My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Hemingway used to be overrated and is now if anything underrated. Once venerated for promoting a code of restrained masculine heroism forged in war, he is now execrated by the critics of “toxic masculinity.” Neither variant of gender politics, however, provides an answer to the question of whether or not his works are any good.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro offers a convenient opportunity for a literary reappraisal of Hemingway’s stylings. The book is a brief showcase of Hemingway’s short fiction published in 1961—the year of the author’s death—though almost all the stories in the collection, some of the author’s most famous, appeared in the modernist decades of the 1920s and ’30s.
The title story, first published in 1938, and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936)—two expansive tales of white men on safari in Africa—bookend the shorter stories that make up the middle of the collection. These shorter stories are the most “Hemingwayesque.” Like their dual inspirations in high and low culture—Imagist poetry, journalism, perhaps even early radio and talkie cinema—their narratives are pared down to just the telling detail and their stories are conveyed mostly in dialogue. Moreover, the dialogues are never straightforward; characters only imply what they mean, they talk past each other, they repeat themselves, they circle difficult subjects. Above all they try never to disclose what they feel, even as the means they use to conceal their affect only heightens attention to their anguished inner lives.
The self-enclosed tough-guy universes Hemingway writes about, from the armies of the Great War to the criminal underworld to the culture of sport, are ruled by codes of decorum as inflexible as anything in the epicene cosmos of Henry James’s transatlantic upper class. James’s dictum for the fiction writer to “dramatize” rather than employing the expository narration that dominated in the novel from Walter Scott to George Eliot fits Hemingway’s subject matter as much as it fit James’s.
“The Killers” (1927) is the classic example. In this famous story, Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams is working in a diner when two hired hitmen come in to wait for a boxer they plan to murder. Most of the story’s suspense is created by the evasive dialogue of the titular killers. Empty patter occupies our attention while we wait for an “orgastic” (to borrow from Fitzgerald) climax that that may or may not come. As a number of other critics have noted, all of Tarantino comes out of this story:
“Well, bright boy,” Max said, looking into the mirror, “why don’t you say something?”
“What’s it all about?”
“Hey, Al,” Max called, “bright boy wants to know what it’s all about.”
“Why don’t you tell him?” Al’s voice came from the kitchen.
“What do you think it’s all about?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think?”
Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.
“I wouldn’t say.”
“Hey, Al, bright boy says he wouldn’t say what he thinks it’s all about.”
Another classic example of the “Hemingwayesque” can be found in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933), a beautiful mood piece about a late-night cafe and the pleasures and sorrows of urban alienation, about the need for a “third place” (neither home nor work) to go to be alone among strangers and stave off the nihilism that descends on us all from time to time:
“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said.
“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
“I want to go home and into bed.”
“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”
“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”
“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”
The longer stories in this pared-down and dialogue-driven vein, such as “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” (first published in this collection) and “Fifty Grand” (1927), strike me as less successful. Hemingway’s techniques pursued at length come to seem gimmicky, especially with third-person narration where you can’t explain the distinctive style as the narrator’s essential voice (as you can with Jake Barnes: this is why The Sun Also Rises is so effective). As well, the stories that lavish the “Hemingwayesque” on traditionally sentimental subjects, such as the Nick Adams tale “Fathers and Sons” (1933), make one wonder that this variant of modernism was ever thought anti-sentimental when it is only another route to the tearjerker.
The technique is also dispiritingly easy to historicize—we can just arrogate this way of writing to the Age of Freud and its theses on repression. Because Hemingway provides so little beyond bare narrative and dialogue and the rather simple emotions they imply, his stories are unable to circumscribe the contemporaneous ideas that would explain and contain them within any larger context of their own. This is one difference between major work and minor work. Faulkner, with his ever unreliable narrators and opacities of grand language, is able to throw back in the critic’s face the ultimate futility of explaining anything. Can Hemingway’s work do the same? A writer needs a total vision; Hemingway, unfortunately, had only a total style.
The two stories that begin and end the collection are larger than the stories they encompass, and both take us further afield—to the hunting grounds of eastern Africa where rich white men go to live the “strenuous life” on safari with their trophy wives. This is an experience more difficult to relate to or to admire—for me at least!—and I found the claustrophobia of the Hemingway hero’s straitened consciousness all the more confining for the African vista it here commands.
Nevertheless, the title story’s authorial surrogate Harry, dying of gangrene, is the occasion for some poignant recollections of both the war and of shell shock in ex-pat interwar Paris, as if providing a little digest of modernist living. You also get a glimpse of a Hemingway who is less remarked these days: the man of the Left:
Around that Place there were two kinds; the drunkards and the sportifs. The drunkards killed their poverty that way; the sportifs took it out in exercise. They were the descendants of the Communards and it was no struggle for them to know their politics. They knew who had shot their fathers, their relatives, their brothers, and their friends when the Versailles troops came in and took the town after the Commune and executed any one they could catch with calloused hands, or who wore a cap, or carried any other sign he was a working man. And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.
“The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936), about a love triangle on safari among a callow rich American, his actress wife, and a British “white hunter” who leads his clients on the hunt, is a brilliantly constructed tale of masculine initiation and dissolution. This dissolution—that is, the end of the initiation in futile death—calls the story’s polemically male ethos into question and serves to cut its fairly flagrant misogyny with a bit of irony.
Be a damn fire eater now. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.
So how good is Hemingway’s work? As a primer on basic techniques for relieving fictional narrative of extraneous details or emotions, it is superb; as a guide to the inner lives of the men of a certain generation—and these men, it should be said, suffered enormously in and as a result of the Great War, a fact often neglected in today’s sometimes flip dismissal of “white male” etc.—it remains moving and helpful. On the other hand, there are writers of the same era—I think of a variety from Joyce to Cather—who were able to do what Hemingway could and also much more. Rated at his proper value, and to use a military idiom he might appreciate, he is a writer of the second rank.