Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.
Something like this has recently happened to Ernest Hemingway, whose only living son, Patrick, and his grandson, Seán, have collaborated on a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s great novel of World War I, that includes some of Hemingway’s early drafts as well as 47 versions of the book’s ending. This “Hemingway Library Edition” is, as these sorts of things go, relatively respectful and old-school. For one thing, unlike recent “book apps” of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this edition has been published in an old-fashioned hardcover format. It also presents the full, original novel without intrusive footnotes or in-text commentary, leaving the variant versions for a series of appendices at the end of the book.
Thus, in of itself, this new edition, while not especially illuminating, is in no real way pernicious except perhaps in that it represents yet another effort to cash in on the Hemingway name, which has already given us three (lousy) posthumous novels, two (somewhat better) non-fiction books, and shelves full of lame compendia of Hemingwayiana with titles like Dateline: Toronto and Hemingway on Fishing. Papa himself said in a Paris Review interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Hemingway, for all his faults, possessed a first-rate shit detector, and one wishes he had passed the apparatus on to his progeny.
What is a little disturbing about this new edition is how neatly it dovetails with the proliferation of literary ephemera now attached to almost any modern publishing enterprise. Look inside the original edition of most novels published before, say, World War II, and you will find a title page, some information on the publisher, perhaps a brief inscription or dedication, and a novel. Today, novels are sandwiched between pages of disingenuous blurbs, excerpted reviews, extended author bios, author interviews, reading group guides, lists of further reading, and, in some cases, whole chapters of the author’s next book. Acknowledgements pages, once brisk, business-like paragraphs noting some genuine debt of scholarship or financial assistance, have expanded to essay-length Oscar Night speeches listing everyone remotely associated with the book from the agent’s receptionist to the author’s childhood buddies and companion animals. This doesn’t even touch on the extra-literary ephemera of author webpages, book trailers, online Q&As, Facebook posts, how-I-wrote-that-book craft essays, radio appearances, book-group appearances, and reading tours.
There’s nothing truly new in all this – authors have been shilling for their own work since the early days of type – but as readers’ appetite for extended chunks of uninterrupted gray print declines, writers and publishers seem compelled to add ever noisier bells and whistles. For living writers this can mean anything from investing in a cool-looking website and writing mindless what-was-on-my-iPod-while-I-wrote-my-novel pieces for magazines to dressing up a back-cover bio with references to every quirky-sounding job they’ve ever held. For dead authors, this means remaking an old classic, either by asking some famous living person to write a new introduction arguing for the classic’s continued relevance or by providing “new” material to entice readers such as lists of rejected titles or rough drafts of well-known passages. Either way, the novel itself, the thing all the other stuff is supposed to be talking about, can get lost in all the salesmanship and curatorial noise.
Of course, the noise isn’t always incidental to the work itself. For a writing course I taught in the mid-1990s, I assigned two versions of a Raymond Carver story, one called “The Bath,” published in an early book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the second, a much longer rewrite of the same story called “A Small Good Thing,” published years later in Cathedral. In both versions, a little boy is killed in a traffic accident just after his mother has ordered him a birthday cake, and the baker, enraged when the woman never picks up the cake, makes menacing calls to the mother about her son. The first story, however, ends with the baker’s last menacing call, while in the later, longer version the boy’s parents confront the baker, who comforts them with an offer of warm bread straight from the oven.
In class, I posited that the first version, written while Carver was still an active alcoholic, represented his bleak vision of a world of senseless evil while the later version represented his vision as a recovered alcoholic of a world in which one could confront evil, make sense of it, and even draw sustenance from it. I was pretty pleased with my critical acumen until a few years later when D.T. Max revealed in the New York Times Magazine that, in fact, “A Small Good Thing” was Carver’s original version of the story, which his editor Gordon Lish had radically revised and retitled, cutting the story by more than a third and eliminating entirely the redemptive confrontation with the baker.
Not only was my analysis of the two stories wrong, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of Carver’s life and work. In 2007, when The New Yorker published online a version of Carver’s story “Beginners,” showing how Lish had bludgeoned it down to the much shorter story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that wasn’t literary ephemera at all. The edited version of “Beginners,” with its strike-throughs and expurgated passages, was a heartbreaking work of art in of itself, giving voice not only to Carver’s artistry but to his poignant reliance on a powerful editor who, against Carver’s will, forcibly remade a great writer’s work into his own.
Though both men may have been depressive alcoholics, Ernest Hemingway was no Raymond Carver, and his editor, Max Perkins, thankfully suffered no Lish-like delusions of grandeur. Thus, while the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms offers an occasionally charming glance at the private scratch pad of a great writer as well as some mildly informative insight into how the book came into being, its revelations are several ticks on the Richter scale below earth-shaking. It is fun, for instance, to know that Hemingway, who thought about titles only after he finished a book, considered so many truly godawful ones in this case. Would you want to read a war novel called Love Is One Fervent Fire? Or Death Once Dead? Or, God forbid, One Event Happeneth to Them All? Evidently, Hemingway considered all these and many more even worse ones before making a note to himself, “Shitty titles,” and going with A Farewell to Arms.
In the case of the novel’s famously problematic ending, after plowing through all 47 fragments, I found myself preferring a slightly longer ending Hemingway used in the first published version, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. That ending, which fills the reader in on the later lives of several of the main characters, struck me as being more in keeping with the elegiac poeticism of some of the book’s finest passages. But in the final analysis, who really cares? A Farewell to Arms, which I hadn’t read in years, is such a marvelous, eye-opening book about daring to love and be loved in the midst of senseless slaughter that it renders such critical quibbles pointless.
That’s the problem with all this literary ephemera, the websites and the “P.S.” sections, the critical editions and scholarly footnotes: they divert attention from the work itself. When the work isn’t very good, when it’s just so-so, the diversions can be welcome. For instance, a few years back, I enjoyed Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, but when things got slow, as they did for me a few times, it was fun to zip over to her website and check out the insanely great book trailer, featuring a man’s trousered fingers walking around a miniature apartment while a voice-over warbles, “Your fingers are just fingers, my fingers wear pants. They walk and they talk and they poop and they dance.” But when a book is as good as A Farewell to Arms, a wise editor should know when to get out of the way and let the work stand on its own.
So, do yourself a favor: skip the Hemingway Library Edition and find a cheap paperback of A Farewell to Arms. If you need some historical context, you can read John Keegan’s excellent history, The First World War, or Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. There are a bunch of Hemingway biographies out there, but you can start with Carlos Baker’s classic Hemingway. Or, you could just skip all that and read the book.
The more I learn about World War II, the more it fascinates me. I feel like most people have a vague, middle-ground understanding of the war. Two generations removed from the war, I have trouble fathoming both the global scale of the conflict and the impact it had on hundreds of millions of individuals. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more. I also realized that I ought to know more about the war that both of my grandfathers fought in, one in Europe and one in the Pacific.Wanting to get an overview, I opted for John Keegan’s The Second World War, which turned out to be an ideal choice in that it was the broad, readable overview of the war that I had been looking for. (I would later read Keegan’s history of the First World War and review it.) But after Keegan, I wanted to delve into the war more, to take a narrower view and learn about some of the hundreds of smaller conflicts that, taken together, comprised the war. I turned to Rick Atkinson, not least because I had the chance to meet him twice and because I read and enjoyed his book, In the Company of Soldiers, about being embedded in Iraq.An Army at Dawn is the first book in Atkinson’s trilogy about the liberation of Europe during WWII. This book covered North Africa, while the forthcoming books will cover Italy and France. An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer in 2003 and deservedly so. I don’t think I’ve ever read a history book that flowed so well. The book is an incredible marriage of storytelling and historical fact, so that the reader feels both entertained and very well informed. Atkinson relied on battle memoirs and letters from soldiers to augment traditional, official sources and it shows. The war’s narrative is textured at every turn with the words of the men who were there, providing an insight I’ve not gotten from other history books. Along with using the men’s words directly, Atkinson also combines these collective observations in his own way to paint a vivid picture of the goings on. An example:The rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped for the first time in two days. A monstrous, blood-orange moon drifted behind the breaking clouds. Backlit by desultory shell fire, British victualers darted up with tins of cold plum pudding for men who spooned it down behind their pathetic fieldstone parapets. Flares rose to define the dead.That scene occurred near Longstop Hill as the conflict raged back and forth in Tunisia. We all know about World War II, but beyond the most familiar aspects of the War – the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust – how much do we really know? For me, it didn’t go much deeper than that, but as Atkinson makes so vividly clear, the world once watched North Africa, and battles like Kesserine Pass, Mareth, and El Guettar made headlines. To me, though, the book is powerful in that it goes beyond just knowing when and where and how these battles happened, it gives us a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the men who were there. In that sense I found this book both incredibly informative while also conveying the unfathomable (to me in this day and age) emotions of war.An Army at Dawn was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’ll certainly read Atkinson’s next two books when they come out, but in the meantime, as I look at my queue of books to read, I see that only Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is about WWII. I need to read more books about World War II. Any suggestions?
Lisa is a bookseller from Colorado whose eclectic tastes are appreciated here at The Millions.Non-FictionThe Elements of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell 1938-1978: In this delightful volume English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and New Yorker editor William Maxwell’s relationship blossoms from professional correspondence to a deep friendship. The two never actually met in real life, but their love for one another is apparent in their incredibly erudite and often quite funny years-long correspondence.The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary Lovell: I’m not usually one for biographies, but The Sisters is a thoroughly engrossing tale of these Bright Young Things of England’s interwar years. The five Mitford sisters ran the gamut from Nazi sympathizer to best selling novelist. Lovell’s book is heavily researched, but she maintains a light tone throughout, which makes it enjoyable for those of us who prefer to take our history with a bit of gossip and froth.It Must’ve Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten, the inimitable gourmand, former Harvard Lampoon editor and lawyer returns with a sequel to his first collection of food essays, The Man Who Ate Everything. Many of these pieces appeared first in Vogue and the New Yorker. Steingarten loves food and the sociology and mythology behind the art of eating. He is, most definitely, a latter-day Liebling. Delightful!The First World War by John Keegan: This book seems to be the definitive volume on WWI. It is an all-consuming narration on all aspects of WWI. Incredibly moving and never dull, it is essential reading, I think, as it profoundly informs the politics and culture of the world today.FictionMadeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: More of a prose poem than a novel, this 2004 NBA nominee is a time and space bending fantasia populated by a young girl in a catatonic state, a photographer turned pornographer, a fat woman who sprouts wings and a woman who takes on the shape of a cello. Absolutely spell-binding.Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt: This most recent offering from A.S. Byatt, seemingly the most erudite and sensual of all women writing today, consists of five stories, some of which were previously published in various publications. By turn haunting and dark, Byatt maintains her trademark ability to effortlessly blend fairy tales into the everyday world.The Courage Consort: Three Novellas – Michel Faber: Michel Faber seems to be one of the most dynamic authors writing today. Coming off of his huge, Dickensian novel of last year, The Crimson Petal and the White, he returns with these three somewhat surreal, incredibly entertaining novellas.The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This is the best novel (or collection of novellas, I suppose) that I think I’ve ever read. Words cannot even begin to describe the stories here. The most imaginative, magnificent, gorgeous words I’ve read in a very long time. I didn’t want to ever leave Maqroll!Thanks for that, Lisa. We’ve got a few more year end lists on the way, and then I’ll be back at the helm.
My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
I’ve returned from my trip home with lots of booty. Many of these books have been added to my reading queue, which has swelled to encompass the entire length of the shelf on which it sits. Time to get reading. For Christmas I received a couple of military histories by the venerable brit, John Keegan, The First World War and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. I’m excited about both of these. I know little of the details of World War I beyond that it was a gruelling and brutal trench war. I think I mostly know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school. The second is interesting because the issue of intelligence seems to have recently become much more important to national defense than firepower and bombs. I also was gifted a copy of John McPhee’s book-length panegyric to the American shad (The Founding Fish as it were), a topic that would shatter me with boredom were it not for McPhee’s otherworldly ability to write engaging, entertaining prose about any topic under the sun. My mother continued her tradition (one that has proved rewarding over the years) of giving me a serendipitous art book. This year’s selection was Juan Munoz. I know next to nothing about Munoz, but, as is often the case with these art books that my mother gives me, I’m sure I will suddenly notice his work everywhere and by the year’s end he will have become one of my favorite artists. My birthday rolled around, too, as it so often does, a mere eleven days after Christmas, and some more books came my way. You could count the number of poetry books I have on my book shelves on one hand, but with the addition of C. K. Williams National Book Award Finalist, The Singing, which includes one of my favorite poems from recent years, “The Hearth,” I now have one more. I also was presented with a copy of Scott McCloud’s fascinating meta-comic about comics and why we can’t help but love them, Understanding Comics. Hope everyone had a great holiday, as for me, I had a blast, but I’m happy to get back to the grind, so to speak. Expect more soon, I’ve got lots to write about at the moment.
As per family tradition the youngest generation gave out their gifts today, on Christmas Eve. Since I work at a book store, it’s hard not to give everyone books. So, once again, that’s what they got. My grandmother is a prodigious reader, and I owe much of my literary affinity to her. She instilled in me her depression-era view of books as the perfect escape into other worlds, and she divides the world into two categories: readers and non-readers, and she quite simply does not understand the latter group. I decided it would be fitting to introduce her to the latest Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. She was aware of him but had not read any of his books, so I gave her what is by most accounts his greatest book: Waiting for the Barbarians. My mother is an art teacher with a vast library of art books that I enjoy adding volumes to. One of her favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Gallery, which is located on the mall in downtown Washington, DC, and when I was doing my shopping, I found a really good-looking book about the museum and its solid modern collection called Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: 150 Works of Art. My father, a big fan of presidential politics, received The White House Tapes, a nine cd set of illuminating recordings of our presidents over the last fifty years. It also includes commentary and a radio documentary that ties the whole thing together. I gave my 24-year-old sister a novel called Dirt Music by an Australian writer named Tim Winton. I read it when it first came out and really liked it, and I know my sister loves well-crafted plot-driven novels, so it seemed like a good fit. I gave my 21-year-old brother Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s irreverent and enlightening memoir of the First Gulf War, which I guess is now that war’s official title. (aside: it’s interesting that wars first must receive temporary names, and then years or decades later when history has fully played itself out, a war receives its “official” name for the history books, and yet when a war is going on, there is no suggestion that it will one day be viewed in a larger historical context, perhaps spanning decades.) I gave my 20-year-old sister, who has lately become very interested in the latest and hottest contemporary fiction, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which has fast become an “essential” member of this genre. My 20 and 16-year-old brothers both received Schott’s Original Miscellany. At first, they seemed perplexed by the stark little white tome, but before long they were unable to pull themselves away from such tidbits as “The Deaths of Some Burmese Kings” and “Some Shakespearean Insults.” I was pleased to receive some excellent items as well, including John Keegan’s The First World War, and the unbelievable new Looney Tunes – The Golden Collection, from which I have already derived much enjoyment. I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday.Brief Programming NoteYou have probably noticed the modest redesign of the site. This was done mostly because I was bored, but I sincerely hope you will let me know if it is taking away from your enjoyment of The Millions. You have probably also noticed the Amazon category links to the left. This is so you can cut through the noise of Amazon’s main page and get to a book you might be looking for more quickly. I have also added the Reading Queue so that everyone will have a good idea of what is on my plate should you feel like reading along at home.