Hemingway and Dickens

I’ve been trying to read The Pickwick Papers, but the book is giving me trouble. The content is fine. It’s interesting to see the difference in manners between this and later works by Dickens and others. I don’t know when dining ceased to include “A glass of wine with you, Doctor,” but we’re poorer for the change. I’m certain that breeches and stockings are coming back before 2050, by way of sweat pants and basketball socks, so maybe there’ll be some restoration of civility and grace to table talk also.

My problem isn’t with Dickens’ writing, but with this copy of The Pickwick Papers. It’s a paperback, too thick for its width and height – too Pickwickian, I suppose. Because of this, it’s awkward to carry around during the day, so I only read it in the evening. For a variety of reasons, my evening reading time is limited just now, so I end up reading in bed. I manage a page or so, and then I’m out.

Since Pickwick is too bulky, several days ago I found myself out during the day with nothing to read during my spare time. Browsing in the library I picked up a copy of A Farewell to Arms. I read this at least thirty years ago, and don’t remember what I thought of it then, but Hemingway is a master, second to none. The action takes place in Italy around 1917, during the Great War. The characters are jerks to one degree or another, but you know exactly what they eat and drink.

The only problem is, now it’s 2010. Neither social conventions nor my wallet will let me stop for a quick one with lunch; I can get good cheap espresso, but I can’t carry a flask of brandy, or fill a canteen with that sharp clean Italian wine we used to get from the little place next to the opera house when we bought cigarettes and the American papers from the old man who had been in la légion.

It’s one thing for an undergraduate, another for the instructor, to have a couple before class. So I read about those fine clean Portuguese mussels with the sharp local wine, then I stop at McDonalds for a McChicken and coffee, and that’s kind of a let-down.