Monday, June 27, 2011

The New Yorker: "Homage to Hemingway" by Julian Barnes

July 4, 2011: “Homage to Hemingway” by Julian Barnes

This story needs more attention than I’m going to be able to give it here, but on my cursory look it’s a very good story—especially if the reader also happens to be a writer. 

The story is divided into three parts, in each of which a novelist is teaching a writing course. First he’s in the countryside in England with adult students. Next he’s in the Alps in mid-Summer. And last he’s in the US, in the Midwest, teaching undergraduates. Over the time covered by the story and the three parts, he separates and then is divorced from his wife; a book has come out and not done well; and his most recent manuscript has yet to find a publisher.

Things don’t go so well in his writing classes, either, but he begins to refine his schtick. He likes to talk about Hemingway, although in this case he actually likes to talk about a Hemingway lookalike, but that invariably leads to talking about the writer himself. And the story he chooses to talk about is an unusual one for Hemingway: “Homage to Switzerland.”  Here is Barnes reading that story: Homage to Switzerland. (It’s no coincidence that this Barnes story has a three-part structure.) The narrator finds that men and women in his classes react rather differently to Hemingway, and he explains to his students that his own assessment has evolved into admiration, making the point that so many readers have missed what Hemingway was doing, that it’s really all about vulnerability and failure and not just about machismo.

In the end, with plans to write an “American novel” that he assumes he won’t be able to publish because it isn’t what readers want anymore, he takes notes on the class he’s teaching, including the different reactions of the genders to Hemingway.

It’s interesting that the class would fall apart over the issue of names. The female students don’t like the fact that the females in the Hemingway story are unnamed. The narrator asks if they’d be happier if the male narrator were unnamed and the females all given names. They say yes, and so he’s done that. In each part of the story, his name is left out. The students call him Chief, or Professor, or in the final section, Maestro. But the students are named. Although I like this bit of self-referential structure, I think I would have liked it better if the narrator had helped the students discover a rationale for why the names had been left out. (I usually assume that the author is aiming for universality.)

It’s a good story, worthy of rereading, and perhaps one of the best of the year. 

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This story is banal and didactic. As a writer and a Hemingway scholar, I expected to be thrilled. Instead, as a FEMALE, I was presented with a sexist, prejudiced bit of tedium. The story is essentially built to propose and support the premise that women aren't capable of understanding Hemingway, while a the same time pushing forward a simplistic analysis of Hemingway in points I, a woman, came to years ago.
It's pathetic.
Gender prejudice is for some reason still considered okay, while it parallels racial prejudice in ways that most NY'r readers would be embarrassed to support.
Thanks for considering my point of view.
Monica Drake

Monicad333@yahoo.com

Clifford Garstang said...

Everyone is welcome to his or her point of view, certainly. My opinion is that a sexist protagonist doesn't make a story sexist. In fact, the sexist in question is something of an oaf and a phony, so the overall effect is rather the opposite. Let's not confuse the character with the author, a mistake that many readers also make with Hemingway.

Amitava Mukherjee said...

This is an age old question. Even the writer in the story himself wasn't able to separate art from the artist in his earlier life. It is very educating. Thank you for the blog. I do have couple of thoughts: First, I have been experiencing something that could only be called a reader's block. For the past few days I am stuck in these lines:

"He thought of trying to explain something he had recently noticed about himself: that if anyone insulted him, or one of his friends, he didn’t really mind—or not much, anyway. Whereas if anyone insulted a novel, a story, a poem that he loved, something visceral and volcanic occurred within him. He wasn’t sure what this might mean—except perhaps that he had got life and art mixed up, back to front, upside down." A simple enough paragraph yet after I read it I feel it has more to it than what it says. I start feeling that the heart of those lines exists beyond the story, that it could be true in different scenarios of life. And the second is a question: Do you consider the story as a meta? Thank you for considering my comments.