Sunday 1 April 2012

Choosing Books

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.
(Hemingway, on how to begin a story)

Doing full-time philosophy studies involves a goodly amount of reading, leaving me with less time (and notably, energy) for my 'own' reading.  Having realised that I need to be more selective, I recently did something that I rarely do:  I abandoned a novel.  It was Lancelot, by Walker Percy. I had never read anything by him and that was the first book on the shelf I saw by him, so I took it. But I quickly found it plodding, uninteresting and even downright silly.  Finally, about three-quarters of the way through, I made the principled decision to put it aside. Life is too short.

This decision was rewarded when I picked up Hemingway's A Moveable Feast from another shelf.  Its little, autobiographical vignettes from his years in Paris in the 1920's are exquisitely and movingly written, and are Hemingway at his very best. Having previously read The Green Hills of Africa, I think I can say that his memoirs are as great as his best novels.

The anecdotes of his writer-friends also living in Paris—Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and even Hilaire Belloc in a brief, amusing scene—are generally whimsical in style and fascinating, if not sometimes grotesque. But more poignant are his accounts of life in Paris itself, of his writing, of his wife and son. He reveals the man who had been deeply happy before he became restless. Once, after a long, lazy, carefree day, his wife remarked that they were lucky. '“We're always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.'

I was curious to learn today that Hemingway was a Catholic. He joined the Church before marrying his second wife. His work has never before struck me as particularly 'Catholic'―and perhaps this would be a misguided hermeneutic―but a glimpse is offered near the end of A Moveable Feast. When he relates how his first marriage was about to fall apart, he comments wistfully, 'All things truly wicked start from an innocence.' This is an deep paradox, and a Christian insight if there is one. Happiness, like all good gifts in life, does not guarantee its own continuation.


  1. Adam, have you seen the recent film Midnight in Paris? Hemingway is one of the characters, and his part is played superbly. It's a delightful film from start to finish.

    I did not know that he was a Catholic either. He wrote a short piece called "Today is Friday", about the centurion who stood at the Cross on Good Friday. It is worth tracking down.

    As for Percy, you should try The Moviegoer.

  2. I considered mentioning that I should have started with The Moviegoer, but then figured that someone would probably reply to tell me just that—and might give some more tips while he was at it. Which ended up working just as I planned … thanks for the recommendations!

  3. Great post, as delightful as finding out Charles Schulz being Catholic!

  4. It is also worth noting that this year in Canada, Ernest Hemingway's works entered the public domain. Under Canadian law copyright holds for only fifty years after the author's death. (Our neighbours to the south and in Europe have to wait an additional twenty years …)