Sunday, July 14, 2024

In Another Country

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
From Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms & Other Writings 1927-1932

Physical Therapy at Bath Hospital, 1918. Watercolor by English artist E. Horton [Sarah Elizabeth Roberts Horton] (1865–1959). WikiCommons.

On the night of July 8, 1918, Hemingway was hit by an Austrian trench mortar, followed almost immediately by a machine gun bullet. He was transported to the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, where he spent the next ten weeks recovering from mortar fragment wounds (“227 little devils”) in his legs and feet.
When Ernest Hemingway’s story collection Men Without Women appeared in 1927, Dorothy Parker—who considered him “the greatest living writer of short stories”—reviewed it for The New Yorker, with (she confessed) some concern. She had greatly admired Hemingway’s debut collection, In Our Time, and believed it had been too readily dismissed by some American critics:
Well, you see, Ernest Hemingway was a young American living on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, France; he had been seen at the Dome and the Rotonde and the Select and the Closerie des Lilas. He knew Pound, Joyce and Gertrude Stein. There is something a little well, a, little you-know—in all of those things. You wouldn’t catch Bruce Barton or Mary Roberts Rinehart doing them. No, sir.

And besides, In Our Time was a book of short stories. That’s no way to start off. People don’t like that; they feel cheated.
After The Sun Also Rises was published, however, Hemingway became the new thing. “He was praised, adored, analyzed, best-sold, argued about, and banned in Boston; all the trimmings were accorded him,” Parker wrote. “People got into feuds about whether or not his story was worth the telling. . . . They affirmed, and passionately, that the dissolute expatriates in this novel of ‘a lost generation’ were not worth bothering about; and then they devoted most of their time to discussing them.”
After all the high screaming about The Sun Also Rises, I feared for Mr. Hemingway’s next book. You know how it is—as soon as they all start acclaiming a writer, that writer is just about to slip downward. The littler critics circle like literary buzzards above only the sick lions.

So it is a warm gratification to find the new Hemingway book, Men Without Women, a truly magnificent work. It is composed of thirteen short stories, most of which have been published before. They are sad and terrible stories; the author’s enormous appetite for life seems to have been somehow appeased. . . . I do not know where a greater collection of stories can be found.

Ford Maddox Ford has said of the author, “Hemingway writes like an angel.” I take issue. . . . Hemingway writes like a human being.
The collection (which actually has fourteen stories) includes some of Hemingway’s best, most famous, and most anthologized works: “The Killers” (which Parker regarded as “one of the four great American short stories”), “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Undefeated,” “Fifty Grand,” and our current Story of the Week selection, “In Another Country.”

Set in and near a hospital in Italy during World War I, “In Another Country” portrays a group of soldiers struggling through experimental therapies using machinery to help them learn to use their mangled or wounded limbs. Soon after F. Scott Fitzgerald read the story in Scribner’s Magazine, he wrote to Hemingway that the opening was “one of the most beautiful prose sentences I’ve ever read,” and he reiterated his praise in another letter after Men Without Women appeared.

Not many stories receive the kind of attention accorded to the opening passages of “In Another Country”; you’ll find the first paragraph reprinted and dissected in any number of books on the writing of fiction. “This is a most peculiar way to begin a story,” writer and critic Dwight Macdonald wrote. “The first sentence is a perfect opening phrase, mannered enough to jolt the reader awake without making him go to see if the front door is locked.” Similarly, the essayist and editor Joseph Epstein noted in his book Literary Genius, “The narrative voice in this paragraph is almost entirely detached, and the effect is unnerving. The man telling this story has lived through a great deal. . . . He will only describe; he will not attempt to explain.” Referring to the story’s opening, Joan Didion remarked how “we sometimes forgot that this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think. The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source. If we bought into those sentences, we would see the troops marching along the road, but we would not necessarily march with them.”

Yet few homages to this story—or to any story—are as moving and memorable as an essay by Andre Dubus that appeared in 1997 in The Kenyon Review. Dubus begins by recalling one day in 1966, when he was teaching at the University of Iowa. He and his neighbor Kurt Vonnegut hosted Ralph Ellison, who was speaking at a conference, and during one of their conversations, Dubus mentioned that “In Another Country” was his favorite story—and Ellison proceeded to recite the opening paragraph, word for word, from memory. After Dubus moved to Bradford College in Massachusetts, he assigned the story in his classes for years. The first year, he recalled, “I understood more of it, because of what the students said, and also because of what I said: words that I did not know I would say.” Subsequently, “I did go into the classroom in the years after that, knowing exactly what I would say about the story.” He told his students, “In the center of this canvas is death”; at first it is “a story about young men who have lost that joy in being alive which is normal for young and healthy people”—and then death unexpectedly interferes yet again: “It is what no one can escape.”

In July 1986, Dubus had stopped on the highway one night to help two people, Luz Santiago and her brother Luis, stranded on the side of the road after their vehicle had collided with a motorcycle. (The cyclist had been drunk, fell off the cycle, left it there, and was later found wandering along the highway.) While Dubus was helping the Santiagos—they all believed the cyclist was trapped under the stranded vehicle—a passing car struck both Luis, killing him instantly, and Dubus, who pushed Luz out of the way at the last minute. One of Dubus’s legs had to be amputated, the other was paralyzed, and he never walked again.

After months of recovery and therapy, he began a reading group at his home for teenaged girls who, for various reasons, lived in protective custody in a nearby state-run facility. “One night in the fall of 1991, five years after my injury, I read ‘In Another Country’ to a few girls and a staff woman. This was the first time I had read it since my crippling,” and the story had changed for Dubus:
I saw something I had never seen in the story, and I do not know whether Hemingway saw it when he wrote it or later or never, but there it was, there it is, and with passion and joy I looked up from the book, looked at the girls’ faces and said: “This story is about healing too. The major keeps going to the machines. And he doesn’t believe in them. But he gets out of his bed in the morning. He brushes his teeth. He shaves. He combs his hair. He puts on his uniform. He leaves the place where he lives. He walks to the hospital, and sits at the machines. Every one of those actions is a movement away from suicide. Away from despair. Look at him. Three days after his wife has died, he is in motion. He is sad. He will not get over this. And he will get over this. His hand won’t be cured but someday he will meet another woman. And he will love her. Because he is alive.”
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Notes: “A bacco gli ufficiali!” is Hemingway’s misspelling of Abbasso gli ufficiali (Down with the officers!). After Hemingway sent the typescript to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, he followed up with a note that partially corrected the error: “the Italian should read ‘A basso gli ufficiali!’ I have forgotten my Italian or so mixed it with Spanish that I could not remember how to spell ‘bacco’ for the very good reason that there is no such word.” Arditi were the elite assault troops of the Royal Italian Army. The name translates as “daring” or “audacious.” Fratellanza and abnegazione are the Italian words for brotherhood and self-sacrifice.

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In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.