A few days ago I finished D.T. Max’s Every Story is a Love Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. The book is both eminently readable, a kind of psychological thriller of one brilliant author’s mind, his ouvre, and ultimate self-destruction. At the same time, I found myself queasily putting it down for rest stops–perhaps because I knew David very slightly, from Yaddo, and thus his ghost brushed past on the page; perhaps because this was the first time I had read a biography of someone who is a contemporary. The effect is oddly dizzying, even nauseating (is it nauseated? Wallace was a hard-ass on grammar and nausea was one of his pet peeves). It’s like being in a Tilt-a-Whirl of one’s own times, lurching a bit too close to one’s cultural moments, veering away as we watch his particular struggles and demise. In the end, the book is also terribly sad and moving.
Throughout the summer I’ve been slowly making my way through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, in preparation for our project on Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and the Spanish Civil War. I’ve never been a great reader of Hemingway–he was most certainly the obligatory guy author for me back in high school, and I’ve never been a fan of minimalism. Its language constraints irritate me; the dialogue at times seems peevishly forced. Prior to beginning the novel, I read the two biographies of Martha Gelhorn–the second, which was unauthorized, provides a rather damning portrait of Hemingway the mean and vindictive ex-husband, so I was hardly inclined toward him as an author.
And yet, this is one of the most gorgeously seductive books I’ve read in a while. Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls while married to Gelhorn, and still under the spell of the Spanish Civil War and its tragic aftermath. To me, it is most certainly its greatest paen to this doomed war; it’s also, simply, a damn good war book, a damned good novel, as he would probably say. The novel has this extraordinary taut control beneath the surface while Hemingway indulges in the wildest of poetic flights–as in the gypsy woman Pilar’s long soliloquy about the long and beautiful night she spent with Pablo in Valencia, during which she took the cold pitchers of beer and pressed them against his sweaty back (and which, as it turns out, never occured); or her sickening recounting of the brutal public executions of the Francoists in their village; or her troubled memory of her first love, a bullfighter, a story which is also an argument for her sixth sense capacity to ‘smell death’. There is also Robert Jordan’s own inner flights–as in his fanciful imagining of bringing Maria to Madrid, where he will install her in a hotel, and he will reconvene with the wily and mysterious Russian agents who represent the hardboiled themes of betrayal and counter-betrayal in a war where morality is swiftly muddied. Hemingway breaks all the rules! (Exhilarating in our current hidebound MFA writing workshop world) The novel is so rich, so dense in pockets of quietude and then slow and agonizing violence or near violence, that I find I can only read a few pages at a time so that I can let my mind sift and settle.
Recently also read–rather quickly–Junot Diaz’s latest collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her following the inimitable Yunior, one presumes a kind of autobiographical stand-in for the author. Yunior’s blatant foul-mouthed, shilly-shallying treatment of women is at the center here, and yet each story is shrouded in such sadness that the tragic atmosphere undercuts the jazzy, show-offy hip-hop over-brightness of his lines.
Next up, I think is Rushdie’s Joseph Anton and Zadie Smith’s NW. (What a publishing season!) Read an excerpt of the memoir in the New Yorker, and though it’s been ages since I’ve found myself sinking into Rushdie’s writing–each new book seemed to lure and then repel me away–I found this bit of the memoir utterly absorbing and painfully honest. Perhaps too, like the David Foster Wallace biography, there is something riveting about reading of events one remembers keenly and acutely; when recent cultural history is now the subject of retrospective. It’s like overturning a not quite seasoned garden bed–the roots and bulbs still fairly raw and evident and yet there are also sediments of understanding, starting to accrue.