Thursday, September 29, 2016

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; Ernest Hemingway by Carlos Baker: A Life Story and TinTin Au Congo by Herge

Antonin Dvorak's Czech Suite is playing and I must once again breeze through four books in order to shelve the pile of books that is becoming higher on my dining room table.  Hopefully this does not diminish any analysis I am able to give, but I do find that I do better when I try to be succinct when writing book reviews so as not to blather.

My parents had come to visit me and I read this book to my mother, who has mostly peripheral vision due to Macular Degeneration (we read a lot of books together).  We started the book here in Texas and finished it in Florida where I drove my parents back to their home.  I tell you this to say that as much as I enjoyed reading, the enjoyment was doubled because I was experiencing the story with my mother.  It was a real pleasure to read a chapter then discuss it with someone who had as many strong opinions as I had.

Without appearing too gushing, I do not believe I can exaggerate how much I love Dorothy Sayers.  I didn't always feel this way.  The first book I read, "Whose Body" didn't impress me at all. I felt Lord Wimsey was rather callous in his glee at discovering a dead body in the bath and Oh boy! another murder to solve.  How considerate of the murdered man.

Sayers is a complicated person and I have a couple of biographies of her waiting for me and I will be very interested to get more information on what I so far am finding to be a fascinating individual.  

What little I know of her already leads me to believe that "Gaudy Night" has some autobiographical overtones in it. 

We have a woman in her thirties, Harriet Vane, who has come to an occasion at her Alma Mater, Oxford.  The occasion is called a "Gaudy", which according to the Web, is a college feast that also serves as a reunion for past students.

Harriet does not want to go for a number of reasons.  She lived with a man without marrying him, which in those days was condemned as much it is approved today (unless you're a homosexual, then a marriage license is necessary, judging from recent lawsuits. Sorry, moving right along...). 

To make matters worse, her lover got murdered and she was the primary suspect until Sir Peter Wimsey saved the day.  Wimsey, a social butterfly, finally alights and falls in love with Harriet, but she is unable to trust anyone.  This theme is thread throughout the book and thus the book serves as both a mystery and also possible romance, neither of which is resolved until the end.

So Harriet returns to Oxford for the Gaudy.  Now, without giving anything away, this story is not so much about a murder as it is about people and human relationships.

The first chapter sets the stage and we meet Harriet's previous friends and colleagues.  We then meet the faculty and later the students.

Each chapter is a careful study in the characters, flaws and foibles, personality traits of the different people populating Oxford:  Faculty, students, and hired help.  These chapters were sufficient in themselves to make a very interesting story without any adventure at all.

The story does not follow a usual formula.  At first it seems someone is playing amateurish pranks.  Ugly drawings with obscene subject matter, dresses and gowns stolen to be turned up later in effigies of a hanging.  But the pranks become increasingly sinister and attack all sorts of people from the professors to the students.

The Head of the Women's college does not want publicity, so she asks Harriet to stay at the school as if she were doing research but in reality to catch the culprit.

Harriet is not a detective only a detective story writer.  So she now has the double task of solving a growing threat at Oxford while trying to meet a deadline.  We get to hear Harriet struggle through the challenges of making a mystery story both logical and believable.  Not an easy task.

Harriet wishes Peter were available to help her but he has gone abroad so she is stuck with using her powers of deduction, usually reserved for writing a mystery novel.

I won't reveal the rest of the story but know that it is a lot of fun to read with all the ingredients that make a story so enjoyable:  mystery, suspense, character development and, of course, romance.  The book is longer than a lot of mystery novels and by the time you get to the home stretch you are chomping at the bit to discover who the guilty party is.

Again, without revealing anything I will also say that I found the motives to be an interesting example of hating and seeking revenge for crimes that have not been inflicted on the perpetrator, but rather for crimes that the guilty party cannot own up to and have projected on to everyone else.

"A Moveable Feast is a memoir that Hemingway wrote towards the end of his life about the beginning of his life.  Or at least the beginning of his writing career in Paris.  Some of the chapters are sweet, tender memories of his time with Hadley, his first wife.  One gets the impression that at the end of the day he concludes that his problems started with the abandonment of the woman whom he seems to have regarded as his first and true love.

Other chapters are not so tender.  He does not have fond memories of anyone else.  Gertrude Stein comes across as an arrogant, writer "wanna be" and he includes some highly unflattering episodes of her, one of which is rather disturbing and he could have left it out and the reader would have been none the worse.

He also writes of other people he once knew in Paris in unflattering terms at the least and brazen skewerings at the worst.  One wonders if he was trying to avenge himself on everyone who ever slighted or wronged him.

A couple of chapters are devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I do not know how reliable Hemingway's version of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda are.  He must have hated Zelda because she comes across as a Troll Queen bent on destroying her husband out of jealousy for his writing.  Maybe this is true, maybe Hemingway hated her as he seemed to hate a lot of women.  Perhaps she reminded him of his mother?  Fitzgerald himself comes across as a helpless infant lost in the clutches of drink.

Interestingly Hemingway presents himself as a the norm by which to measure others.  Methinks he was not being entirely honest.  Other sources indicate he wasn't quite so innocent.  Which brings us to the next book:

This book, at 672 pages, is quite a marathon to finish but it thoroughly writes each detail of Hemingway's life with an objectivity that is neither flattering nor smearing.  I have another biography to read but based on this one I conclude that Hemingway was an extremely strange individual who was either playing a role all his life or was a brute.

According to Baker, Hemingway hated just about everybody.  The more established writers liked him and helped him, the more he held them in contempt.  Not everyone.  He loved James Joyce and Ezra Pound, but he roasted Sherwood Anderson, in a parody and did pretty much the same to Ford Madox Ford in his memoir.  T.S. Eliot comes across badly even though he supported his work.

Then there were the victims who had done nothing to him except befriend him.  This was most evident in his first successful novel, "The Sun Also Rises."  OK.  He hung around an immoral bunch of people, but who appointed him as judge over them and how was he any better?  I know, I know,  he includes himself as an impotent jerk but Baker describes an unfathomable glee Hemingway took in exposing this "badly behaving" group (I take this from a recent biography titled, "Everyone Behaves Badly").

And he was always challenging men to boxing duels.  If they didn't like what he said or wrote about them they could duke it out with him in the ring.  I mean, really, Ernest?  Are you a man or a thirteen year old boy in a state of arrested development?

Then there was his appalling selfishness toward women.  He was married to Hadley, but that didn't stop another woman, Pauline from moving in and taking over, even though Ernest and Hadley had a young son at the time.

When I say moved in I mean both figuratively and literally.  Pauline moved into their house, then followed them across Europe and to America.

How does that work?  You see a married man with a small child and think, "I want to marry him and I'm going to get what I want."  That kind of mentality is inexplicable to me.  At least it kept me from feeling sorry for Pauline when it happened to her years later, although I thought it was too bad for her two boys.  I guess what's best for children isn't taken into consideration.  All three boys paid a price, judging from their own sad lives.

Another disturbing trait of Hemingway's character, is his lust for killing animals or watching them die.  He loved it. He really, really loved it.  He couldn't enough of the bull fight and describes with glee, the slow, tortuous death of the bull as well as gored horses and even injured fighters.  He writes with the same enthusiasm of his own hunting expeditions in Africa.  It's not enough to say he killed a beast.  He has to describe their roaring and bleeding.

He also enjoyed bear hunting and baiting them with the carcasses of horses that he rode and didn't like.

Are you disgusted yet?  

Yet I've read most of the man's novels and all of this short stories.  I like the precise weight with which he measures his words.  The sentences don't plod but the step with aim and determination.  Some of his stories are quite wonderful, others are repulsive.  

One feature of Hemingway's stories were his travels.  He lived in Paris, Spain, Austria, Italy, Africa, Cuba, the Florida Keys and the America mid and northwest that his stories hold a lot of colorful variety and cultural diversity because of their national backdrops.  That is one of my favorite attributes of his work.

After reading his biography I wonder if I would have been better off simply reading Hemingway rather than reading about Hemingway.  I definitely need to read other sources before I form firm conclusions about this complicated man.

And finally,

I read this book primarily to practice French and I like TinTin. However, I must say that this book is a rather appalling reminder of just how racist people were towards Africans not one hundred years ago. And also the callous cruelty to animals that apparently are not so unique to Hemingway's stories as I thought.

The story is not without its fun and adventure and I think it was useful to read it in order to remember history so as not to be doomed to repeat it.

I still love TinTin and I must remember that Herge was a product of his time period. He would probably not write such a story today.


  1. Carlos Baker's biography is the gold standard for Hemingway bios! I consider it indispensable to understanding EH. Baker's book of criticism on EH is also great!

    1. Hi R.T. I read his the Writer as Artist, also about Hemingway. I think a lot about the man in this book. My sister read other books that dwell more on how domineering his mother was. I wonder if he spent his life trying to prove to himself what a manly man he was because he was tormented by his upbringing. He certainly hated his mother.

      I did enjoy this bio. I think it was well done. I still have Hotchner's to read but maybe I won't need to read anymore after that.

  2. "I wonder if I would have been better off simply reading Hemingway rather than reading about Hemingway." I'm always disappointed when an author Whose books I've enjoyed turns out to be a jerk in real life. Gaudy Night is one of my favourite Sayer's novels. I read a number of her other Wimsey books before I go to that one and had decided I didn't really like the character but GN changed my opinion. He's so vulnerable & likeable in that story.

    1. Hi Carol. I agree with you. This is really one of my favorite books. So many books are filled with characters and narrators that I don't like. Harriet was not a perfect individual but I love how Sayers doesn't make anyone one dimensional. There's a sense of compassion through out the novel.

  3. This is very insightful commentary.

    I have read a fair amount of Hemingway. I have not read The Movable Feast. I have heard similar things from what you describe in his biography. Like many writers he seems to have been a not so wonderful person. I agree that it may be better to just stick to reading his works. It seems very difficult to reconcile those works with his like however.

    1. Hi Brian. I have spent a lot of time thinking about Hemingway and why he would be the sort of person he was. My sister says that his mother was domineering and he hated her.

      My husband says that when you're good and successful at what you do, you do have to live by the same boundaries as others.

      Maybe we'd all be less nice if we didn't fear consequences. I don't know. At least the temptation might be greater. Take care!

  4. Does your wide-range of reading include Flannery O'Connor? If so, perhaps this new venture will interest you:
    All the best from the Gulf coast . . .

    1. Hi R.T. I was wondering what happened to you blog. Are we still discussing Hawthorne on Wednesdays?

  5. I started A Moveable Feast years ago, and did not finish. I'm a bit lukewarm on his writing anyway...but on his person, I'm decidedly unimpressed.

    1. Hi Joseph! I have probably read all the Hemingway I care to read, for now anyway.

      Hemingway did make an impression on me, but not a desirable one.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.