Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hemingway short stories – Part 1

Back in college, I was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway. I read The Sun Also Rises several times, in several courses (actually, I first read it in high school), then took a senior seminar – i.e., an intensive, semester-long study of a single author – on Hemingway. I read quite a few of his short stories in that class, maybe 20-30 of them, and I’d read a few before it as well (most notably, the short story everybody has read, “Hills Like White Elephants”).

Well, as you may have noticed, I’m reading Hemingway’s short stories again now. And this time, my intention is to read them all – all 70 of the them. (That may sound like a lot, but consider that Anton Chekhov wrote something like 600!) I’m also keeping a little diary of my impressions of each one, so I thought it might be fun to share some of those thoughts here, a few stories at a time. Any interest? Assuming so – blogging really is, at least at the stage of composition, talking to oneself, isn’t it? – here are my first four from The First Forty-Nine:


“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
I especially like getting the lion’s perspective on being shot (terrible – that is, terribly convincing – though it is to read), because it shows a different reflection of Macomber’s fear. But the lion faces his fear (Macomber does not), earning Wilson’s respect – expressed tersely, in typical Hemingway fashion: “damned fine lion.” The dialogue in the story is terrific – subtle, snappy, and suggestive – and the characterization is masterful. The ambiguity of the ending (accident? murder?) is a real triumph of storytelling. Does it mean anything that the gun that kills Macomber is a Mannlicher?

“The Capital of the World”
The opening is terrific – there are so many Pacos, so many people in Madrid, but we’re going to hear about just one. To highlight that all the more, we keep hearing about all the fine details of a dozen other characters, all drifting in and out of the café where Paco works as a waiter – bit players in the brief, tragic life of the story’s central character. I love the attention to the details of what everybody else is doing at the moment Paco is dying, and on how their lives will go on, just as they always have, without him.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
A story chiefly about regret. And about dealing with (or failing to deal with) memories of past horrors, mainly the horrors of war. Interrupted by lengthy stream-of-consciousness passages more typical of Faulkner than of Hemingway. These passages are quite remarkable (though printed entirely in italics, they’re a little hard on the eyes), full of the images and afterimages, the sounds and echoes accumulated over a lifetime (one now nearing its end). How do you record the essential truths – or admit the lies – of your life? Can you? “Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” Wow, heavy. The story has a sensational ending – quite surprising.

“Old Man at the Bridge”
One of the shortest stories I’ve ever read. It’s really more of a snapshot, a momentary character study, just a single pose really, of two people shocked by war. One, a soldier trying to help villagers across a bridge to safety; the other, a loving old man, lost with worry over the animals he had been taking care of in his village. The cat would probably be able to fend for itself, but what about the goats? What would happen to them? It’s tragic to see this generous spirit so uprooted, more tragic still when you realize it’s just a reflection in miniature of the larger destructiveness of war, repeated in countless villages, wrecking countless lives. The last line is so depressing!

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