My first literary love

My mother took me to the bookstore on my fourteenth birthday and slapped A Farewell to Arms into my hands. Then she handed me The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome.

“You’re old enough to stop reading garbage now,” she said.
 

Because my mom was also a far-out evangelical preacher, people are usually surprised when I talk about this. What can I say? Inconveniently, religious fanaticism and animal hoarding don’t equate to illiteracy. Sometimes they signal the opposite of what you’d expect.

Before she found God, my mother devoured books. Afterward — I was still very young then; 3? 4? — she continued to read, but her material was limited. She stuck mainly to the Bible, its many concordances, and religious self-help guides by Tim LaHaye, Marilyn Hickey, and so on.

Years after that day in the bookstore, she would confiscate my copies of Nausea and Thus Spake Zarathustra , telling me, “That shit’ll mess up your mind. You better get right with Jesus instead of mucking around with all that pseudo-intellectual tripe.” But until then, her desire to pass on her favorite classics trumped her conviction that any art not focused on God was a sin.
 

A Farewell to Arms was the the first literary novel I loved. Hemingway’s works stand accused of machismo, sentimentality, blankness, misogyny, and a host of other ills. I didn’t know any of that then. Nor did I know anything significant about love or death or war, the central concerns of the book. Apart from the doomed romance — like crack to a teenage girl — I think it was the delicate narrative balance between detachment and intense connection that pulled me in.

I believed everything the narrator said. I thought he talked just the way someone who’d lived through trauma like that would. The troops, the mountains, the hills and the girls were all coolly, precisely observed. And when I got to passages like this, I scrawled them into my notebook:

[W]e were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

I remember, too, feeling that the book was telling me something about my mother, about who she was without Jesus and why she felt she needed Him.


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