Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: Death In the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

I did not see this one coming.  It came at me like a 4 year old, mature bull who was hooking to the left without my noticing.  Thinking this was a work of fiction, I did not know until after the pass of the bull on the left towards the maleta.  At this point, it was too late and I was gorged by the non-fiction and could not take it back.  While my femoral artery was not ruptured, I did receive a hole in my leg which was later infected, then amputated.

Old Lady: Why are you speaking this way?  It is not good. 

I am speaking this way to teach you.  How else are you to learn?

Old Lady: Perhaps, but I don't like it.

Sometimes you have to dislike something in order to understand.

---
Okay, so what the heck am I talking about?  This is a little snippet in my own words what "Death in the Afternoon" is like.  I'm not going to knock Hemingway, and I did not intend to do so with the words above.  I am simply presenting you a glimpse of what this novel is - so you may choose if it suits you or not.

Keep in mind that Hemingway is my favourite author.  There is no one better.  Sure, there is a lot of booze.  There are short sentences.  There are women, which many criticize based on over simplicity.  This is who Hemingway is.  There is nothing wrong with him.  There is nothing wrong with his work.  Hemingway's non-fiction is not the same, because there is no dialogue.  Hemingway admits to this.  But it is evident that Hemingway is very perceptive, whether correct or incorrect (based on your own opinions), and this book is a nice work of detailing what bull fighting may be.

However, it lacks something.  Missing is the feeling you get when you read a fictional work by Hemingway.  The emotion is there, but the characters are not - they exist but are lost in details.  Details are not Hemingway's forte.  Hemingway's forte is a feeling you get when you hear the truth, but not just the truth.  The feeling is a live creature, which exists only as you read the pages.  It lives in your soul and you cannot describe why, but you cannot shake it.  It is not you, but has something that you want to be or something that will never be able to be seen again.  This is Hemingway, and "Death in the Afternoon" does not have this.  Hemingway knows this.

I ask myself why he wrote this work, and the answer is simple as well as alluded to.  Nothing like it ever existed, and while not thinking he was qualified as an expert, he knew that he had some important things to say on the subject and I believe he just wanted to get it all out.  The information was there to be told, however incomplete.

The book contains many details on technique, history of bullfighters and cities of Spain.  You and I will not understand much of this, but Hemingway does tell us in the book that going beyond a certain chapter without knowledge of bullfighting will not be helpful.  He is right in this.

The book contains humour, which I enjoy.  There is a part where he tells rich people who think they will hate a bullfight to sit up close because after their pre-conceptions have poisoned them and something occurs in the ring to reinforce the pre-conceptions, they can vacate their expensive seats so someone else can get a good seat that could not afford to do so.

There is also a random part about an Old Lady, which I have mentioned above.  I am not sure if this is supposed to be funny, but it is frivolous. 

My review is random sounding with facts - the truth as I see it.  This is an objective of this review, because it will teach you what this book is about.  You will be prepared, which is more than I can say for myself. 

Just like you should not see a bullfight from up close first in Madrid, you should not read this book first if you have not read Hemingway before.  This book is for seasoned Hemingway vets.  This is not meant to demean you if you do not fall into this category, but just to warn you.  Do what you like, but this is the opinion I have on the matter.

Also, if you have pre-conceived notions about bullfighting, please buy a book and vacate your seat in the affair so someone else may be able to have the book who cannot afford it, when your pre-conceived notions on the subject are validated.  Hemingway would like this.

5 comments:

Jillian said...

Yikes! I'm scared of this one...

vsudia said...

Sounds like a tough book to stay with!

Fortunately, it is not on my list, but A Farwell to Arms is, which I've never before read.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Hemingway scares a lot of people during the best of times, but I am not sure why. I think it probably has to do with how much you appreciate dialogue, which is his forte.

Many think that his books go far too slowly, but I would completely disagree with that. The pace of his works suit me.

Vsudia... "A Farwell to Arms" was not his greatest, but it was well done. It is depressing as all hell, though... and that is all I will say about it. I prefered "For Whom the Bell Tolls," personally.

Laura said...

I finally finished this one on the train home from Burlington tonight. This was my second Hemmingway read (the first was Islands in the Stream) and to put it frankly, I wasn't impressed. Or, maybe more accurately, i was impressed only because there is something impressive about Hemmingway's writing even in service of something as weak as this bad and oblivious defence of the indefensible.

The long version: The problem with DITA in my view is that Hemmingway doesn't make any kind of moral/ ethical/ artistic/ cultural case for bullfighting: he alternatively completely dismisses arguments against bullfighting and engages them on some rarified artistic level that could work in the service of anything. So there are basically two tones to the book. The first is distainful macho bluster against oversensitive elistists. These are typically form the best, and funniest, parts, but they're ridiculous insofar as Hemmingway is himself a delicate elistist, vacationing in Spain; drinking with other writers. The only difference is that he doesn't mind seeing horses gored.

The second tone is unfocussed jumble in the masculine-sentimental style about "the meaning of death" blah blah. A lot of this is only very, very tangentially related to the subject at hand, veering off into short stories about war and satires of reader reactions and such. That Hemmingway can't make a sustained concrete link between the bullfight and the artist's or journalist's portrayal of death is, to me, pretty telling.

Two of my favourite examples of the contradictory nature of the book: Hemmingway informs us repeatedly that, to a good afficiondo, it just doesn't matter "about the horses" getting gored; they are high comedy running around with their entrails hanging out, at most an unavoidable accident in the ritual. Yet at one point he goes off emotionally on a pair of horse dealers he'd like to murder because they won't put dying horses out of their misery soon enough. But why (tone 1) get so emotional if the suffering of the horses doesn't matter? Or (tone 2) isn't horrible suffering, part of the dance of death and an elemental part of the tragedy?

Then there is the best passage of the book, in which Hemmingway details the history of bullfighting in the Spanish popular conciousness. Matadors are terrible until they retire and then become incomparable giants, beloved by all who knew them; the bulls always getting smaller; the golden age of bullfighting always recently passed and fondly remembered. The passage is really fine writing... and would make a great satirical comment on DITA, since Hemmingway has just spent 150pages lamenting the decline and "decadence" of bullfighting from its golden days 20 years past. Again, it's the lament followed by the distain for the lament without a trace of irony that I could sense.

So here is a counterargument against the theme of the book: the bullfight is not a great act of art; it is a gladitorial sport. The vast majority of those who enjoy it do so because they like the spectacle of ritualized violence. The horror in Europe in the first half the 20th Century was another form of formalized violence, structured killing in support of grand national and ideological visions that masked base tribalism and selfishness. The culture of bullfighting helped breed distain for life and indifference to suffering into ap people, while elitists comforted themselves and assured the masses by calling it art. It was perfect foreshadowing for a culture that would spend the next half century being ground under the heel of fascism, which the elites would also falsely present to themselves and to the masses as something worth living miserably and dying for.

Prissy? Unrealistic? Sweeping? Self-satisfied overfed liberal denying our true, basic nature? I could be convinced. But these are pretty basic arguments against bullfighting and DITA doesn't even begin to deal with them. I'll have a veggie burger please.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Laura,
It's too bad you didn't make it out to the bookclub!

Your assessment/review proves that there are at least two sides to every argument. I do agree that Hemingway had scope problems, and should have probably assessed some of your points - and I think it would have been less tangental than hearing the dialogue between Hemingway and the old lady.