Saturday, June 12

Considering "The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition"

Hemingway's legend precedes him. Not his reputation, mind you. His legend. It goes beyond a general recognition of the superior quality of his writing and his preferred themes. It goes into his very life. I don't know how many other writers can pull this off. Tolstoy and Dickinson, definitely. Eliot, Vonnegut, Woolf and Salinger, maybe, to a lesser extent.

About Hemingway's work I know that he once wrote about a man deep-sea fishing and wrote more than a few times about World War I and the Spanish Civil War. I also know that he won a Noble Prize for Literature. About his life, I know that he drove an ambulance in World War I. I know that he practiced journalism for a spell and that its style had a lasting influence on his fiction. I know that he spent a lot of time in Paris. I know that he was a chronic alcoholic. I know that he died in Key West.

It's a fascinating experience. I wouldn't call it a pleasant experience, but fascinating is appropriate. I read his stories and look for evidence of this personality and character, those instances where the reality touches and informs the fiction. Heminway favors protagonists who are writers and reporters, most often on the fringe of the action rather than in the thick of it. A good many stories are set in and around and throughout Spain, Italy, Florida and Cuba. The characters drink a lot. They drink at the end of work. They drink in boats. They drink in cars. His sentences toward the brutal in their lack of adornment and pointedness.

It's a foolish exercise. What writer doesn't draw upon their life experiences, their philosophies, their family and friends to create their stories? A teacher read to my class in elementary the memoirs of Gary Paulson. Later that year he read some of his stories, The Raft and The Winter among them. I was disappointed to discover just how many of the scenes and incidents in those were drawn from his personal experiences. Know enough of a writer and one will find that knowledge reflected in their works without effort.

Which is what makes the departures from what one would expect knowing the stories of Hemingway all the more interesting. By all accounts, Hemingway lived his life outloud. He sought the parties and did not flinch from attention. His characters are nobodies and outsiders. At best, they are the ones recording the exploits of heroes and the successful, or their guides in foreign lands. They are cold and withdrawn men. Even those like Manuel Garcia in "The Undefeated" who seeks glory in a final bullfight or Harry in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" don't seem very much to care. It's something else to mark the passage of time, not so different from taking another drink.

What does this reveal about Hemingway that is not immediately present in his biographies and profiles? Are these characters, seemingly so closely modeled on him in their professions and political interests, signs of how Hemingway saw himself? How he wished he were?

Is this even the right question to be posing? This one may be a bit much to ask now. It goes to the very reason we read. Do we read to learn about the individual or about the universal? Do all the particulars of the story in the characters and their concerns, the settings, the times matter only insofar as they reveal the universal? Do all the particulars of all the stories only matter insofar as they ultimately reveal the greatest particular, the writer alone? I tend toward the former, but that's less the point here. Hemingway's legend distracts. It intrudes on the stories and breaks them apart.

Of the stories themselves, I find it odd that they would remind me so much of Chekhov when Hemingway held him in such little regard that he wrote, "Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer." For both of them, it's difficult to even refer to the majority of their works as stories. That would imply a beginning, middle and end to the action, but those are difficult, if not nigh impossible, in most of the pieces. It would be better to describe them as sketches. Characters are introduced. They enter a place. They interact with others. Nothing of consequence happens. They leave. The piece ends. Resolution is rarely offered, but that's understandable as the conflict itself, if at all in existence, is buried deep.

So, like in the case of Chekhov, it was difficult for me to enjoy most of what I read by Hemingway. I like it when things happen in stories. Except for "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," "The Capital of the World," "The Undefeated," and "Under the Ridge," not incidentally my favorites in this 650-page collection, things don't happen in Hemingway's short fiction.

Not to say it isn't good work. Even the most obtuse in the collection has the ability to affect in a hurried read. It's just difficult, and when that difficulty is repeated from the beginning every few pages, it becomes too much. Reading straight through this Finca Vigía edition was a terrible idea. Hemingway's stories and sketches work best as palette cleansers that strip all the unnecessary out of the story and even some of the necessary in an early challenge to see what really is essential. Hemingway is even kind enough to provide palette cleansers to his own stories with fifteen "chapters" interpolated between stories. It's telling when as much action is depicted and implied in these one and two paragraph pieces and their scenes of war as the full surrounding stories.

1 comment:

Brian Gordon Sinclair said...

Greetings from HEMINGWAY ON STAGE at
I enjoyed your questioning nature. If you would like to learn more about Hemingway and get a real sense of the man, come and see my play HEMINGWAY'S HOT HAVANA at the Hemingway Days Festival in Key West, July 22,23.