Obsessive reading and podcasts

Summer has finally arrived in Cornwall, and I’ve finished teaching for a few months; consequently I can write about a wider range of matters than usual.

My last post about obsessive, even addictive behaviour among book acquirers and readers elicited a number of comments, most of them from avid readers who recognised the traits I described. Claire (of the Word by Word book blog), however, provided a corrective: addiction is perhaps an inappropriate term to have used. I was picking up on Belinda’s use (in her Bii’s Books blog) of the term ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ to refer to a book-buying splurge she indulged in after her #TBR20 project ended. No offence was intended when I likened bookish obsessions to addiction; I should have been more circumspect with my imagery.

Today I’d like to depart in another direction from my usual run of thoughts about what I’ve been reading. I’ve been leafing through an old notebook – one of my obsessions also noted in my previous post: stockpiling and writing random findings about books and culture in these notebooks; I suppose they’re my equivalent of those 18th and 19th century ‘commonplace books’.

I tend to keep a record in these notebooks of peripheral literary/cultural material: newspaper reviews, online articles and so on. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on such matters, especially when walking to work – just over half an hour is perfect for most podcasts. I looked up what I’d written in this one from three years ago. Here’s what I found in this notebook’s entries from June 2012.

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

One of my favourite literary podcasts is this one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC): Writers & Company, hosted with intelligent warmth by Eleanor Wachtel (link to its website HERE). The focus is on good writing from all over the world. Recent episodes (all available from the website) include interviews with Irishman Donal Ryan, André Aciman (Francophone Egyptian-Turkish-American), and a series entitled ‘Reimagining the Balkans’: writers, film-makers and others who are expressing what’s happened since the terrible wars of the nineties. Three years ago this is what I’d single out from my notes on what I’d been listening to from this podcast:

Edward St Aubyn (broadcast 25 March 2012), the Melrose novels. Why listen to such podcasts? They throw light on what one has already read, enriching that experience, through Ms Wachtel’s deceptively soft-toned but incisive, probing interviews with authors of books. They also provide recommendations for what to read in the future. It took me over a year to get around to reading these astonishingly raw, witty, viscerally disturbing novels, but they were a searing, brilliant read.

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

A broadcast of 22 April 2012 featured an interview with Hermione Lee on the subject of Edith Wharton, about whom she’d written a biography a few years earlier (there’s an excellent review of it by Hilary Spurling in the Guardian HERE). I found this podcast interesting because of my passion for the work of Henry James, with whom the scary New York socialite had an intriguingly weird relationship.

Next I’d written about the BBC Radio 4 podcast of its long-running cultural programme ‘In Our Time’. There’s a link to its homepage HERE, where its complete archive can be accessed; this can be broken down into categories: Culture (including literature), Philosophy, Religion, Science. Recent topics covered range from Prester John to Utilitarianism; the Lancashire cotton famine during the American Civil War to the poetry of Tagore and the fiction of Fanny Burney.

The item I’d listened to in June 2012 was broadcast on 14 Oct. 2010; it was on the topic of ‘Sturm und Drang’: the short-lived German proto-Romantic aesthetic movement of the late 18th century initiated by Klinger and adopted by Herder, Goethe (his ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which I’d recently read in June 2012), Lessing, etc. It raised some curious points about masculinity and suicide, among others.

The host, Melvyn Bragg, is sometimes lampooned in the British media for his implausibly luxuriant hair and adenoidal northern English accent. This probably says more about the snobbish prejudices of the English media than it does about Lord Bragg.

Another time I’ll try to recommend some other book-based podcasts that I’ve found rewarding to listen to. They’re the audio equivalent of book blogs, I suppose. When they feature author interviews, however, they often provide insights unavailable to those of us who simply write about our own responses to what we read.

I’ve dug out these notebook-archived pieces deliberately because they still resonate with me when I re-read them now, and attest to the quality of content in these programmes that persists today. I’d urge you to investigate and subscribe to the podcasts mentioned here. They’re all free.

 

 

Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’: a correction

I’ve received a comment from John Beall pointing out an error in my post of Oct. 7 2013 on the Ernest Hemingway story ‘Cat in the Rain’. I wrote there originally that it was first published in Paris in a collection called in our time in 1924, and subsequently in New York the following year. Had I read the Wikipedia entries on Hemingway, the story and its publication history more attentively I’d have avoided this mistake; ‘Cat’ did not appear in the Paris edition. Here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on the story collection (I’ve removed hyperlinks and footnotes, and amended the wording slightly):

In Our Time is the first collection of short stories written by Ernest Hemingway, published by Boni & Liveright in New York in 1925. A[n] earlier edition titled in our time (without capitals), had been published a year earlier in Paris, in 1924. The Parisian edition consisted of only 32 pages, printed in a small print-run of 170 copies, [and] contained vignettes that Hemingway would use as interchapters for the expanded 1925 New York edition of In Our Time. He rewrote two of the earlier vignettes, “A Very Short Story” and “The Revolutionist, into short stories for the New York collection.

The entry goes on (I’ve amended and abridged it slightly, as indicated):

Publication history

Bill Bird’s Parisian high-end printing company, Three Mountains Press, founded in the early 1920s, employed Pound as editor who sought to “keep the series strictly modern”.Their aim was to publish well-produced limited private editions by a handful of modern authors, including Pound himself, and Joyce, in small print-runs. Hemingway, who was unpublished, gave Bird the manuscript of vignettes that Hemingway titled Blank, which he later titled in our time from the Book of Common Prayer. When American editors queried him about the lower-case title, Hemingway said it was “silly and affected”.

 

The book was first published in Paris in 1924…in a 38-page volume. A printing mistake ruined many of the copies so only 170 of the 300 printed were released for sale…The volume included 18 vignettes written the year before, presented as untitled chapters. Because the pieces were meant to convey a sense of journalism or news, Bird designed a distinctive dust-jacket showing a collage of newspaper articles…

 

The American edition of In Our Time was to include a collection of short stories as well as the vignettes printed in the Parisian edition. Most of the stories were written in 1924. Sixteen of the vignettes from the earlier Parisian edition were kept as numbered interchapter sketches; two had been published in his first book “Three Stories and 10 poems”; two were from in our time; six had been published in literary magazines. Four had never been published before… Boni & Liveright published the book in 1925, with a print-run of 1335 copies, costing $2 each…

 

The volume as originally published began with two stories linked thematically, set in Michigan, introducing young Nick Adams: “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”. “The End of Something” is a story about Nick as a teenager breaking up with a girl; the next story, “Three-Day Blow”, has Nick and a friend Bill spending three days at a lake, drinking and talking. In “The Battler”, as he returns home from WWI, Nick meets a prize-fighter. This is followed by “A Very Short Story”, a WWI love story set in Italy; “Soldier’s Home” is set in Kansas; and “The Revolutionist” again is set in Italy. Three marriage stories follow: “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”, “Cat in the Rain” and “Out of Season”…

My thanks to John for pointing out this inaccuracy. I shall amend the original post and remove the error.

Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ – a critique

Ernest Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’ was first published in New York in 1925 in the collection In Our Time.  Hemingway dedicated the book to his wife Hadley.  It was inspired by a visit he made with his wife to Rapallo in 1923, where their friends Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy rented a villa.  The Hemingways were in the second year of their marriage and of being based in Paris.

The story begins:  ‘They were the only two Americans stopping at the hotel.’  They don’t know any of the other guests; the narrative emphasises, that is, their isolation – they have only each other.  Their hotel room faces a scene described with Hemingway’s typically unadorned style; objects are singled out with minimal comment : ‘There were big palms and green benches in the public garden.’  The sentences are mostly simple in structure, usually just one or two phrases or clauses, tacked together with the conjunction ‘and’.   Adjectives are rare, and when used are usually monosyllabic and plain, even banal: ‘big’, ‘green’,‘bright’.   The atmosphere created is therefore neutral, even uninviting: ‘Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.’

 

Rapallo (photo: D. Papalini via WikiC)

Rapallo (photo: D. Papalini via WikiC)

Rapallo is never named, but it’s clearly an Italian seaside resort very like it, for ‘Italians came from a long way off to look at the war monument’, which was ‘made of bronze and glistened in the rain.’  This is the only noun so far that is out of the ordinary, and even this ‘monument’ is presented unemphatically.  Its significance seems to be to highlight the seriousness with which the Italians took their recent history, and to show how committed they were to honouring the memory of those who’d died in World War I (they don’t just come to ‘look at’ the monument – they ‘look up at it).  This commitment contrasts with the presentation of the two self-obsessed American characters, who now appear.

The style in these opening three paragraphs reflects what Hemingway had been developing in his work, further encouraged by his mentors in Paris for the past two years – Pound and Gertrude Stein in particular: pare everything down to its essence in prose with rhythmic syntactic patterns and frequent repetition.  This involved striving for what he described in his memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast (which I reviewed here recently): ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ and ‘not describe’.  He elaborated this ‘theory’ thus:

[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

in paragraph three, then, the word ‘rain’ (also used in the story’s title) or ‘raining’ appears five times, and it recurs five more times in the rest of this story which contains just over 1100 words in total.  Other words from this semantic field resonate throughout the story: ‘dripping’, ‘wet’, ‘umbrella’, and so on.  Many other carefully selected words and phrases are repeated in these opening paragraphs: ‘room’, ‘sea’, ‘public garden’, ‘war monument’; several reappear later.  Hemingway is intent on foregrounding the few solid things that are significant; everything else is omitted, and there are few abstract nouns.  This is his famous ‘iceberg’ method, where what is visible and solid in the story is considerably less substantial than what lies beneath the surface.

The other most-repeated expressions indicate where the symbolic and emotional focus in the story lies:  ‘cat’ is used in the title and twelve times in the story; the childish diminutive ‘kitty’ is used by the wife seven times.

Photo: Cindy2 via WikiC

Photo: Cindy2 via WikiC

She is referred to anonymously as ‘the American wife’ or ‘his wife’ seven times and even more patronisingly as ‘(the American) girl’ four times, whereas George is named eight times, only being called ‘the husband’ twice; his inertia is emphasised through being repeatedly described as lying on the bed – ‘read’ or ‘reading’ appears seven times, ‘book’ twice, ‘bed’ five times.  Only the wife physically moves about, which she does frequently and restlessly; George’s most strenuous act is to put his book down briefly and to ‘shift his position in the bed’.

The story proper starts with this ‘girl’ looking out of their window at the rain; presumably she’s bored, languid and listless – they’re trapped in the room by the weather, but we sense that her sense of entrapment goes deeper.  When she spots a ‘poor kitty’ cowering under a table outside,  sheltering from the rain, George offers half-heartedly to fetch it.  The wife goes, leaving him reading on his bed.   ‘Don’t get wet’, he says, unsympathetic, ungallant.

The hotel proprietor, by  way of contrast, is kind to her as she leaves the building.  The narrator repeats variants of the verb ‘liked’ seven times in quick succession– ‘She liked the way he wanted to serve her’; his generosity of spirit contrasts with George’s brusqueness and inattentiveness.  A maid appears, kindly sent by the proprietor, with an umbrella to shelter her as she searches in the downpour for the cat, but it has gone.  When she returns inside, ‘Something felt very small and tight inside the girl’ – possibly the first verbal hint at her true physical and emotional condition.  The proprietor bows to her and she feels strangely important.  There’s something childish about Hemingway’s depiction of her – and about George.

Back in their room they talk, or the wife does, in desultory fashion.

‘I wanted it so much,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.’

George was reading again.

The wife turns her attention to her reflection in the mirror, and again is shown as immature through the language of the narrative; first she suggests that she should grow her hair so as to look less like ‘a boy’ (not ‘man’) – a look of which she repeatedly says she’s ‘tired’.  George says, seemingly sincerely, that she looks ‘pretty darn nice’; here again the language is hardly adult or sophisticated.  The wife’s tirade continues petulantly: she adds that she also ‘wants’ her own table to eat at with her own silver and candles.  She’s possibly craving the stability and security of a nest for a longed-for baby, but she also states this desire for tangible, domestic objects in the absence of warmth and affection from George – a factor he seems oblivious to.  She says that she wants it to be spring, to brush her hair and a ‘kitty’ (suddenly remembered again) and ‘some new clothes’, and she sounds (to George and to the reader) irritatingly pettish and girlish, but also discontented and frustrated.  His dismissive response, however, is to snap: ‘Oh, shut up and get something to read.’  And he returns to his own reading. End of Part One of this critique. 

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Part Two of this critique is found here: it offers a closer look at how ‘Cat in the Rain’ might be interpreted, in the light of a parallel scene in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife – her novel based on Hemingway and Hadley’s life in twenties Paris, my review of which is found here.