Two books I left off of my end of the year book post was The Guns of Navarone and Green Hills of Africa. The former I read while my son drove us to Florida. The latter I read each night in the silence of my bedroom after a day filled with family and beach.
The reason I want to review them together is because of the reasons why I liked the books.
The books are very different and probably why some writers are good fun and others achieve the level of greatness.
The Guns of Navarone is built around a storyline. For those of you who haven't seen the classic movie, the story takes place during WWII. Captain Keith Mallory, a New Zealander, is commissioned to infiltrate the German occupation of the Greek island Navarone and destroy the mighty German guns that have prevented the Allies from invading this point and retaking Greece from German occupation. There is no way to arrive there except by the entrance that the Germans stand sentinel with their guns. The rest of the island's edge is sheer stone cliff.
Captain Mallory, who speaks both Greek and German like a native, also happens to be a world class mountain climber and fully capable of scaling the mountainous walls on the side of the island the Germans would not be guarding.
He and his team, a mix of British and American soldiers and one apparently indestructible Greek native, embark on this adventure. It is naturally full of suspense and action. Therein lies the fun of reading the story which is basically built on a sequence of seemingly impossible obstacles that are flung in the way of the team. Just when they overcome one horrible threat, another one rises to take its place. There's no down time. Kind of like a video game.
Maclean develops his characters well. This is before existentialism took over books, where life and death are all the same and the characters aren't anyone the reader can develop an attachment to. The main characters in Navarone are sympathetically drawn and the reader roots for them, mourning any losses that happen along the way. Even the Germans are presented as human, rather than android monsters. (Which are a lot of fun destroy in video games!)
The book was written a decade after the war which allowed contemporary readers to enjoy the story because they knew that an evil empire had already been defeated. The story reflects the optimism and sentiment that good triumphs over evil. Many popular stories now written seem to have thrown out any kind of moral compass, leaving a type of purposelessness infused in the pages. One doesn't leave a modern story with a positive resolution but rather with a "whatever, nothing matters anyway" state of mind. Of course I can only speak for myself.
Why do I compare Maclean's book with Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa? Perhaps because I read one after the other I couldn't help making a comparison. While The Guns of Navarone is a story built entirely around a series of events that arrive at a climax then resolution, Green Hills of Africa has no story-line whatever. It's simply about Hemingway and his wife on safari. He describes the animals he wants to kill, his frustrations when he fails, his elation when he succeeds.
He writes down the conversations he has with his wife, the African guides and a few other men who accompany them on the hunt.
Aside from his blood lust for killing magnificent animals which disturbed me, his writing is what makes him the superior writer over Maclean and most twentieth century writers.
Anyone who can keep me going through a book where nothing happens is a brilliant writer in my opinion.
So what makes his writing so great (and I acknowledge that many people who read Hemingway don't share my views)?
Each sentence, each carefully chosen word, can only be compared to how an artist must choose specific hues to create a painting. How he describes the background scenery implants in my imagination a rich backdrop through which I vicariously enjoy the African plains. Every word is like a well-placed step, like that of a ballet dancer, that drives the sentences, the paragraphs and ultimately the entire novel forward.
The writing seems so simple. Almost as if written for a child, or by a child. Or someone who speaks English as a second language.
Yet there is heavy drama implied with each conversation that takes place. Every sentence is pregnant with meaning.
Green Hills was written in 1936, six years after he left his first wife for the woman in the novel and four years before he divorced this second wife. Knowing that added to the subtle drama that hung over and under the story.
Green Hills of Africa is not a work of fiction. In the foreword Hemingway writes:
Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary...The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.
It is hard to describe why I enjoy reading Hemingway. How does one justify an aesthetic response?
Nevertheless, I hope in this brief post I successfully explained why I enjoy Maclean's novels but why I love Hemingway's.