First Contact

By Rob Williams


Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

J.B. is quiet, talks in a soft voice. Built like Olive Oil, Popeye’s girlfriend, he could probably hide behind a flagpole with room to spare. Hair dirty and hanging in dreads, he suffers from an obvious lack of coordination. I think he’s cute, though not strikingly handsome. When he grins, full fleshy lips pull up over his teeth. He’s got a crooked kind of smile, and this makes me like him all the more.

I will let him kiss me today.

JC: I was lucky enough to learn about Tatjana Soli’s new novel The Lotus Eaters through JE. All I can say is if you like your war novels with a heavy dose of influence by Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s an astoundingly good book with cinematic flair and a gutsy recasting of the last days of Vietnam. More on The Lotus Eaters later. Here’s her WWFIL:

Loneliness, Love, and Hemingway

by Tatjana Soli

I’m sure that I was exposed to Hemingway in school, as a necessary and dreaded English assignment, but reading him left no impression other than he was a chore to be gotten through. Then I turned seventeen, fell in love and promptly got my heart broken (big time), and suddenly Ernest Hemingway became my best and closest friend. I have a theory that after thinking in childhood that we will never be alone, in adolescence we suddenly see that we are alone (big time), and then along comes First Love, and we jump, thinking maybe we don’t have to go it alone after all. This is the primal reason why we become readers — to have that deep companionship of a good book. But at seventeen, nothing — not loving parents, or sympathetic girlfriends, or any of the usual remedies — worked, at all.

One afternoon, moping through our family bookshelves, I opened The Sun Also Rises (thankfully the publisher changed it from the original proposed title, Fiesta, which I would probably have been skipped over) and came upon Robert Cohn’s line: “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it?” Yes! That book became as much a guidebook for life to me at seventeen as The Purple Land became a guidebook for the deluded Cohn. No, I never did make it (yet) to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, but I understood Cohn’s unrealistic longing for South America, as well as Jake Barnes longing for Lady Brett Ashley. I always found the vague war-injury excuse to undercut Jake’s understanding that no one is going to keep Lady Brett happy for long, injury or no.

As I blazed — indiscriminately, promiscuously — through the rest of the novels, then the short stories, then the non-fiction, I didn’t care about the story line or the subject matter. I felt at home in Hemingway’s prose, and the only thing I really dreaded was coming to the end of all of his books (this was before I discovered the prolonging of joy called rereading). What did I fall in love with? Place is a big one: a bygone Paris, the small towns in France, Italy, and Spain, the old-movie version of African safaris. But I fell in love, too, with his sense of time. There is a magic to his arrangement of words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, paragraphs on a page, that feels as true as your own breath. For me, Hemingway is as much an artist of the way time passes as Proust, as in this short passage from A Moveable Feast:

All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife — second class — and the hotel where Verlaine had died where you had a room on the top floor where you worked.

The big revelation for me in Hemingway is that his subject matter was beside the point. I hate bullfighting, safaris, and even fly-fishing seems kind of boring, but in Hemingway’s hands I understood that he was writing both about the subject matter and through it about life. In all of his best work — The Sun Also RisesA Farewell to Arms, “Indian Camp,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Big Two-Hearted River,” “In Another Country,” and A Moveable Feast — the common theme follows Faulkner’s dictum that the best writing is always about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I wasn’t seduced by the machismo of bullfights or deep-sea fishing, but I was seduced by Hemingway’s deeper quest of living an authentic life. Forgive me, but I never got Fitzgerald. Gorgeous sentences, and the ending of Gatsby is indeed one of the most beautiful and profound passages in American literature, but in general it frustrates me how dazzled he is by surfaces. The famous exchange (true or not) with Hemingway is telling:

Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than us.”

Hemingway: “Yes. They have more money.”

For a period of about a dozen years during and after college, I purposely stayed away from Hemingway, the influence of his style simply too seductive and overwhelming. Now, I return like the prodigal daughter, curious what I might find changed. One is always a little wary that what thrilled you at seventeen won’t quite pack the same punch at twenty-seven, much less thirty-seven. I’m happy to report that unlike that first false love that led me to Hemingway, my love for his work has stayed and matured. A clean, well-lighted place, indeed. Someday I intend to go to Pamplona, sit in a café, and raise a glass of wine to Papa.