say anything. "I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."
"Then what will we do afterward?" "We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before." "What makes you think so?" "That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads. "And you think then we'll be all right and be happy."
"I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it." "So have I," said the girl. "And afterward they were all so happy."
"Well," the man said, "if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to. But I know it's perfectly simple."
"And you really want to?" "I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to."
"And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?"
"I love you now. You know I love you." "I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?"
"I'll love it. I love it now but I just can't think about it. You know how I get when I worry." "If I do it you won't ever worry?"
"I won't worry about that because it's perfectly simple."
"Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me."
"What do you mean?" "I don't care about me."
"Well, I care about you." "Oh, yes. But I don't care about me. And I'll do it and then everything will be fine." "I don't want you to do it if you feel that way."
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees. "And we could have all this," she said. "And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible."
"What did you say?"
"I said we could have everything."
"We can have everything."
"No, we can't."
"We can have the whole world."
"No, we can't."
"We can go everywhere."
"No, we can't. It isn't ours any more."
"It's ours."
"No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back."
"But they haven't taken it away."
"We'll wait and see."
"Come on back in the shade," he said. "You mustn't feel that way."
"I don't feel any way," the girl said. "I just know things."
"I don't want you to do anything that you don't want to do "
"Nor that isn't good for me," she said. "I know. Could we have another beer?"
"All right. But you've got to realize " "I realize," the girl said. "Can't we maybe stop talking?"
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table. "You've got to realize," he said, "that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you."
"Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along."
"Of course it does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want any one else. And I know it's perfectly simple." "Yes, you know it's perfectly simple."
"It's all right for you to say that, but I do know it."
"Would you do something for me now?' "I'd do anything for you.'
"Would you please please please please please please please Stop talking."
He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights. "But I don't want you to," he said, "I don't care anything about it."
"I'll scream," the girl said.
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. "The train comes in five minutes," she said.
"What did she say?" asked the girl.
"That the train is coming in five minutes."
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
"I'd better take the bags over to the other side of the station," the man said. She smiled at him. "All right. Then come back and we'll finish the beer."
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
"Do you feel better?" he asked.
"I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine."

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1861)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

To The Lighthouse

Currently reading: "The History of Love" - by Nicole Krauss
"Letters to a Young Novelist" - by Mario Vargas Llosa
"The Sandman Companion" - by Hy Bender
Next up: TBA (but most likely a classic author again, as I like to alternate between contemporary and classic)

Yesterday, on the subway to work, I finally finished Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." It took me longer to read than such a short book probably should have, but it's such dense writing that, in a way, I'm surprised it didn't take me longer. This has been said before by people much smarter than I, but I'll say it again: Virginia Woolf was a genius. As I closed the book, I said to myself I want to write. Like. That.

Synopsis (from the Webster Encyclopedia of Literature):

"The novel is one of Woolf's most successful and accessible experiments in
the stream-of-consciousness style. The three sections of the book take place
between 1910 and 1920 and revolve around various members of the Ramsay family
during visits to their summer residence on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. A
central motif of the novel is the conflict between the feminine and masculine
principles at work in the universe.

With her emotional, poetic frame of mind, Mrs. Ramsay represents the
female principle, while Mr. Ramsay, a self-centered philosopher, expresses the
male principle in his rational point of view. Both are flawed by their limited
perspectives. A painter and friend of the family, Lily Briscoe, is Woolf's
vision of the androgynous artist who personifies the ideal blending of male and
female qualities. Her successful completion of a painting that she has been
working on since the beginning of the novel is symbolic of this

It's funny, but until I read that, I had trouble rationalizing the need for Lily Briscoe - but now it makes perfect sense...I did notice the comparison between male and female principles in Mr. & Mrs. Ramsay, and Woolf captured them so well. I loved that she captured the weaknesses in both positions - that neither one of them was completely right or completely wrong. Because while Mrs. Ramsay did much good, was extremely nurturing, and saw the value in talking about something for its own sake and not to make oneself look superior; she also did good deeds for the acclaim it would bring her, and was vain about her own beauty. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsay was a great thinker, but he also sucked the energy out of a room when he got depressed, was never affectionate with his children, and thought his wife stupid. Strangely (or maybe not so strangely) enough, I felt a lot of love between the two. There's one passage that particularly struck a chord with me:

"He wanted something - wanted the thing she always found it
so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And
that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she
did. He could say things - she never could. So naturally it was
always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this
suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she
never told him that she loved him. But it was not so - it was not
so. It was only that she could never say what she felt. Was there no
crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at
the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away
from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is - the sea at
night. But sheknew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was
watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than
ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just
for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what
with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having
quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she
could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of
saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And
as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he
knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it.
And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing
on earth can equal this happiness) - 'Yes, you were right. It's going to be wet
tomorrow. You won't be able to go.' And she looked at him
smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he

That's one of the most gorgeous and truthful passages dealing with marriage that I've ever read. There are so many passages in this book that I've marked in my copy and love. I will post them here.

The only part of this book that I didn't particularly enjoy was the middle section, "Time Passes." While I understand why it was important to the novel it was, quite simply, boring. Lots of description of the house falling apart, of the elderly caretakers...time passes, but very slowly. ;)
The rest of the book, though, was brilliant! I related to so much of it - more than I probably would've liked to. Mrs. Ramsay's "good deeds", Mr. Ramsay's ambition...But I particularly identified with Cam and James' (two of the Ramsay children) relationship with their father, with James' objection to "tyranny", and Cam's indecision. They each seemed to personify the fluctuating views I have of my own father... :) What I love so much about Virginia Woolf's writing is that she manages to capture all the intricacies of a single moment and make it grand, epic. A person sitting down to dinner becomes a major, interesting event. Yet, as epic as these moments become, they are also extremely familiar. I was surprised that within this fictional family of English people at the turn of the century, I found so many versions of myself.
I'm going to stop here, because I can't write about this novel more intelligently than it itself was written. The book should speak for itself in this case. Within the next day or so, I'll post my favorite passages, so you can sample the brilliance for yourself! :)
Also coming soon: "What I Hate About Current Literary Criticism"

Monday, May 09, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Currently reading: "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf
"The Sandman Companion" by Hy Bender
Next up: "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss

Better late than never - my thoughts on Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (***may or may not contain spoilers as I'm not taking special care to leave them out, so read at your own risk***)

I promised myself that I wouldn't compare Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (EL&IC) with its predecessor, Everything is Illuminated, because they are two completely different books and should each stand on their own. However, as they are both works by an author I admire I will say this: EII was great. EL&IC was good.

EL&IC tells the story of Oskar Schell, a 9-year-old boy in Manhattan whose father died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He finds a key in an envelope marked "Black" amid his father's things and starts out on a quest around NYC to find out what the key means and gain some insight into how his father died. The other story intertwined with this one is the story of Oscar's grandparents: his grandfather, who lost his ability to speak along with the woman he loved; and his grandmother, from whom we hear in letters she writes to him.

Much has been made of Oskar's being too precocious and "cute" in other reviews. I think the creation of Oskar Schell is the best thing in the book. I think that all of his eccentricities (many unexplained) make him a vivid, interesting character. He was the kind of character I wanted to reach in and hug - especially when he "gave himself bruises" or wore "heavy boots."

I also appreciate the way that JSF writes his older characters. Thomas and Oskar's grandmother are riveting in the way the express themselves and tell their stories - JSF treats them with such dignity and care, and I was completely invested in both of them.

**the moment when Oskar tells his mother that he wishes she had died in 9/11 instead of his father is heartwrenching. I cried and had to put the book down and stop reading for the day after that.

**the moment when Thomas says goodbye to his wife before going to the airport - again, I cried.

JSF has a gift for getting to the emotional heart of things in a way that few writers do. In this novel, as in his first and in his short fiction, he describes feelings in a way that I never could, but in a way that I recognize immediately.

Now, this is not to say that the book doesn't have its flaws...there are certain lines that are too much - something about zipping up the sleeping bag of myself comes to mind. And while I respect the impulse to try to make this novel more than just words on a page by adding images to be flipped through, there were some that were just pointless - even taken in the context of being in Oskar's book of Stuff That's Happened to Me. For example, the page that depicts the ink samples at the paint store works, because I found Thomas' name among the others and it piqued my interest. However, the photo of the elephant crying just seems to be an illustration and doesn't seem to serve a real purpose in being there...

However, my biggest problem with the book is the fact that I think JSF has chosen to deal directly with September 11th too soon. This is not to say that it is "too sacred" to write about, or that it shouldn't be dealt with, or that JSF shouldn't have been the first to write about it. I think if any author would be capable of dealing with that tragedy in a novel, he would. My problem is that I know that he had written a completely different novel before this....about lives converging in a museum, about a homosexual relationship that goes unacknowledged in history.... Also, I remember hearing the character, Oskar, for the first time at a reading JSF did at Russian Samovar in December of 2002 - he read the original first chapter of what now exists as EL&IC. 9/11 wasn't mentioned at all. I don't know what JSF's process was, or when what was to be "The Zelnick Museum" ended up turning into EL&IC, but it just feels like 9/11 was stuck in as an afterthought, and so it doesn't feel quite true. What holds this book together for me is Oskar's sense of loss. How he is dealing with the loss of a parent. But in this book, the fact that his father died in 9/11 seems inconsequential. His father could have died any number of ways, and it wouldn't affect the book at all - Oskar would probably still deal with the same fears and insecurities had anything else killed his father. So why tell this story? Why try to write a 9/11 novel that isn't really a 9/11 novel? I feel like JSF should've waited until there was a story that had to be told, where 9/11 is a character as much as the characters are. Something like 9/11 - especially since it hasn't really been dealt with in fiction yet - shouldn't just be a backdrop. Not yet. Not enough time has passed. I don't think enough time has passed for us to even start writing about it - we're still too close to it to assess its damage. I miss what would've been "The Zelnick Museum" or "The Project Museum" or whatever the title would've been - that's a story I would love to have read.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Legends of the Fall

Currently reading: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender
Next Up: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Last night, Adam read me the third and final chapter of Legends of the Fall. A beautiful, beautiful story...and again, I will attest to how wonderful it is to have a story read to you by someone who loves it. There's really something magical about that. However, Harrison's prose really calls to be read aloud - he's one of those writers who really can paint pictures with words. Normally, I hate description - it bores me, and I usually skip it over - but Harrison does it not using many words, just the right ones. The characters pulled at me, too. I really felt Susannah's pain over Tristan (though I have to admit, I brought my own baggage into that....but who doesn't?)...I was close to tears when Two was killed...and poor, poor Tristan.

Adam and I discussed the ending, and I brought up a quote from Everything is Illuminated: "It wasn't wrong, but worse. Close." That's what the ending of Legends of the Fall felt like to me. Sure, it was a "happy" ending - Tristan lived a long life, Ludlow killed the Irish guy, the children would grow up wasn't wrong, but worse, close. Adam liked the line - and he PROMISED that he would FINALLY read "Everything Is Illuminated" today. We'll see....

Going back to the idea of the "baggage" we bring to books - that's the wonderful thing about art in general to me. That millions of people can regard the same work of art in ENTIRELY different ways, becuase of their own personal experiences, which are as different as snowflakes. Legends of the Fall (as well as anything by Simon & Garfunkel or Richard Linklater) will now always remind me of Adam. For better or worse.