Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hemingway's Hemingway in Paris

(Reflections on A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner, 1992.)

For Hemingway’s memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he casts himself as straight man in a cast of eccentrics, holy fools, and parasites. A man’s man, honest, lean, tough, discerning, loyal beyond the call of reasonable duty: “Hem” doesn’t go a page without bolstering this image of himself. Ironically, what I take away from this memoir savors of the experience of listening to the gossip of catty Southern women. They affect regret and sympathy while they recount embarrassing details with prurient delight, just for the sake of honesty, you understand, and they tack “well, bless his heart” at the end to make it all right.

The egregious example is the portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alcoholic, hypochondriac, self-deluded, hen-pecked, sissy, pampered, affected, and rude to waiters and mechanics, Fitzgerald gets two chapters of ridicule from patient, long-suffering Ernest – with one chapter building to FSF’s insecurity about his masculine “measurements” -- and all of two sentences about the excellence of THE GREAT GATSBY.

Along the way, Hemingway also dismisses a character by saying that her idea of a great writer was Henry James – the artist whose works I spent two years plumbing. He tells us how Ford Maddox Ford smelled, how Gertrude Stein debased herself in such a way that he couldn’t bring himself to listen to her – but he could bring himself to write about it in a book for generations to read. He does have praise for a prolific writer I’ve enjoyed, whose name seems to have dropped off the list of must-reads, Georges Simenon ( 27).

About himself, Hemingway modestly mentions very little about his own writing and successes, and he shows three weaknesses three times: Gambling on horse races, allowing loyalty to friends to distract him from work, and having an affair with one of the rich people he disdains in the final chapter.

Accept his self-serving self-portrait, however, and the book is a pleasure to read and may even be worth re-reading in its new “restored” edition. It opens with Paris at its worst: cold, rainy, smelly, dirty, crowded. But Hemingway soon finds a good cafĂ© where he can work, and we begin to get the picture of Paris that I’ve always cherished, a place where affairs of the heart , pursuit of art, and appreciation for good food and drink comprise the whole of life.

I was intrigued by his writer’s advice to avoid adjectives, to write until one knows what’s coming next, and by his reference to something he learned about writing from Cezanne’s paintings, something he couldn’t put in words. But he learns from Cezanne at least this, that “true sentences” are not enough (13).

Beyond this, there’s the appeal of nostalgia, as Christopher Hitchens so accurately describes it in his ATLANTIC MONTHLY review:

Most of all, though, I believe that A Moveable Feast serves the purpose of a double nostalgia: our own as we contemplate a Left Bank that has since become a banal tourist enclave … and Hemingway’s at the end of his distraught days, as he saw again the “City of Light” with his remaining life still ahead of him rather than so far behind.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

That Distant Land by Wendell Berry: Our Town, Now

(Reflections on THAT DISTANT LAND: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint Press, 2004.) Photo Shared via AddThis

Having read this collection of stories, I now possess the collective memory of (fictional) Port William, Kentucky. I could walk you from the house above the main street, where, in 1888, very young Mat Feltner watched his mother care for a man beaten up in a drunken brawl in town. We could make our way down past the other twelve buildings or so to the spot where the grown up Mat learned that his father had just been shot dead (1912), and on to the Coulter place, home of his father’s killer, where Mat as an old man will take a tour of the boundaries of the farm and relive his life – before collapsing into his final illness (1965).

There’s humor and joy to remember, too. Go east on that same road and you’ll see the old school house where 8th grader Burley Coulter improvises some poetry at the open house, and where much – beloved Ptolemy Proudfoot, “large, physically exuberant” bids very high on the cake baked by the tiny school mistress, a woman so high above him in his own estimation that he couldn’t communicate his admiration for her any other way. There’s the school mistress’s first swallow of whiskey. And her second, third, fourth, and at least a fifth, too. There’s the trip that Tol and his wife took in their car with young Elton Penn the driver, having only a vague idea of where they were going.

I can’t think of any event in the stories that happens inside the church, but there are many that parallel the stories and parables of the Bible. The story “Watch With Me” alludes to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but it’s the tale of the lost sheep – a daft neighbor with a gun – and how all the men in the vicinity leave their work to track him at a respectful distance for over twenty – four hours to prevent him from doing harm to himself or to others. A more subtle version of the same story is “Thicker than Liquor,” in which newlywed lawyer Wheeler Catlett foregoes an evening at home to rescue yet again his useless Uncle Peach from the throes of another binge drinking episode in town in 1930. There are several versions of the Good Samaritan. There’s the prodigal son, returning from World War II on foot (“Making It Home”).

I can tell you something of the rhythm of work in this agricultural community. There’s the daily cycle of milking and feeding and pasturing and bringing in, and the yearly cycle of building up stores of grain and dried meat for the winter months to feed all the lives that depend on the farm family. There’s the intense working of rows of tobacco when the plants ripen. There’s hauling to market. The unpredictable but never – ending round of repairs on fences, rooves, pens. There’s the hunting that interrupts the farming, ‘cause, when your dog has treed something, you don't want to disappoint him.

What comes through most strongly in these stories is built into the organization of the book: connectedness. It’s a small town, and it’s a tight community. People take responsibility for others. They remember each others’ pasts. They check up on each other in time of flood, in time of illness.

Until the last phase of the book brings us to the 1970s and 80s, “the city” is a place to visit, associated in these stories with hurried, thoughtless people, contemptuous and contemptible. It’s a place of vomiting, confusion, and double-dealing. Only in that last phase of the book, Port William seems to have passed away, and the outside city world has intruded. In those last stories, the few who remember the town as we now remember it, band together in a futile effort to keep the City’s and the Government’s hands off. There’s a remarkable story in which the family and friends of Burley Coulter band together to fend off the agents of the State so that he can die in familiar surroundings. A couple of these pieces start as stories but disappoint when the elements of story turn out to be pretense, window-dressing for tedious diatribes against American consumer culture and government intrusion in private life.

Was the typical small town in west Kentucky peopled by such strong, loving, gentle, hard – working, hard – fighting, amazingly forgiving, people? Wasn’t TOBACCO ROAD about just this sort of place? That was written by a disdainful man. Wendell Berry looks lovingly, admiringly, at a kind of life long gone. It’s not just nostalgia: these qualities of work, integrity, respect for others’ privacy, and communal responsibility aren’t dependent on a place and time.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Leadership in a Church: Message for bulletin

(I wrote this as part of a promotion for our church's upcoming "Ministry Fair" when adults sign up for groups and classes.)

Do you know anyone at St. James who should be a leader?

You probably know someone who leads without being “in charge.”

That’s the kind of leader that God intends for every member of the Church to be. God’s intention shows as early as Exodus, when He promises to make a kingdom of priests. Jesus says leaders are those serve others, and calls all of us to be leaders in that way: Whoever would be first must be last . . . ; You also are to wash one another’s feet…; Do you love me? Feed my sheep… . Paul develops a metaphor from Jesus, that the Church is Christ’s body, and he tells how every member of that body has different functions and gifts – of service, teaching, mercy, and giving aid. [New associate rector Wallace Marsh] preached his first sermon on living into our baptism from the text, There is one body and one Spirit, one faith, one hope, one baptism [but] each part, working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Early this summer, Karen compared faith to a dance – something we each could do in private, but, she reflected, it loses something without other dancers, musicians, and spectators.

I know such leaders in our Church. What moved them out of the pews and into active involvement with the church? They’ve answered at retreat and on our Facebook discussion page. For many, it was a personal invitation as simple as, “You should join us as an usher.” For others, it grew out of involvement in a study group. All tell how the Church became more important to them as they became more important to the ministry of the Church. I spoke to cooks, money raisers, “fun” organizers, altar guild, lectors, chalicists, finance experts, a librarian, a teacher, volunteer gardeners, prayer group participants. Many serve on the Vestry.

Do you know anyone at St. James who should be a leader?
How about YOU?