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Why We Should Keep Reading Hemingway

The Friday Review of Books

Liel Leibovitz
December 20, 2013

One of the central tragedies of our lives is that there are more books out there than we’d ever have time to read. But we’re not going gently into that good night: Each Friday, Liel Leibovitz will be reviewing a title lost in the never-ending book pile, robbed of well-merited attention, or deserving of a second look.

When asked, in the dog days of the 2008 presidential campaign, to reveal his favorite literary hero, John McCain named Robert Jordan, the silent and sinewy protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Few eyebrows were raised: the Navy pilot of Vietnam and the dynamiter of the Spanish Civil War were easy enough to conflate. And to readers and voters alike, both seemed like anachronisms.

What, after all, has Hemingway to teach us on the cusp of 2014? Young men today, left and right seem to agree, are mostly pajama-clad creatures; they have less in common with Papa and more with Nathaniel P., the sad cad of Brooklyn. Why, then, Hemingway?

The answer—or an answer, as definitive declarations are as antiquated these days as the #3 Royal Corona on which Hemingway typed his masterworks—comes in the form of an empathic, humorous, and illuminating little book from Clancy Sigal, himself a literary lion and an ambassador from an era in which having lived life was a prerequisite to feeling entitled to write about it.

A careful and creative reader of both Hemingway’s life and his books, Sigal is the opposite of that tenth-grade teacher who might’ve scarred you with The Old Man and the Sea—early on in the book, he quips that had “Hemingway known as a young man that his fate would be as a classroom Assigned Great Writer he’d probably have shot himself long before he did.” In Sigal’s generous resuscitation, Papa rises, a singular writer but also a deeply flawed man, as needy and emotional and dependent on female nurturing and affirmation as any a literary young man who’d ever haunted a Greenpoint coffee shop, Macbook Pro at hand and dreams of Michiko Kakutani at heart. Sigal recognizes that, and yet is enough of a great writer himself—and enough, I suppose, of a pre-post-modernist—to know that such weaknesses inform the great man but do not define him.

And so, a litany of imperfections pour forth: Hemingway the crusher of female dreams; Hemingway the casual peddler of anti-Semitic tropes; Hemingway in the throes of his greatest creation, Hemingway, the world-famous writer and celebrity. Sigal dutifully reports on all these, but when he’s guiding the reader through For Whom the Bell Tolls and other novels, we catch glimpses of the rare and rich soil on which all that hype was built. And we catch glimpses, too, of Sigal, a writer who knows, like few other living writers know so intimately and so confidentially, that when it comes down to it, the political and the sexual and the literary are really all the same thing. Sigal and Hemingway alike, then, may not be the type to don flannels, drink hot chocolate, and talk about privilege, but their chosen subjects and innate sensibilities make them very much men of our time.

Check out the rest of the Friday reviews here.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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