I have decided Ernest Hemingway is mostly about death.
Preparing for death. Avoiding death. Accepting death. Experiencing the death of a loved one. Death in war. Even contemplating the death of a fish and debating whether it is justified.
So three Hemingways in a row might have left me somber. Not so.
I felt invigorated by his muscular, vivid writing. It is spare and terse. He never writes what anyone is thinking, really. Just what they say and what they do. But in Hemingway's hands, actions really can speak volumes.
Simon & Schuster has embarked on a project to record all his works, unabridged, and the first three gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with "Papa."
The publisher decided to go with celebrity readers, a wise move for titles you've probably passed up before. What's a better draw than Donald Sutherland on The Old Man and the Sea (three hours, $20 on CD)? Or John Slattery on A Farewell to Arms (nine hours, $39.95 on CD). Or Campbell Scott on For Whom the Bell Tolls (18 hours, $49.95 on CD).
Scott had the toughest job. In this novel of the Spanish Civil War, American Robert Jordan joins with a band of guerrillas to blow up a bridge. The characters are unforgettable - drunken Pablo, strident Pilar and golden Maria.
It really is, as the college profs say, a war novel for the ages. But on audio, the formal Spanish translation - "thee" and "thou" proliferate - is wearing. Also, the oblique curses - "I obscenity in the milk of thy mother" - didn't track too well.
Scott tells the story in a hushed tone, as if he's there with them, fearful of alerting the enemy. His insistent delivery, not to mention the story itself, crept over me. At three hours, I had been antsy. At five, bleary. From 10 on, sorry that it would too soon be over. I felt as if I was holding my breath the entire last hour.
Slattery, reading the World War I tale of an American lieutenant fighting with the Italians and the British nurse Catherine Barkley, is at his best when he portrays the good-natured Italians.
Sutherland's low, calm delivery added a moving touch of melancholy to the tale of the Cuban fisherman trying to land a huge marlin. But he didn't differentiate enough among the voices of the old man, the boy and the narrator.
Clearly, the Simon & Schuster effort will constitute a trophy collection for our age.
Due out this month are James Naughton reading A Moveable Feast, Bruce Greenwood on Islands in the Stream, and Will Patton on To Have and Have Not. In October William Hurt's reading of The Sun Also Rises comes out, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the novel's original publication.