(HOST) Commentator David Moats says that quite a few books on his summer reading list will be distinctly deja-vu.
(MOATS) One of the advantages of reaching a certain age is you can go back and read books you first read twenty, thirty or forty years ago.
You have a permanently replenishing library of books that are familiar, yet different.
One of the books I’ve read again is “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which I remembered as a heroic tale of the Spanish Civil War, with famous scenes of violence and love.
Hemingway is often mocked for writing short, simple sentences, but he also wrote long looping sentences that go on and on with particular attention to their poetic rhythms.
He’s also mocked for his masculine concerns – war, bullfighting, hunting, fishing and the testing of one’s courage.
When I first read “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” I was probably still a teenager, and so these masculine concerns were appealing to me. Young men often wonder how they would perform – in battle, if not in the bull ring.
Maybe this is an adolescent preoccupation, but it’s also a universal one.
And reading about the Spanish Civil War is a useful exercise in a world where Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan still exist.
The dated passages in the book are the interior monologues, which are breezy and colloquial but don’t ring true anymore.
Still, I think Hemingway spoke for a generation that had been through a lot and was looking for ways to be heroic, and his straightforward style was pioneering and bold.
But even where his language was beautiful something is always withheld, and I think I have finally hit upon the secret of Hemingway’s weirdness.
I think he is a classic passive aggressive.
His heroes are often wounded, but stoic. They’re going to keep their pain to themselves, except they’re also going to make sure we know how strong and brave they are.
They get the girl and then they lose the girl, either because she dies or he dies, and it’s all very glorious – but oh well, that’s the way it goes, I’ll just have to soldier on, never mind, it’s okay, don’t bother with me, I’m indulging my martyr complex.
This is what I saw on reading Hemingway again.
It was an education, both about the kind of thoughts and feelings that were celebrated sixty or seventy years ago and about the distance we’ve come since then. I’ve reread other great books lately, and they’re still great, sometimes even greater than I knew.
“Tale of Two Cities” had me completely enthralled, as did “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Hardy. In fact, I had forgotten I’d read “Tess” at all until I saw the embarrassing little notes I had scribbled in the margins forty years ago: “Her guilt places her out of touch with nature,” I wrote. And: “The God of duty cannot be satisfied.”
As for Hemingway’s classic novel of Spain: the bridge is finally blown, and the girl escapes. And our hero, he’s wounded, and he’s lying on the forest floor, and the fascist cavalry is approaching. But don’t mourn for him. He spent the last three days with Maria, whom he lovingly referred to as “rabbit,” and for him that was everything.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.