MA Week Eight

(Christ on a bike, I don't know how eight weeks have passed. Two months; that's a shocking portion of the year gone already.)

This week, in Forms of Fiction, we were talking about Hemingway, but only about three stories - Hills Like White Elephants, The Killers (both in Men Without Women) and Big Two-Hearted River (In Our Time).  We looked at Hemingway's famous external focalization, his flat, minimalist style - in Big Two-Hearted River we examined his use of repetition (influenced by Gertrude Stein) combined with this flatness, the short, journalistic, declarative sentences - we came to two opposing conclusion, one being that he writes like this in direct opposition to the notion of 'elegant' writing, going for a simple, unpolished effect, pointing us towards theme rather than towards the language itself; the other was that he uses the rhymes and incantatory rhythms of poetry.  In this story we looked at how he works the past and the present together, how we can read elements of the story symbolically (the swamp as the subconscious), depth versus surface meanings, the greater context of the other Nick Adams stories (including The Killers), the character's relationship with nature and society, the anachrony and change of register in the part where he discusses his old friend Hopkins, the humour in this section (Hemingway's otherwise pretty humourless, I think), and the idea of happiness expressed through physical detail (the processes of fishing, of camping) -  contentment surrounded by the possibility of misery.

We then moved on to 'Hills Like White Elephants', which is, I think, the epitome of his blank, flat, style, and we talked about how the very intense subject matter (a possible abortion) is a perfect vehicle for this minimal presentation, because perhaps, to discuss it more openly would be to reduce the power and the enormity of the situation, and to leave it hidden below the surface makes it seem even more significant.  The idea is that at the heart of  the story is a mystery that can't be articulated without reducing it.  In opposition to that, we felt that 'The Killers', though equally famous for the same stylistic conventions, is far less effective, because here, the form doesn't suit the content:  the surface details do in fact tell the story quite effectively, and the depths aren't there to be plumbed.  It reads more like a simple screenplay - quite funny, but without great resonance.  We also said that the two location shifts in the story ruin the dramatic unity, without any particular justification - the story loses some if its concision as we move about from place to place.

Next week we've got Borges, and I'm working my way through Labyrinths - for me, it's one of those 'damn, I should have read this years ago' texts, so I'm glad somebody's forced my hand.  I really see where some of the postmodernists, like Barthelme, get it  from.

After lunch we had the workshop - as well as discussing the two texts (a first chapter and a second chapter) we talked about Alice Munro's method of working - she says she gets very frustrated when something isn't working and it sends her into a great depression.  Some of the class thought this was a very negative way to look at it, and if you get so frustrated, then why bother?  I really empathise with her, though; it's difficult get things expressed the way you want, and it can be a struggle, and, in a way, shouldn't it be a struggle to get to something really worthwhile?  If it was too easy, I'm not sure I'd maintain my interest - I'm very easily bored!

Next workshop it's my turn again, along with two others.  I've reworked my last submission almost from scratch, having rethought the plot of the novel, so we'll see how it goes down.

1 comment:

kim mcgowan said...

I've just recently read Hills like White Elephants and The Killer and enjoyed the former enormously and the latter not so much , so it's really interesting to read what you have to say about them here; all that? You all sound so cerebral, I wish I were doing my MA with you.

I was wondering what did you have for lunch? See. There's no hope.