There's an old bookstore near the union office where I work in Dallas. The area of the city I work in is predominantly Hispanic, with small family grocery stores and taqueria tiendas every few feet. There's little of anything else. Perhaps that's why the bookstore stood out to me when I first drove through that part of the city two days ago, lost, looking for my new place of work.
Lucky Dog Books is an aged brick building painted a pueblo tan in order to fit in with the street's Latin aesthetic. Making good on the promise I had made to myself that morning, I returned to the bookstore today. An elderly man with long gray and white hair greeted me behind the counter, as my head spun on a swivel at the row-upon-row of volumes stacked two stories from the floor to the ceiling. It's a strange habit of mine— which I never could and still cannot explain— to visit the Ernest Hemingway section of every used bookstore I walk into. I'm reminded of the Mel Gibson movie Conspiracy, where his character collects copies of Catcher In The Rye (an aspect of the film intended to demonstrate that he's crazy, which is of little comfort to me with my own similar quirk).
I find a copy of The Sun Also Rises for only $2 and immediately begin to see why. Coffee stains, tears, and writing in the margins on nearly every page. At first I look at the copy with disdain. "Why do stores even carry books so 'tainted' like this?"
I'm a book snob.
While working for the labor movement, being a registered Democrat, and growing up in a middle class family have taught me not to be snobby about much, I am snobby about books— and even at that, I feel a tinge of guilt at being so. But my father loved books and he passed his book snobbery on to me: we both smell the pages of a new golden-edger (Cambridge bibles have a distinctly pleasant smell), we both are quick to school others on how to turn a page (lightly lift the corner edge with the surface of your thumb, NEVER turn the page near the spine or put pressure on the page before turning), and— on occasion, if the book is rare enough, smells nice enough or has a calfskin cover— we lay our heads down gently on it and nap for a few minutes.
But today I almost let my book snobbery get the best of me. The Sun Also Rises may have been $2, but that didn't mean it was worthy of my $2. And yet, different from all the other times where I've discovered writing in a book and promptly re-shelved it, I found myself reading one comment scribbled on the edge of a yellow page. And then another. And another after that. As I continued reading the scrawls between the lines, it hit me that this was no ordinary person making casual remarks about the story he was reading. The individual who once owned this copy saw Hemingway mirrored in the fictional story that he wrote.
The fact that one can find Ernest Hemingway in his own fiction is not surprising to anyone who's read Hemingway and about Hemingway. For Whom The Bell Tolls, A Farewell To Arms and The Sun Also Rises are all "autobiographical fictions" so to speak. But what strikes me is the level of nuanced knowledge the scribbler had of just how much of Hemingway is reflected in The Sun Also Rises. It's as if this person knew intimate details about Hemingway few others did.
She touched me with one hand and I put her hand away. "First instance of Hemingway's sexual impotence leaking onto the page and being expressed through his character."
Then I thought of her walking up the street and stepping into the car, as I had last seen her, and of course in a little while I felt like hell again. It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing. "Hemingway is conscious that both his characters— Brett and Jake— are trying to maintain stiff upper-lip, but they break down."
I suppose she only wanted what she couldn't have. Well, people were that way. To hell with people. The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling all that. Good advice, anyway. Not to think about it. Oh, it was swell advice. Try and take it sometime. Try and take it. "Religion for Hemingway: not adequate."
But as I continued reading the comments in the margins, I noticed there are two colors of ink: black and blue. At first it didn't mean anything to me. The owner had one pen at one time and then a second pen at another time. Yet, as I kept going, I saw that a dialogue was taking place.
Two people, it seemed, were conversing with one another as if they are swapping the book back-and-forth, reading a chapter, making comments, and then giving it to the other person to do the same.
"I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it.", "Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters."... "Did you ever think about going to British East Africa to shoot?", "No I wouldn't like that.", "I'd go there with you.", "No that doesn't interest me.", "That's because you've never read a book about it. Go and read a book all full of love affairs with the beautiful shiny black princesses." (Blue ink) "This represents the typical boredom of the 1920s. With excess came a lack of adventure, which seems to motivate Jake and Robert in different ways. Are these two characters symbolic of an inner struggle Hemingway had during this decade?" (Black ink) "No, no. You're reading too much into it. It's about sex. Like most of Hemingway's writing, there's very little 'hidden meaning'. Hemingway says what he wants to say, and he usually says it in ten words or less. Robert is drawn toward Africa for sexual reasons and Jake isn't, and none of that has to do with Hemingway." (Blue ink) "That's a pretty simplistic take."
We each had an aguardiente and paid forty centimes for the two drinks. I gave the woman fifty centimes to make a tip, and she gave me back the copper piece, thinking I had misunderstood the price. (Blue ink) "Generosity and honesty in Spain!" (Black ink) "In Paris he would lose money." (Blue ink) "More beauty in Paris than in Spain though. Well, I say that. I was there before the war."
"Before the war"?
I've been around enough old people to know that anytime a war is called "the war", it means World War II. One of the writers was in Paris, and old enough to enjoy it before the Second World War.
I bought the book and I've already read all of the writings in the margins between these two mystery people, and I can't wait to read them again in the context of Hemingway's classic.
I wonder who these two people were (or are, if still living, though I doubt it). My imagination reels. Were they lovers who connected over a passion for literature? I'm a hopeless romantic. I like that scenario best. I envision the two of them passing the book back and forth as they lay under the covers, reading the entire book in one night, stopping occasionally for a kiss or simply to hold each other. Then again, they could have been academic colleagues (yawn). There are other possibilities too of course: They could have been family members. Perhaps a parent and child who were book snobs like my father and I.
At the very back of the book, a conclusion is written at the end on a blank page. It appears to be the final thoughts of the Blue Ink writer: "No immortality. God is uncaring. Therefore, live for now and don't expect improvement."
I am enchanted by this "Black-&-Blue-Party-Of-Two".