A brief survey of the short story part 34: Ernest Hemingway
Stripping down fiction to austere minimalism, these are some of the most influential stories ever written
Chris Power by The Guardian
Ernest Hemingway in 1960. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
“Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft that burns,” Ernest Hemingway told the Paris Review in 1958. “He learns several important things very quickly.” By the time he made this statement, which seems almost to parody his macho persona, Hemingway’s long and hugely successful career as a writer was effectively over. He had been in two successive plane crashes in 1954 when he had gone on safari to recapture the happiness, and perhaps the inspiration, he experienced on a similar trip to British East Africa in 1933. That expedition had inspired the last two major stories he wrote, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Their publication in 1936 marked the end of a remarkable 13 years in which Hemingway left an indelible mark on the short story.
Hemingway’s earliest published stories are stark formal experiments. In Our Time (1924), a 32-page book of vignettes often just a paragraph long, describes scenes from the first world war (Hemingway served in the Red Cross in Italy), the Greco-Turkish war, criminal life, and the bullring. They rank with Felix Fénéon‘s elevation of faits-divers to the status of art, but are fired by an even greater intensity through what Edward Said identifies as their “incredible purity of line and severity of vision”.
“When he was young,” Frank Kermode notes of Hemingway, “he worked very hard at never saying anything the way anybody else would say it, and his success was remarkable.” His numerous influences include Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and his Parisian mentors Pound, Stein, and Ford Madox Ford. He only became derivative later in his career, and then only of his younger self. His next two collections, 1925’s expanded In Our Time, which interleaved the vignettes between longer stories, and 1927’s Men Without Women, saw him hone his style to acuteness, producing writing so compressed that, as Frank O’Connor writes, “[a]t an extreme point it attempts to substitute the image for the reality”.
A New Republic review of 1927 compared Hemingway’s prose to cubism, but the more direct comparison is with the powerful “form as content” approach Joyce developed in Dubliners. Blended with Hemingway’s journalism training and the tenets of Pound’s Imagism, this results in prose that deals with its subject in short, simple sentences mostly comprised of nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly, synonyms are spurned; key words are repeated in patterns to evoke the thing itself, as in the introduction to “In Another Country”:
“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and snow powdered the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds flew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”
The sense of “cold fall” permeates, dominating the paragraph’s beginning and end, while the repetition of “wind” is remorseless; it whips around you as you read. Amid this concrete description, the detail of the dead deer hanging “empty” is particularly resonant. This ascetic style’s material effect is that the stories’ meaning often lies hidden deep within the words, or even in the spaces between them. Joseph M Flora has said that “deciphering nuance quickly becomes the primary challenge to [Hemingway’s] readers”. Hemingway’s most powerful stories are masterpieces of implication, “conveying,” HE Bates wrote, “emotion and atmosphere without drawing up a tidy balance sheet of descriptions about them”.
Consider “Big Two-Hearted River”, outwardly a methodical description of a trout-fishing trip during which absolutely nothing unusual happens. Nick Adams (an autobiographical character who appears in two dozen Hemingway stories) camps, fishes, and considers then decides against fishing a nearby swamp. Yet despite this calm surface it is, as Italo Calvino describes, “a very depressing tale, with a sense of oppression… of vague anguish besetting [Nick] on all sides”. The concrete reality of the story is subtly shown to be a slender bridge spanning dark torrents.
Charles May describes this story as “the best example of Hemingway’s transformation of ordinary everyday objects and events into projections of psychic distress”. Nick has returned from the war psychologically damaged and is attempting to rehabilitate, but none of this is mentioned. This omission follows what Hemingway calls the “iceberg principle”, which many lesser writers have foundered on. “A writer who omits things because he does not know them,” Hemingway writes, “only makes hollow places in his writing”. In his stories these lacunae are pregnant absences where raw emotion lies encoded. They are almost all there is to what many regard the quintessential Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, in which an abortion is discussed but never explicitly mentioned. The couple’s desultory conversation swarms with unarticulated meanings.
Taken as a whole, Hemingway’s fiction portrays a brutal world dominated by conflict and surrounded by nothingness: the “nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada” the waiter recites in 1933’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. In that story, however, we see an example of the “Hemingway code”, in which the arbitrary violence and meaninglessness of life is met with dignity, which in turn confers meaning. This battle informs “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936). Although for me one of his less successful stories (like Calvino, “I cannot take ‘lyricism’ in Hemingway“), it nevertheless contains individual passages that rank alongside nearly anything else in his oeuvre. Some of the dying writer’s memories are as sharply evocative as the early vignettes, while his description of the “sudden evil-smelling emptiness” of death is as compelling as Tolstoy’s “black sack” in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.
It’s fashionable to knock Hemingway, but risible as certain aspects of his life and work may be, the influence of his best writing seems to be underestimated not because of its lack of relevance, but its ubiquity. You don’t have to look hard to find a short-story writer influenced by Carver, for example, and to be influenced by Carver is to be influenced by Hemingway, whether consciously or not. Taste is subjective, but the literary impact of Hemingway’s spare, complex stories is measurable and profound.