I decided to read a good sampling of Ernest Hemingway’s writing before watching “Hemingway,” the latest Ken Burns’ documentary. I had read his novels and short stories in young adulthood, and his writing then had impressed me as boring, monotonous, and uninspiring, leaving me with the thought, “What’s the point of all this gloom and banality about life and earth and the merry-go-round of drinking in French and Spanish cafes? I recall not liking at all The Old Man and the Sea.
At nineteen, I preferred more florid prose, rich with complex sentences and subordinate clauses, an interesting latticework of interconnected ideas, the type of composition the good Catholic nuns taught me. Hemingway’s simple declarative sentences mixed with his long stream of them compounded by “and,” sounded flat in my ear. I needed more imagination and age perhaps to fill in the gaps.
During the past few weeks, I read his first novels–The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Of the three, I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls best, because it gives more of a back story on Robert Jordan and the characters such as Pilar, Maria, and Pedro are more fully drawn. He goes beyond the simple declarative “iceberg” style of the first two books. There’s more description of setting, another of my preferences. I acknowledge the poignant tragedies of the plots. I don’t find the romance between Maria and Robert ridiculous as does Mario Vargas Llosa in the Burns’ documentary. Maria is emotionally wounded and the tender sexual encounter with Robert is her path to healing after a brutal rape. When I first read Hemingway, I had never been in love, never married, had never been emotionally scarred — so of course, I had difficulty responding to the unstated, the nuances, of his portrayal of male-female relationships.
I also read A Moveable Feast and twenty-six of his short stories. His style achieved greatness in the short story, but I find it ill-suited for the expansiveness of the classical novel form. When it comes to novels, there are many greater novelists in English and other languages, mainly because he restricts himself to one main theme — the inevitability of death and the need to confront it as a man. Maybe as a woman, his manly pounding of the hairy chest, is what wearies me so about Hemingway. “Give me a break,” I want to cry.
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In my late forties, I had the experience of hunting, of shooting a deer for food. I realized then that I am an animal too, preying on other animals. Yet even so, I have a hard time relating to Hemingway’s glee in killing a beautiful lion or African buffalo. His list of animals killed on his safari was revolting. Like Hemingway, I have enjoyed fishing, the thrill of reeling in that big one, and dining on trout and tuna. His African stories are as much about killing animals as they are about hurting in countless ways the woman or man in your life. His mastery of complexity in simplicity assures his stature in American literature. I agree with many critics that “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are probably his finest stories. In 1954, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for The Old Man and the Sea, an extended short story or novella, rather than for a novel. The critics bashed the later novels.
The biography of the man is more interesting to me than his writing. Ken Burns’ documentary makes this point also. Hemingway created an oversized image of himself, and eventually he could not separate myth from reality. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the dying American hunter Harry thinks: “It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.”
Hemingway said that he searched for the one true sentence. In this passage he states the truth about himself. His life was always about seeking the next adventure. The next adventure always kept him from killing himself and gave him something to write about. With alcoholism aggravating underlying manic depression, he had to kill himself in 1961, because he could not write anymore.
Is Hemingway’s writing the stuff of greatness, of genius? I don’t know. I think it is his tragic personal story. A final eulogy may be that Hemingway brought the reporter’s style guidelines of The Kansas City Star to full flowering in twentieth-century fiction.
The image of Ernest Hemingway is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1926, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal.