A historian of Eastern Europe, Pompilia Burcicǎ graduated with a doctoral degree in history from Illinois, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
Literature has it all: language at its best, poetry, philosophical layers if one is awake enough to disentangle them, a magic to make you forget about unpleasant things, and inspire you to love people again. What American writers did for me was to keep the questions of identity rolling: who am I in this new place, a continent and ocean far away from home? How did others deal with their own experiences abroad? As I came to know American culture, not yet like a native, but a bit more intimately, I found a companion in this journey of self-discovery, a writer who asked himself similar questions while living abroad. He is no other than Ernest Hemingway. He helped me bring French culture and Paris back into my life, twenty years after I left Maisons Laffitte, and he opened up for me a whole new vista on language conciseness that only English could lend itself to in the most deft of hands.
It all started at Christmas time in 2009, when my doctoral adviser, Professor Hitchins, gave me a nice and thoughtful gift: three volumes by Hemingway, with a touching handwritten dedication. The war novels did not touch many strings in my heart, but the The Sun also Rises, which I began reading only this past fall, I reread it with pleasure just a fortnight ago. I have everyday books on my shelf and specialized books on my desk, but the existential books I keep them on my nightstand and I reread them all the time, the very same copy I have marked from the first moment I got one in my hands. And every time I start reading his Jake Barnes novel I mull over the two quotations he starts the book with, one by Gertrude Stein and another one from the Ecclesiastes. In them he encapsulates the whole conflict of the novel at the religious-philosophical level with utmost simplicity. Thus, his narrative had already begun before even starting, setting in motion deep religious questions about ways of thinking and about women as well as about the meaning of existence: is life passing by a loss or does it start in earnest only after death? Nor can we fail to mention the Jewish-Christian dichotomy, also admirably captured in these two quotations: one of clarity, concision, incisiveness and pain infliction, and one of a storytelling quality, written in old English style, very poetic, looking to the past with hope, like a truth-filled tale.
As we read about the American publishing world of the expatriates in Paris, female characters start populating Hemingway’s story, serving as the mirror onto which human qualities and values unveil themselves in the most complex of colors. Women appear as the talented seducers of men of all walks of life. Is the fate of woman to never ever feel love but only maternally? Is she meant to be good only at making others fall in love with her, yet herself being incapable of love? How does a woman make others fall in love with her in the twenty-first century? We can contemplate a woman’s desire to be admired for her physical and sartorial beauty and/or for her efficiency and pantsuits, which are also devices to help her succeed in her quest for gaining admiration. Or we can ponder whether one way or the other will either bring them oblivion or permanence. In any case, Hemingway thinks, it is inherited or passed onto the next generation. Brett, with whom Jake and all men fell in love with, had class all over her, with or without being Lady Ashley. “She got the most class of anybody,” says an admirer, to which, she admits that her mother would have been pleased to hear that. In this regard, Brett in this novel resembles Lilly Bart of House of Mirth. How can one forget Lilly? In Edith Wharton’s novel, Lilly was incapable of love, quite like Brett, but longed to see herself pursued and hoped to remain, if one could only succeed, forever unchanged by the historical forces surrounding her, and, if not, preferring death instead.
But to come back to Brett, I love the way Hemingway put it: “And with them was Brett.” And then another question occurred to me: can women be by themselves or only with others? Why only men can be both with them and by themselves? Now, to stop my train of thought is too late, so I asked myself whether I can be by myself, and I guess not, to be honest. Moreover, being a stubborn creature, I wondered: is it better to be alone in one’s scholarship as a groundbreaker and shake things up or rather deeply weave your own work into that of your predecessor? I am not sure how, but the original questions triggered by the novel are branching out in all directions and in all spheres of life. Maybe I should take the Catholic Church’s advice “not to think about it.” For me, an Orthodox Christian, I am unlikely to follow a Protestant path of inquiry that is rational and straightforward, or to follow a thinking trail of jumps alternating with smooth waves the way in which Jake was thinking about Brett and everything! No, I guess I would rather follow what the heart says. So, a release from hard thinking, a relinquish from the benefits of “better,” and a freedom to act as one’s heart dictates are more typical of Orthodox views of the world.
Was Hemingway at home in Paris in the same way I am at home in an American university town? I have learned a new language, its twists and tweaks are still confusing, but resilient in my ear, and I have relearned how to write, learned about a new way of thinking as a second brain would process it; I have enjoyed American classics and now, believe it or not, I came to prefer them to French literature. In Hemingway, though, the same desire to try on an immigrant experience has less to do with the place or its literature, but rather with what people do and when and how they start thinking out loud. I cannot see that happening right here, in Illinois, the very birthplace of Hemingway. For only Paris (and the little Paris, if I may) makes people discover themselves, especially if they are the loving sort. Can an American who strives to blend into his French surroundings ever be like me, an immigrant from a country less powerful than my host country? I very much doubt it. Hemingway, an American of Protestant views, who later converted to Catholicism, used foreign lands for the discovery of human diversity in order to capture the human ideal that is hard for the rest of us to see without literature. As he says: “You must get to know the values.” With a flat in downtown Paris, observing everything, including screening people’s names for meanings, associating royal titles with “Catholicism,” Jake Barnes is like Hemingway himself. He wanted, like Jake and like Brett, something he thoroughly felt and understood, but could never have if living an existence that was too rational: love.
Reminding me of my adviser, Hemingway could not ignore words. How do I know if I have aficion? What is aficion anyway? And why is it taken for granted that Americans could not have aficion, but could only fake it, or misunderstand it for something else? Do you have aficion? Well, Jake Barnes passed that oral spiritual examination that demonstrated his own aficion, and I can explain it by the fact that Hemingway lived abroad, and that fact opened up his horizons in the true sense of the word. He got to know the Spanish people, and only by touch could he be instantly considered by them a “buen hombre.” I was lucky to have met and learned from an American who succeeded at gaining great aficion among the Romanians. And this is my adviser. It is a state and quality that I hope one day will enliven me.
This blog entry I am writing right now and The Sun Also Rises are me, in this very moment of my existence. Because I think that, at every life stage, the book one reads is a reflection of the personal growth one had just achieved. I can go on and on about this novel and I guess it will take me a while to put it down or maybe I will move on, as we all do, with aging. This will be the focus of another entry about the next existential novel that will become me.