Academic journal article The Mailer Review

From Hem to Eternity: James Jones, Hemingway, Paris-Meditation & Memoir

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

From Hem to Eternity: James Jones, Hemingway, Paris-Meditation & Memoir

Article excerpt

I

"For Norman, my dearest enemy, my most feared friend." Inscription by James Jones in Norman Mailer's copy of From Here to Eternity

I do not remember when or where I first read the work of James Jones. With some authors--Faulkner and Hemingway, for example--I never forget when and where I first really read them, the exactitude of their words and the feeling of their incantatory sentence rhythms, their style carrying with it the numinous presence of the place where I read them. Place transformed, magically illuminated by words, by style. But the gift of James Jones was not for style--it was for the slow steady building of narrative, character, and theme, the narrative drivenness that creates a world for the reader to inhabit. This is a gift that I have not fully appreciated until my recent rereading of much of his work in preparation for the writing of this essay, which is, then, in part a reassessment of his work after my long absence from the worlds of his fiction. My late reinvestment in the work of Jones is here expressed largely through memoir and anecdote--not to be confused with anecdotage--or, more exactly through a reconsideration, a meditation, on scraps of memoir I have written (and sometimes published) concerning Jones since the 1970s.

I do remember when I first heard of Jones, in pre-teenaged years, when From Here to Eternity exploded on the literary scene in 1951. If you thought of yourself as destined to be a writer, as called to the high vocation of literature--and I did at least since the third grade--you were aware early on that Jones was a major literary figure of his generation. You were aware of what Jones, Mailer, and Styron felt when the three young writers met in Greenwich Village in 1952 and they all agreed when Styron put his arms around the shoulders of his new friends and colleagues, saying: "Here we are, the three best writers of our generation!" (Hendrick 183) Of course, you did not know that anecdote then, but you knew the ranking. And yet, for me, my first knowledge (such as it was) of Jones, was through the film made of From Here to Eternity in 1953. I remember seeing it in a drive-in theater, probably in 1954 as a second-run drive-in feature. It is the only instance where I encountered a classic American novel first through the movie. I remember liking the movie very much and praising it to friends and being pleased when it received so many Academy Awards. I did not go to the movies much as a kid and it was the first non-western, non-Cowboys-and-Indians movie I had seen. I was moved by the story, convinced by all the actors and their characters--with some reservations about Montgomery Clift playing the role of a talented but reluctant boxer (since at age thirteen I was doing some boxing and had firm ideas of what a boxer should look like and how he should move). I also remember the girl (Judy) I saw the movie with at the drive-in and how the movie poster looked at the popcorn stand--Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster making love (making out we said then) in the waves, with Kerr on top, and that gave me some ideas about what Judy and I might do the next week-end at a beach-party on the South Jersey Shore, there in the magical surf. I was thirteen then. Sometime in the next year I read the novel.

And I do remember James Jones, the man and the writer, whom I came to know rather well when we were friends and neighbors in Paris, where we both lived in 1973-74. I remember the time, not long after we first met, when he said: "Who matters most in the generation before me? Faulkner and Hemingway." I agreed. Then he said: "Who matters in my generation? Baldwin, Mailer, Styron. And Jones." I think I agreed with him again. For a long time, my feelings about his work had been ambivalent. At first, I felt the same way about the man. The main business of this essay, then, is my memories of and meditations on that friendship.

II

"So what are you kid? …

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