It’s Friday, 12th March 2021.
I’ve got two classes with my third-year class, and a teacher candidate is observing the classes. It’s the students’ first week back in school this year because of the pandemic lockdown. I’ve shown them Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film of The Great Gatsby earlier in the week, and in our first class we’re discussing the film vis-à-vis the book, which they’re meant to have read. I’m hoping the students have read a review of the film, but they’re well-known for skimping their homework, and during lockdown they haven’t been asked to prepare for classes.
Not normally a very talkative class, they exceed my expectations, galvanised no doubt by the combination of being observed by a teacher candidate, their recent return to school, the knowledge that the weekend beckons, me moving energetically among them, and the fact that the film genre is something they generally like. They’ve seen Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of last year, and they’ve noticed Leonardo DiCaprio was in both films. And that’s not all. They can see other similarities. So far so good.
With ten minutes left of the first class, I turn my attention to the other text they’re meant to have read, a short excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, where the narrator, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, is lying on the floor in a train after deserting from the army. I ask them casually whether they’ve actually read it, and the usual five and a half hands go up.
I tell them that I’ll give them the first ten minutes of the next class to read it and finish the class with an improvised lecture (very much my style) on the similarities between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the linchpin of which is how they used their own experience in their fiction and how that gives their work authenticity.
While they’re reading the excerpt I write “stream of consciousness” on the whiteboard. It’s a concept they should be familiar with by now.
It’s time to look at the text together. I point to what I’ve written on the whiteboard and ask them to define the term. It ain’t perfect, but it ain’t too bad. The next question is a cinch, to ask at least: How do we see stream of consciousness in this text?
The student whose hand goes up quotes the most remarkable sentence in this context. It goes like this: “The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much remember.” Unfortunately, he is unable to explain why it is so.
I’ve very recently studied this text with another class, which is often quite a help. This time round I don’t remember to mention the (fairly obvious) syntactical anomaly of “not too much remember”. This is because I make a mind-blowing discovery when I read the sentence aloud.
Before I do so, I reveal to them the significance of the COMMAS for the structure of the sentence, how it makes the fragmentary nature of thoughts apparent. I then point to the monosyllables, with the glaring exception of the double instance of the trisyllabic “remember”. And, with unrestrained delight, I inform them that the word count has a pleasing accumulative structure: 4, 4, 4, 8.
Then I read it aloud and realise… the words match the rhythm of the train he is riding on.
When I tell this to the class, they are no doubt unaware that it is a discovery I’ve just made. But, just for once, I’m not acting as if it is a discovery I’ve just made.
When I was teaching this last time, I thought of a great line in a Dire Straits song, “Telegraph Road”: “’Cause I’ve run every red light on memory lane”. I use it again now. The narrator’s trying to avoid running these red lights on memory lane because he can’t afford to be self-indulgent in his situation. A good example of this comes when he says: “I wondered what they would hear in the States. Dead from wounds and other causes. Good Christ, I was hungry.” The final sentence here shows him censoring his thoughts about his loved ones.
The writer, Hemingway, is concerned with revealing how our thought processes work. In order to do this, he is baring his soul for all to see, the noblest endeavour of any writer.