Rereading Hemingway

I owe my fate, in part, to Ernest Hemingway. Without him I would not be the writer that I am, or for that matter, the reader. I would not believe in the importance of serious fiction or in those charged moments when we discover ourselves in a book.

At twenty-one, like so many undergraduates, I wanted to be a writer. I was, then, an English major at Yale with a taste for pulp. I liked science fiction and fantasy: stories at a far remove from my life. One September afternoon, when I could no longer bring myself to study Milton, I went to Cross Campus Library to look for something fun to read. On a whim, I brought A Farewell to Arms home with me. Lying on my bed in the shifting, green light that filtered through a wind-blown maple outside my window, I opened the book and began to read:

"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."

This was writing unlike any I had encountered. The language was spare, yet resonant. If I closed my eyes, I could see the river, see the troops marching beneath the trees

Reading had always been a means of escape for me. Hemingway offered an alternate model. He wrote from the principle that he must cause the reader to share an unnamed emotion, whether love, loss or fear. This, he asserted, is the essential transaction between writer and reader. If the writer does not write truthfully, from experience, the reader well be diverted but not moved, and a chance at communion will be wasted.

I put down A Farewell to Arms changed. I wanted to reach others as Hemingway had reached me. To do this, I realized, I would have to face my experience. I could not look away.

A year and half later I was back in Maine. I had spent the time since graduation in Hollywood with nothing to show for the experience except debts.

Then, on Memorial Day, 1988, I went hiking with two friends in the mountains of Grafton Notch State Park. That night, while camped near the summit of a wooded hill, we were struck by lightning. The bolt hit a fir-tree at the edge of the clearing and traveled through the roots. I received a severe shock and a burn the size of a quarter on my side. My friend, sleeping in a tent nearer the tree, was not so lucky: the current nearly electrocuted him. We were miles from the nearest road, one thousand feet up. I spent five hours alone with my friend, thinking he would die, while his brother fetched help.

My friend did not die. But he spent a week in the hospital, and doctors told us that his heart had stopped when the lightning struck. He recovered fully, except that he had no memory of that night. I, however, could not forget it.

After the accident, I came home and began to reread A Farewell to Arms. I recalled a paragraph in which the narrator described the experience of being wounded by mortar fire:

"Through the other noise I heard a cough, then came the chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh—then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake

Again and again I read this passage, so close was it to the sensation of being hit by lightning. There were differences, yes; I was never seriously wounded, but I had come close to death, and the emotion was the same. It was as though I had discovered the transcript of my own trauma.

A Farewell to Arms is not a perfect book, nor is it my favorite among Hemingway's works. Still, it represents for me the necessity of serious writing in our lives. Emotion speaks to emotion. Art communicates before it is understood.

I learned this anew when I tried to write an account of my experience and found that, unconsciously, I was borrowing Hemingway's language. It couldn't be helped. By then it was my language, too.