My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One time there was a bull and his name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers.
Hemingway’s reputation precedes him: a misogynistic, alcoholic, macho author whose maximum sentence length was five words. Given all this, it is difficult to understand why feminist, vegetarian, and highbrow folks often end up reading and enjoying his work—as I’ve seen happen. Clearly there is more to Hemingway than his myth; but separating the man from his reputation is especially difficult in his case, since the myth, however simplifying, has a substantial grain of truth.
The best place to begin this disentanglement may be his short stories. Hemingway was an excellent writer of short stories, perhaps even better than he was a novelist, and these stories display his style in concentrated form. More than that, the succession of tales allows the reader to see Hemingway in all his favorite attitudes, which makes this an ideal place for the critic to set to work.
The most conspicuous aspect of Hemingway’s writing is his style. He was, above all, a stylist; and his prose has probably been the most influential of the previous century. He uses simple words and avoids grammatical subordination; instead of commas, parentheses, or semicolons he simply uses the word “and.” The final affect is staccato, lean, and blunt: the sentences tumble forward in a series of broken images, accumulating into a disjointed pile. The tone is deadpan: neither rising to a crescendo nor ascending into lyricism. One imagines most lines read in a monotone.
On the level of story and structure, too, Hemingway is a stylist. He developed characteristic ways of omitting material and splicing scenes to disorient the reader. Between two lines of conversation, for example, many minutes may have elapsed. Characters typically talk around the issue, only eluding vaguely to the principle event that determined the story, thus leaving readers to grasp at straws. The most famous example of this may be “Hills Like White Elephants,” a sparse conversation between a couple in which they make (or don’t) a decision to do something (or other).
Hemingway’s most typical plot strategy is to fill a story with atmospheric descriptions and seemingly pointless conversations until everything suddenly explodes right before the end. My favorite example of this is “The Capital of the World,” which is hardly a story at all until the final moments. His protagonists (who are, to my knowledge, exclusively male) are most often harboring some traumatic memory and find themselves drifting towards the next traumatic event that ends the narrative. The uncomfortable darkness surrounding their past creates an anxious sense of foreboding about their future (which the events usually justify)—and this is how Hemingway keeps up the tension that gets readers to the end.
Hemingway is certainly not a writer of characters. An experiment will make this very clear. Read the dialogue of any of his protagonists out loud, and even Hemingway fans will have difficulty saying who is doing the talking. In short, all of his protagonists sound the same—like Hemingway himself. You might say that Hemingway had one big character with many different manifestations. Luckily this character is compelling—damaged but tough, proud but sensitive, capable of both callousness and tenderness—and, most important, highly original. A much underappreciated aspect of this character, by the way, is the humor. Hemingway had a dry and occasionally absurdist comedic sense, which can be seen most clearly in this collection in “The Good Lion” (a story about a lion who only eats Italian food).
His stories circle tightly around the same subjects: war, boxing, bullfighting, fishing, hunting, and desperate love affairs—with alcohol ever-present. Without doubt Hemingway was attracted to violence. But he is not a Tarantino, an aficionado of the aesthetics of violence. Rather, violence for Hemingway is not beautiful in itself but a kind of necessary crucible to reduce life to its barest elements. For with life, like prose, Hemingway was a minimalist and a purist. And the essential question of life, for him, was what a man did when faced with an overpowering force—whether this came in the form of a bull, a marlin, a war, or nature itself. And the typical Hemingway response to this conundrum is to go down swinging with a kind of grim resolve, even if you’d rather just not bother with the whole ordeal.
Nature plays an interesting double role in Hemingway’s fiction: as adversary and comforter. Sometimes characters escape into nature, like Nick Adams going fishing. Other times they must face it down, like Francis Macomber with his buffalo. Yet nature is never to be passively enjoyed, as a bird watcher or a naturalist, but must always be engaged with—as either predator or prey. Of course you always end up being the prey in the end; that’s not the question. The question is whether these roles are performed with dignity—bravery, resolve, skill—or without. Writing itself, for him, is a kind of hunting, a hunting inside of yourself for the cold truth, and must also be done bravely or the writer will end up producing rubbish. And even the writer ends up prey in the end—eaten by his own demons.
This, as far as I can tell, is Hemingway’s insistent theme—the central thread that ties his other interests together. And one’s final reaction to his work will thus rest on the extent to which one thinks that this view encapsulates reality. For me, and I believe for many, Hemingway at his best does capture an essential part of life, one that is usually missed or ignored. But such a universally cannibalistic world is difficult to stomach in large doses.
Even within the boundaries of his own style, Hemingway has some notable defects. He most often gets into trouble nowadays for his portrayal of women. And it is true that none of them, to my memory, are three-dimensional. What most puts me off is the cloyingly subordinate way that many of the women speak their partners. But what I found even more uncomfortable was Hemingway’s racist treatment of black characters, which was hard to take at times. And as I mentioned in another review, I can also do with fewer mentions of food and drink.
These criticisms are just small sample of what can be lodged at him. Yet even the harshest critic, if they are a sensitive reader, must admit that he is a writer who cuts deeply. When Hemingway’s story and his style hit their stride, the effect is powerful and unforgettable. My personal favorite is the paragraphs in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” when the narration switches to the lion’s point of view:
Macomber stepped out of the curved opening at the side of the front seat, onto the step and down onto the ground. The lion still stood looking majestically and coolly toward this object that his eyes only showed in silhouette, bulking like some super-rhino. There was no man smell carried toward him and he watched the object, moving his great head a little from side to side. Then watching the object, not afraid, but hesitating before going down the bank to drink with such a thing opposite him, he saw a man figure detach itself from it and he turned his heavy head and swung away toward the cover of the trees as he heard a cracking crash and felt the slam of a .30-06 220-grain solid bullet that bit his flank and ripped in sudden hot scalding nausea through his stomach.