The other day, I started reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” I was in the mood for some muscular prose and some violence. I made it all of 20 pages before putting the book down in disappointment. Most recently, I read Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” when I was in college, and I liked it. I didn’t remember, though, that Hemingway’s prose is so spare–it’s naked to the point of being, for me, ugly. His writing is devoid of lyricism; his words and sentences and thoughts are pieced together so haphazardly that I found it unbearable. Granted, I didn’t give it much time, but “A Farewell to Arms” seems like a hurriedly-written, adolescent jumble of fragmented words strung together without care for the way they might be encountered by the reader. I’m struggling, now, to understand why Hemingway’s so revered, although this short piece helps put his writing in the context of American literature, and explains just why it’s so timeless.
So, my with my delicate aesthetic sense craving something refined, I picked up a novella by one of my all-time favorite writers, Truman Capote: “The Grass Harp.” Wow. I can’t believe I’ve never read it. I’m not even halfway through it, but so far, it’s the perfect antidote to Hemingway’s clunky prose–it’s clever, funny, and, most of all, beautifully written. Listen to the way the narrator, Collin Fenwick, describes, on the very first page, a field near his small Southern town’s graveyard (and gives rise to the title of the book):
Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the season: go see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.
Now that’s good writing.