Library Book Lurker, Hidden in Hemingway

The book I’ve got on the go right now is A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Thinking, “Hurm, I haven’t read much Hemingway and, yeah, I’m in the mood for a war romance story” I got the book out of the University of Manchester’s library. What’s more, I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook which gives away the ending of the novel and turns the book’s resolution into a grandstand setpiece moment upon which the film’s narrative turns. There was no “Warning: this movie contains spoilers for books you may not have read yet” but, hey, life doesn’t come with spoiler-warnings and the film’s all-round excellence undermines my bitter anguish at having A Farewell to Arms ruined. It gave Bradley Cooper the chance to show off his acting skills and have an impressive mental breakdown moment and it gave me the impetus to finally seek out a modern classic I’d never got around to reading.

I therefore know how it’s going to climax but the question of how the author’s going to get there makes it intriguing. I’m also compelled onward by the story’s pace and Hemingway’s appealing style and, as an accentuating sensory bonus, the smell of overused, old dank academic library book. Just over 100 pages in, I’m enjoying the experience.

There is, however, something about this book that has unnerved me a little and given me a greater mystery than “how are we going to get to the already-spoiled end point?” On page 75, where Chapter 14 finishes and Chapter 15 begins, the text reads as follows…

‘The doctor’s coming,’ she said. ‘He telephoned from Lake Como.’

‘When does he get here?’

‘He’ll be here this afternoon.’

CHAPTER 15

Nothing happened until afternoon. The doctor was a thin quiet man who was disturbed by  the war…

… and Chapter 15 carries on and in spite of the disturbed doctor and some mild concern for our hero’s fate it’s another nice chapter that keeps the momentum flowing. The sinister thing that gets me wrapped up in enigmas is the annotation pencilled in next to the “CHAPTER 15” header. Someone has drawn a line from the sentence “Nothing happened until afternoon” and noted “not surprising.”

Why is this not surprising? More crucially, who are you and how do you know it’s not surprising? I’m taken completely out of the text and things get meta as I come to realise that I’ve now been joined on my journey by another extratextual entity – an invisible one who had up to that point been silent. Before page 75 the only evidence of any of other readers going through the book had been a few pen markings. Now on page 75, silence and ignorance is shattered by an omniscient Other cloaked in complete mystery.

I’m now deeply involved in the mystery and forming an attachment/obsession with this enigmatic shadow from out of the past. I wonder who they are or were and their motive for defiling this library book. They could simply be a former American Literature student. They could be a librarian under the influence of an esoteric cult that inserts subtle subliminal messages in old novels. Maybe there is no human figure behind the handwriting and it is, in fact, the book itself offering up messages – a sentient object with supernatural powers.

My mind is reeling as I contemplate just how many others have read this book before (pre-computerisation record stamping inside the front cover shows it’s been loaned at least 11 times). I enjoy getting that affinity with old places and objects –  appreciating the sheer history that’s touched things or locations. I’m a guy who rubs the walls of national monuments and gets very excited at museums (“Imagine! Someone sculpted that over 6,000 years ago and we’ve no idea how or why! Mindblowing!“).

Altogether, if there’s any re-affirmed lesson in this, it’s that I’m impressed by old stuff that’s soaked in historical mystery and – possibly because I’m an overimaginative lonely soul – like forming empathetic relationships with people I can’t actually see.

Onward with reading A Farewell to Arms, then, happy in the knowledge that there’s something else haunting the pages other than the predetermined ending. I feel like I’m sharing a great book with someone/something, and that’s a nice feeling, indeed.

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