by P.J.M. Bond
Reading the stories on this website is a humbling experience, seeing that every person has been through so many things — both good and bad — and it only goes to show the evils of ignorance and presumptions, which may just rid one of many a great encounter. At the same time, acknowledging the scope of everybody’s inner world can become a maddening experience. When stuck in traffic or when boarding a bus, the realization that everyone there has a family to go home to (or not), with their own individual problems and pockets of happiness, who are having children, each with their own proper names and lives, etc., etc. can drive one crazy.
Did you know that there is a word for this? Sonder, or “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” I am afraid some people never have this feeling, which is unfortunate for themselves and everyone around them. But I am also convinced that an artist cannot live without it. The artist manages to internalize other people’s stories and turn them into art: in doing it, the artist makes the ocean’s vastness intelligible, drop by drop. In keeping with this analogy, we find that some stories are constantly and haphazardly pumped from the water’s surface, whereas others must be sought for at the depth of the Mariana trench.
I fear that my story belongs to the latter category, but don’t pity me because I’ve already come to terms with obscurity. Now let this be the introduction to my own little story about how a Dutch bloke decided to write an album based on the first publication by America’s greatest author.
Listen to the album while reading the text.
Getting to Know America
I fell in love with America at a young age. European culture is saturated with all things American, such as cheeseburgers, Hollywood blockbusters, MacDonalds, literature, and more. In school, the Dutch learn about the Second World War and the liberation of the Netherlands by U.S. soldiers. Indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, the belief in the American hero is alive and well.
My first visit to the United States was in 2007, traveling through the Midwest in an RV with my family. At the tender age of 14, America is like a dream come true. As a matter of fact, at one point, I seriously considered sneaking off at night to start life anew on American soil. I was just baffled by Yosemite National Park, all the rivers and the immeasurable nature, the wildlife, San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, pancakes and milkshakes for breakfast, burgers for lunch, and barbecue for dinner. It’s a life that’s easy to get used to. When we got on the plane back to Amsterdam, I was heartbroken.
Five years later, I visited Canada, working as a cherrypicker in the Okanagan Valley and hitchhiking through the Rocky Mountains for two months. It’s not the United States, true, but still the American continent. And my love for the country, for the ease of traveling, for life on the road, and for the ruggedness and wildness of its nature was deepened even further.
Another two-month-long trip followed in 2018 when my girlfriend and I drove from New York to Florida, onwards to New Orleans, and back North through the Great Smoky Mountains. My goodness, the East Coast was a whole different beast. Older and deeper, with a history and culture to show for it. It’s the trip that made me interested in the Revolutionary Wars and the Civil War and the great men and Presidents spawned by these difficult times. We celebrated Thanksgiving with friends in Atlanta, GA, ate gator tail in NOLA, hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, and snorkeled in Florida. Simple stuff but life-altering.
My last trip to the U.S. was in 2022, from October to December, when my girlfriend and I fulfilled our dream of driving an RV from one coast to the other, from New York City to San Francisco. This time, I was able to introduce my three-year-old daughter to the beauty of the U.S. Also, in the meantime, I had obtained a Master’s degree in “Literary Studies” with a focus on American authors. In particular, those who lived in Paris, France, in the 1920s. Enter Ernest Hemingway.
Studying American Literature
Since I was about fifteen, I dreamed of becoming a full-time musician, but I quickly found that as a songwriter, I could only take my lyrics so far. It was frustrating to listen to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan at one moment and then grab a guitar and discover that I did not have it in me to write a single line that would resonate like theirs. What added to my frustration was that 99% of Dutch artists sang dull and meaningless English lyrics (despite the Dutch’s reputation for our mastery of the English language), and I was apparently about to become one of them.
So I figured the following: make music and practice as much as you can while studying the language of the great songwriters, and you’ll find a way to make it work—so no conservatoire for me, but “English Language and Culture” at the University of Amsterdam. My studies introduced me to many great works, among them Ernest Hemingway’s, whose work I liked immediately. It was fierce, natural, effortless, and rugged. Add to that his personal life: the bullfighting, the hunting, and his crazy trips around the world and up and down America, and you got yourself a fan.
Hemingway’s “In Our Time”
For those unfamiliar with Hemingway’s life, here comes Hemingway’s lightning biography up until 1925: Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park (a suburb of Chicago), did some work as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, and when he was 18 he joined the Great War as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front. He was the first American to get wounded, received a medal for his bravery, and got sent back to Chicago, where he became estranged from his family. The war had left its scars, both visible and invisible. He married Hadley Richardson in Northern Michigan (where his parents had a summer home), and they set sail for Paris, arriving in December 1921. Here, Hemingway set to work, writing fiction at breakneck speed whenever he could while still working as a reporter. Gertrude Stein, already an established American expatriate in the French capital, convinced him to quit sidelining and focus on the only thing that really mattered: his fiction. First, Hemingway published “Three Stories and Ten Poems” (1923), but he really made his mark with “In Our Time” (1925), his debut short-story collection.
Although not his most famous work, “In Our Time” is utterly fascinating. As for me, every time I read it, I find myself transported to the 1920s and into (what I believe makes up) the mind of a 26-year-old Ernest Hemingway, making his mark among his revolutionary peers, and putting down words that have not lessened in effect or impact over the course of the last hundred years. Indeed, the stories from his debut short-story collection feel as fresh and invigorating as they must have been when they were first published in 1925. It is full of nature (in particular the woods of Northern Michigan), the consequences of the war on a young mind, bullfighting, broken men and women, and something which I like to call the aesthetics of cruelty. In Hemingway’s literary universe, the world is a dark and wicked place, but there is also deep beauty and an explosive intensity to be experienced. “In Our Time” demonstrates Hemingway’s understanding of the concept of sonder (although he probably had never heard of the word itself). This was a time in his life when he listened carefully and remembered everything. As a result, the stories give us glimpses of the independent verities of other people’s lives.
My favorite story, “The Three-Day Blow,” about getting drunk with a dear friend and about the adolescent search for identity, feels like living someone else’s life for just a few minutes, in this case, the partly autobiographical character of Nick Adams (protagonist for many of the stories from “In Our Time”). Hemingway understands better than anyone else how eating and drinking, although seemingly ordinary, can actually determine how we live and infuse our life with meaning and essence. There are no sweeping statements in these stories. Instead, Hemingway dissects the world brush stroke by brush stroke.
“Soldier’s Home” recounts the homecoming of Krebs, a war veteran who finds himself at odds with the society he grew up in. Having seen the world at its worst, he can no longer identify with the ambitions dictated by traditional American values and Western capitalism.
“Big Two-Hearted River” is about becoming one with nature, doing the small things in life just right, and finding solace in fishing, hiking, and being outdoors. Especially in our times of social media and self-presentation, this story feels poignant and intensely relevant to the 21st century. Some of the devices applied by Hemingway in “In Our Time” are so revelatory and everlasting that even he had a hard time finding a similar groove in his later works. As Hemingway grew older, he was obsessed with writing “truly” and getting to the core of the matter. However, nowhere did he succeed more gracefully and seemingly effortlessly than he did in the short stories contained in In Our Time.
Putting Hemingway to Music
My love for music, Ernest Hemingway’s literature, and America made me realize that I had something to say no one else could say. You find your path through the passions that come to you naturally. For years now, I had the dream of writing a literary/musical work, and I finally realized that it should be Hemingway’s “In Our Time,” so I set out to write a song for each of the seventeen stories contained in the volume. I locked myself into a log cabin and demoed, wrote, and recorded the lion’s share of the songs that would become my own “In Our Time”: an artwork that combined both literature and music.
It wasn’t easy, and the project presented some unique challenges — Should this story become a song in major or minor? Does this story even need lyrics? What the hell am I even doing? — but it turned out to be something I am immensely proud of. The album is intimate and personal, with subdued string arrangements, fingerpicked acoustic guitars, flutes, and close mic’ed vocals. It stays true to Hemingway’s work while simultaneously remaining a work of music in its own right.
I recently read somewhere that, as an artist, we only have complete control over the creative process, not the results and where it may end up, so we better enjoy and embrace the process. I know I certainly did because, for me, the process was not just making the record but my entire life. From now on, as I will be releasing the songs from the album, it is up to you, the listener, to take it and do with it what you want.
Isn’t it crazy to think that while you are reading this, there is a mustachioed man in Kathmandu fixing a bike, gazing upon Mount Everest; there is a baby being born in a delivery room in Athens, Greece; there is someone having the worst day of their life, and someone having the best day of their life; there’s a car crash on the L.A. turnpike; there’s an old woman dying in total obscurity in American Fork, Utah; there’s a tree falling in an empty forest, and a whale eating a blubber fish… For a brief moment in time, a random collection of living beings share their lives on a tiny rock hurling through an immense universe, and we humans fill the vacuum of our lives with Netflix shows, sky-gazing, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Sonder! What a ridiculous thing to be aware of… I’m just glad you took the time to read my little story on Hemingway and how I have lived my life up until now. Now don’t be a stranger! I hope you listen to my music, and if you’d like to share your opinion, I would be honored to hear it.