Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book 1 of 52: Death in the Afternoon

My New Year's resolution is to read a book a week throughout 2012. If I read it, I might as well write  a review, right?

I didn't really have any expectations when Carol brought me Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon as an unabridged audiobook from the library. I love Hemingway: the terseness that, in Death... sometimes approaches self caricature; the depth of thought and conviction beneath the simplicity of the story; the richly textured world his characters inhabit.

I never realized that I love Hemingway's sense of humor. It may be that, in his other works I've read, the humor is overshadowed by his seriousness, by the great man trying to be great. I was prepared for Death... to be a book about bullfighting, but it's really a self- and critic-mocking books about life and performance, and where the two coincide to create art.

The highlight of the book for me revolves around the "old woman," a character that Hemingway creates in the midst of this 'non-fiction' book to stand in place of the bullfighting amateur to whom he may impart his wisdom on bulls, bullfights and bullfighters (and the various venereal disease to which they are prone). At her insistence, he weaves into his book on bullfighting, stories, digressions on art and literature (and the flaws of its critics), and his views on courage.

The most important lesson for us to take from the bullfight is the pride of the matador. A matador deserves to be applauded if he performs all parts of the bullfight honestly and to the best of his ability; we should not hold it against a matador if he is too fat to face the bull in a stately manner, nor if he is too slow of foot to make brilliant passes with the muleta. If he tries truly and passionately and sincerely then what he has done will always be "very fine."

And that is precisely what Hemingway has given us: a very fine book; a nonfiction that is equal parts American essay in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau and travel writing; a meta(non?)fiction that deconstructs our criticism of its flaws even as they form; a novel through digression that presages works like Nabokov's Pale Fire. It's been quite a while since I enjoyed a book this much.

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