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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Observations on some Ernest Hemingway short stories

Coming back to Ernest Hemingway short stories after many years and, yes, they are still as astonishing, fresh, and disturbing as I remembered - more so, actually. When I first read In Our
Time so many years ago I don't think I could have had any appreciation of their originality and their precision - they seemed to me then beautiful accounts of various moments in time, but I could not possibly have understood the significance of these stories, their place in literary history, their place in history, or their inter-relations. Each time I've come back to them I see more and am more amazed as EH's craft and courage. Just a few notes to give a sense of what I see in them now. The 1920s stories, many collected in In Our Time, touch on a wide range of themes of course: World War I, boyhood in upper Michigan peninsula (the Nick Adams stories), returning from war, life in Europe - Spain in particular - after the way, men alone, men and women, the outdoors, race, bullfighting, drinking - all of the Hemingway themes, obviously, but in extremely concentrated form. Looking briefly at two superficially very different stories: first, Big Two-Hearted River, one of the longest of EH's stories (in two parts) though shorter than the typical F. Scott Fitzgerald stories (writers were paid well then, and probably by the word). River is a Nick Adams story; on the surface, he gets off a train at a remote station, hikes for much of the day, makes camp, in a typical EH passage "It was a good camp," which says it all, spends a day trout fishing, that's it. Easy to look at this and think it's just the best field-and-stream essay ever written, but why is it a great story?: it's also in a sense a life journey (at mid-point in my life's journey ... as Inferno begins) - he gets off the train at a mall town that's been destroyed sometime in the past by fire, Biblical ruin, echo of war?, which maybe Nick has seen and left behind? - it seems he may be one of the returning soldiers but we don't know. We remember Nick from one of the early stories - Indian Camp - learning from his father, and here we see him entirely independent, making camp in the days before high-tech popup tents, using a hatchet to carve tentpoles etc. He's completely alone - many EH stories are dependent on great dialogue but this has none at all - as he walks follows the course of the river - downstream it would seem though this is not obvious. After fishing he looks further downstream and sees a swampy area with low overhang - he won't enter the swamp. There is good fishing where he has camped - and there's a sense of darkness in life a head, of holding onto a moment of solitude and sunlight, hoping it can endure which it cannot. Two-hearted? - river has beauty and ugliness, gives life, and takes it away - the man is an intruder and predator, but also part of the natural world himself. Enough for now. But a quick thought on the completely different Hills Like White Elephants. What does the title mean? The story - man and woman wait for train in rural Spain, heading for Madrid where she may undergo an unspoken medical procedure (abortion?), drinking heavily, she tries to charm him with her observation that the hills look like white elephants. He doesn't react much, which disappoints her; does anyone notice that this is not the kind of observation EH would ever make? that he virtually never uses simile, and rarely metaphor? In her observation, in the very title of the story, we see the mismatch between the man and the woman - completely different ways of perceiving the world and of using language.

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