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Ernest & Elizabeth

Two books read this week, with very different voices: Hemingway's Farewell to Arms and Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (a sneaky-but-worth-it swerve from the Great Books...)

Again, like Madame Bovary, I knew the ending of Farewell to Arms by osmosis. But - one reads books not only for the conclusion of a plot, but for the enjoyment of the atmosphere the author creates and Hemingway’s voice is so unique.

A Farewell to Arms is the story of an American ambulance driver for the Italian army during the First World War and who falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine. I’m not sure how autobiographic it is – since Hemingway drove ambulances for the Italian army during the First World War. In true Hemingway fashion there is much understatement, there are scenes of drinking camaraderie and the hero’s canoodling with the nurse which leads to a pregnancy regulated by sound medical advice such as: “Do you think I ought to drink another beer? The doctor said I was rather narrow in the hips and it’s all for the best if we keep young Catherine small.”

His injunction to write “one true thing” is recognizable from the first sentences. He is able to bring landscape to life with short masculine sentences and only the barest of adjectival sketching. Though very dry and understated, Hemingway occasionally has metaphors which give his sentences happy weight: “I had been in uniform a long time and I missed the feeling of being held by your clothes.”

Rain is omnipresent in the book, and now when it rains – as it did last night – I can’t help but thinking of Catherine’s worrying words: “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it…And sometimes I see you dead in it.”

As a nice foil to Hemingway’s brevity and virility, is the sweet and melancholic Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, now a movie with Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend (Wickham of the Kiera Knightley adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). This short novel by Elizabeth Taylor (the British author, not the actress) is set in a rainy London, a grimy but still hopeful stage where the old are neglected by their families and left to wait for memorials as social occasions, but pedestrians watch the cracks in the pavement to watch the flowers grow.

Mrs. Palfrey is a widow with “big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl…would have made a distinguished-looking man and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” Needing a comfortable place to spend her years as she ages, she moves into a hotel, the Claremont, in London. Surrounded by an island community of seniors, who have their own distinct oddities and rituals, Mrs. Palfrey is lonely and unoccupied.

A chance encounter with a penniless artist who spends his days writing a novel at Harrods, Ludo, allows Mrs. Palfrey a daring respite from the stilted repetition of the Claremont and the souring characters within. Ludo agrees to masquerade as Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson, the real grandson being less than impressive and not willing to visit his grandmother, and the imposter does such a good job that Mrs. Palfrey is smitten. But Ludo, though warm and affectionate, has his own game afoot.

Elizabeth Taylor is a writer of delicacy and feeling but refuses to replace realism with sentimentality. Mrs. Palfrey is an empathetic book towards those who are ageing or alone, full of delights and intuitively crafted moments of connection and mutual sympathy, and also the unavoidable dreariness of life and disappointed hopes. I will have to check the movie out from the library to see if it is as nuanced, and will henceforth keep a sharp eye out for other books by Elizabeth Taylor.


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