Some Things We Did This Year While Reading Hemingway's "On the Quai at Smyrna" (2006)
Dealing with Pre-Reading Bias--"Before I even begin to read, I have a little bit of a bias against Hemingway." "I prepare to read by expelling my bias against Hemingway."
Headbanger Approach--"I read the entire story all the way through" and then reread slowly as below.
Title Quandaries--"What is Quai?" "I have no idea what a quai or Smyrna is." "Smyrna reminds me of . . . " "I immediately wonder how to pronounce both 'Quai' and 'Smyrna'." "The first thing I did was look up the title..." "I run to the OED to find out what a 'quai' is and then try to remember the one along the Seine . . . I learned that Smyrna was a town or city in Turkey."
Contextless Narrative--"The first few sentences were really intriguing" "confusing" "a 'word of mouth' feel to it, which is also very southern" "I like the way the story just . . . starts, as if the narrator assumes that the reader already knows what is going on" "Who are they? What is causing them to scream?" "the author says 'he' instead of a name and that makes me wonder who this 'he' is" "this short story has something to do with war" "the author says 'he' instead of a name and that makes me wonder who this 'he' is: specifically male of female, and age"
Seeking Context in Memory, Other Works by Hemingway, Other Authors, Outer Space?--"For some odd reason I think of the Vietnam War" "It definitely sounds like a Hemingway story set during a war" "I became interested in Hemingway's short, choppy, direct sentence flow . . . [which] reminded me of the sentences structure found in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye . . . the same sort of wry detachment from tragedy . . . [comparing copyright dates, 1925/1945] leads me to suspect that one of the authors had a strong influence on the other's work." "'we' and 'they' . . . makes me think even more that there is a war going on, and that the narrator is referring to two different sides of the fighting." "'screamed every night at midnight' . . . suggests to me that horrific things were happening and that there is possibly a war going on." "I see murder, bird flu and the last scene of Hamlet" "Although it had nothing to do with the story the image [of mobs on piers] reminded me of a mob of zombies, or riots to get out of a city when there's an epidemic somewhere" "Also I thought of trolls for some reason..."
Wanting to Know the Narrator--"'most offensive chap': think the narrator is British" "Does the narrator speak like a real British naval officer of this time period?" "'He felt topping about it' . . . the narrator is British" "A few sentences later it no longer has a southern feel but more of a European or British feel ('I told him the fellow would be sent on ship and most severely punished')" "The narrator sounds stereotypically British. There's a silly British voice now in my head as I read. I must get rid of it."
Wanting to Know if the Narrator Was Trustworthy, Sick, Ironic, etc.--"'oh most rigorously': narrator likes the idea of fighting? 'He felt topping about it. Great friends we were.' 'the Turk' and the narrator share in being insensitive?" "'It would have been a hell of a mess'...does this mean it did or did not happen?" "Now I am convinced the narrator doesn't care about death. This kind of makes me hate him but at the same time I can sympathize because..." "'Superstitious' foreigners? What's Hemingway's opinion of cultures outside his own?" "I'm ready to clobber the narrator here. His snotty insensitive remarks about the expectant mothers reminds me of . . . Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'. Then again, the last paragraph sounds pretty sarcastic. I remember Prof. Marchand mentioned how figuring out the inflections of Hemingway's speakers is key to understanding the piece." "I don't think the narrator cares too much about death; I think he's removed from it." "he has learned to numb himself to torture, as with the sailor, dead babies, screaming women, whole towns being obliterated"
Wanting to Know the Other Characters--"Who is screaming?" "Who are 'they'?" "I thought that 'they' might be animals.' "Who is Kemal and what is going on with the Turk?" "I look up 'Turk,' and get 'Turkish,' which I had figured..." "What I really didn't understand was why in one part of the story the speaker's army seemed to be allied with the Turks, and in another they were sent in to shell the Turkish quarter of the city." "Who is Kemal?" "Who is the old Turk? . . . Who is Kemal?" "I wonder who Kemal is." ". . . might be the Turkish president or some one higher than the commander" "Where did the Greeks come from?" "Then there was the part about the Greeks."
Affective Responses--"Something else I noticed is that there were bland anecdotes mixed in with the more disturbing scenes. Somehow this made the disturbing images all the more troubling." "Reading about the mules is very upsetting." "I alarmed myself when I had little to no reaction to the mothers and the dead babies mentioned at the bottom of the page. I felt guilty for glancing over it as if it were nothing." "I was very drawn in once the discussion of the dead babies started. It's sad, but I feel almost detached from the idea." "I also found myself drawn in by the imagery used in this story. The descriptions of the women holding their 'dead babies,' particularly the image of their legs being so 'rigid,' left a searing mental picture in my head..." "My heart breaks for the poor mules."
Rereading, Reading Outside the Narrative--"I go back to reading the first sentences." "I flip to the Contents page to make sure this is a short story collection I'm reading." "I had to reread the line that begins 'Said he'd been most . . . ' Where are the subjects at the beginning of sentences?" "After class and dinner, I return to the story and reread the second paragraph..."
Trying to Achieve Closure, to Interpret Hemingway's Underlying or Ultimate Point in Writing "Quai"--"The narrator of this story is very twisted." "I was expecting some great revelation . . . I wonder if this was intentional, if Hemingway wrote this story so that the reader would be left wondering..." "my prediction is that Hemingway wrote this story in order to describe men of the twentieth century: a time of war and uncertainty . . . " "It's as if Hemingway is interpreting his narrator's psyche." Perhaps the disjointed, almost rugged feeling of this short narrative is a writer's device." "I think Hemingway's reason for writing this would be the desensitizing effect the war had had on the narrator." "I find myself unsure about this piece, and will have to read it again to try to understand it more." "This story is very bleak, but Hemingway really gets his point across about how war can affect people." "What Hemingway was doing in terms of methodology was interesting; especially with his use of very succinct, pointed sentences to get an idea across." "I think Hemingway is out to condemn the situation and the behavior that led to it . . . Maybe neutralizing the narrator's power over the situation allows one to focus more on what's being said."