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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Fifth Column

What can I say, I like Hemingway. His short stories are always fun and food for thought as well. His novels I have always enjoyed. Obviously - to me - he is not in one class with people like Faulkner and Twain, but he definitely is up there in the canon of American literature. The Fifth Column apparently is the only play he ever wrote, under shells stuck in a Madrid surrounded by Franco's forces I might add for melodramatic benefit. Hemingway tells the story of an American counter-espionage agent working for the Republic (and a greater, future - socalist - good). He falls in love with an American girl, working in Madrid as a writer and in the end has to choose whether to pursue his current life or follow her into the glamorous life-style of well-off American expatriots in Europe. This being Hemingway, you should know what he chooses, I will not tell you.

I liked the play, but I cannot claim that I was overly thrilled about it. Somehow - and paradoxically - Hemingway's method of telling a story, through factual descriptions, and uninterpreted dialogue does not really work in this play. Maybe because the factual descriptions of what people are doing, what they are looking at and so on are missing and he relies nearly solely on dialogue (kind of like Richard III, which I just read actually, but absolutely different nonetheless of course). Yet, what bothered me most was not the way Hemingway told the story, but rather what he implied in it.

The girl, which is called Bridges, but according to Hemingway himself could have been called Nostalgia as well, is described as beautiful with a remarkable body, but lazy and inept most daily activities. In a way she represents what men are supposed to long for in a woman, and that is actually what tempts the main character, Philip, to turn his back on his life as a killer - for political reasons and in a war, surely, but a killer anyway. Yet, that what she stands for does not come across as tempting to me, she is shallow, naive, vain; if that is what Hemingway looks for in a woman - and that's how it comes across - good for him, it doesn't work for me - a nice body and good looks simply don't cut it.

Finally, a feminist critique of her role would be necessary as well I believe, in the beginning of the book, she chooses Philip over the man with whom she has been living up until then, mainly - if not solely - on the basis of him being a man's man. Philip is not just a writer sitting in a hotel room, afraid of the shells, he is a tough guy that does not mind using his force to take advantage of other people. He treats Bridges badly, mostly for reasons associated with his job, yet she doesn't know this. The whole thing just makes me wonder whether Hemingway really believes women decide on who to fall in love with, based only on these traditional masculine elements. I doubt it.

Having explained how I disagree with the author over his main characterisations, I have to say that the play was fun to read anyway. I would recommend his short stories or novels for people that don't know him, but for further reading this play is definitely good. The Spanish Civil War is a very interesting subject anyway, as you have in a micro cosmos the forces fighting out the 2nd World War and the Cold War already. I would love to read more about it, and hope I do get that chance at some point.

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