April 28, 1975

The city teetered in a dream state. Helen walked down the deserted street. The quiet was eerie. Time running out. A long-handled barber’s razor, cradled in the nest of its strop, lay on the ground, the blade’s metal grabbing the sun. Unable to resist, she leaned down to pick it up, afraid someone would split his foot open running across it. A crashing noise down the street distracted her — dogs overturning garbage cans — and she snatched blind at the razor. Drawing her hand back, a bright pinprick of blood swelled on her finger. She cursed at her stupidity and kicked the razor, strop and all, to the side of the road and hurried on.

Is it true that to avoid outside distractions while writing, you wore earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, had the ethernet port of your computer physically sealed, and at one point even wore a blindfold as you touch-typed?

Uh, I think that was Jonathan Franzen.

THE LOTUS EATERS

LotusEatersI was working in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. After the towers fell, the only person in our office who didn’t seem numb or scared or uncomprehending was a gentleman who, of his own volition, calmly ventured into the street to get sandwiches for the whole staff.

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.



JE: Further proof that I read women authors: In addition to great recent releases by Robin Antalek (The Summer We Fell Apart) and Tatjana Soli (The Lotus Eaters), I wanted to take the opportunity to plug the paperback release of Maria Semple’s excellent west L.A. novel, This One is Mine (see JR’s coverage and an interview with Semple, here).

Maria is a badass. How many people would walk away from a lucrative television writing gig (for such shows as Arrested Development) for the opportunity to toil away in the dying business of novel writing? Maria did just that. How many people would buy you two strollers, a baby seat, buy you a splashy dinner every single time you saw her, and give you a thousand bucks when your royalty check was late? Or offer the use of her house for as long as you needed it? Maria has done all of these things for her writer friends. And my karmic radar informs me that she will be rewarded for this decision with big sales for the PB of “This One is Mine.”

Just because Maria is such a doll, and just because this book jacket is kinda’ dainty, don’t think for one second that “This One is Mine” is not deliciously nasty and totally hilarious– way better than Arrested Development. If you missed the HC release, snap this one up, kiddos.