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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Homage to Homage
I’ve often done things backwards, not on purpose, just out of dumb bad luck. I saw Star Wars: Episode I before A New Hope because that’s what was on TV at the time—I’m not sure if my Star Wars fan credentials will ever be entirely accepted. Yes, I should have been better inoculated. Similarly, I read and loved Julian Barnes’s “Homage to Hemingway” before I read the strange Hemingway story “Homage to Switzerland.” I loved the Barnes story, clipped it out in magazine form to put between the pages of a Hemingway collection, next to the story it is modeled after. Only then did I read the original.
Hemingway’s “Homage” is broken into three vignettes that describe three versions of an American man in a quiet Swiss town waiting for a train from Saint Maurice, the Simplon-Orient Express, that will take him to Paris, where he will continue on to America. Each time, the train is late. Each time, the man casts about to entertain himself, starting with the waitresses. Needless to say it rarely goes well. Each vignette starts with the same train again being late, and the same type of American man waiting for the train, but the train never comes, and the American man never quite becomes satisfied.
“Homage to Switzerland,” is, titularly anyway, an homage to a place. The Swiss train station is quiet and bucolic. The snow falls softly. The cafe is quaint and well-lit, and there is a full wine list, and a table of contemplative porters. The waitresses, as Barnes notes in his own story, are honest and true. (How misogynistic is Hemingway, is the question that everyone always asks, and in the Barnes story people are asking it. Hemingway’s waitresses have no names, after all. But Barnes reminds us that the moral waitress never succumbs to vulgar flirtations—and furthermore the American man only chauvinistically irritates her in the first iteration of his time at the train station. By the second vignette he makes only a half-hearted romantic attempt. By the third, the waitress is nearly absent, and the American man leaves her alone.)
In the third vignette, Hemingway’s story becomes an homage to a person as well, as the American man consummates a conversation that in the other vignettes fails to materialize. He has a coffee with a lonely Swiss professor, who joins him at his table and asks if he is by chance a member of the National Geographic Society. The American man isn’t, but his father was—his father, who committed suicide the year before (“‘I am sure his loss was a blow to science as well as to his family.’ ‘Science took it awfully well.’”) The professor reminisces on various National Geographic magazine covers that were of particular scientific interest, but the one that the American man remembers is his father’s old favorite, a panorama of the Sahara Desert. It was from 15 years ago, and the professor is incredulous that the American man shouldn’t fancy the newer ones better.
There is an irony to Hemingway’s homage here. It’s an homage to Switzerland, certainly, but also as in, Good riddance. He’s done with all that. The old porters, the unwilling waitresses. No one understanding his jokes (A David Belasco joke, for instance, and a Fitzgerald one too, not much different than the Belasco joke that F. Scott writes into the library scene in The Great Gatsby). America awaits, but it’s an empty America, and the train is always late.
America is where Julian Barnes’s “Homage to Hemignway” ends up—the story of a writing teacher, giving classes first in a European countryside cabin, then somewhere in the Alps, finally on the dusty plains of Iowa. At each class, the writing teacher brings up Hemingway, particularly Hemingway’s strange formally inventive three-part story that plays with space and time, to try to show his students a different side of Hemingway, underscoring the fact that what we think we know about the man, what we take from his life and manner, affects so much of how we read his fiction. Hemingway is muscular and swaggering in the same way that America is (isn’t it?), where the writing teacher ultimately arrives: “It had been a good idea to come to this Midwestern campus, to remind himself of the normality and ordinariness of America. From a distance, the temptation was always to see it as a country which every so often went mad on power, and gave itself over to the violent outbursts of a steroid abuser.” Hemingway is America, and America is Hemingway, and an homage to one is in part an homage to the other.
I’ve always felt strongly that Hemingway and Barnes are right about this, that we feel strongly about places in the same way that we feel about people. That for Hemingway, Simplon and Paris are as alive as friends or family, and the cities and countries that he loves are well-defined and multi-textured as a human soul. It’s the way that we remember places by the chance encounters they’ve encompassed, the human fixtures, the conversations while waiting for trains. (Who needs a planet of Wookies, aesthetically, when one has Chewbacca?) I doubt that there’s a connection—the title isn’t particularly unique—but I’ve always loved George Orwell’s booklength Homage to Catalonia as well, Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War. In the opening, where Orwell introduces his arrival to Spain, he shows us the country through a meeting with an Italian militiamen, tall and strapping, with whom he shares a strong handshake and an immediate sense of comradeship. The Italian was reading a map, and Orwell felt as if they would die for each other. “I mention this Italian militiaman because he has stuck vividly in my memory,” Orwell writes. “He is bound up with all my memories of that period of the war—the red flags in Barcelona, the gaunt trains full of shabby soldiers creeping to the front, the grey war-stricken towns further up the line . . .” Orwell never sees the man again, but Catalonia stays with him.
Mark Chiusano’s collection of stories, Marine Park, will be published by Penguin Press in July 2014. His stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review,and The Huffington Post, among other places.