Turns out I have one thing in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We both started Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with high expectations and ended up bored and indifferent. The love affair with Catherine, like the battlefield romance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, was one of the least convincing things I’d read up to that point:
I thought the protagonist fell in love because the book required it, and I never got any firm picture of who Catherine Barkley actually was. The obvious contrast for me is Wharton’s Madame Olenska and Newland Archer, where you see two people falling in love out a kind of need. I don’t really believe in literary romance for romance’s sake. I think love comes from actual places.
Hemingway was the second Certified Great Author I took on as a teenager, after spending a summer and most of the fall reading my way through John Steinbeck. At the time, Hemingway and Steinbeck were often lumped together by reviewers and teachers, which was not simply a mistake but a crashingly obvious mistake I still can’t fathom. Steinbeck could be an astonishingly clunky stylist, but he created undeniably powerful work in a variety of modes: near-documentary realism with In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, mock epic with Tortilla Flat, magic realism with Cannery Row, allegory with The Wayward Bus, morality play with The Winter of Our Discontent. Hemingway crafted some of the most beautiful sentences ever set to paper, but he had only one mode, and while he could play it beautifully, in some of the later works — Across the River and Into the Trees anyone? Anyone? — he sounded like Vladimir Horowitz banging on “Chopsticks.”
Steinbeck was chiefly a novelist, though he could so fine work in short stories: see The Long Valley and the story-collection-as-novel The Pastures of Heaven, the book that shows him discovering his true narrative voice. Hemingway’s magic is in the short stories, not the novels.