Monday, December 14, 2015

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

So now it was all over, he thought.  So now he would never have a chance to finish it.  So this was the way it ended in a bickering over a drink.  Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it.  For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity.  For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself.  It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.

Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew well enough to write them well.  Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.  Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the tarting.  Well, he would never know, now.

Hemingway is one of those blank spots for me--I read The Sun Also Rises eons ago, in high school, and nothing ever sense.  I don't know why.  Perhaps it seemed like the one notable thing about Hemingway, the extreme terseness of his style, was easy enough to appreciate without ever actually reading his work.  I get the famous iceberg metaphor--most of what happens in a story is beneath the surface.

But even still, appreciation is not reading, and the stories of The Snows of Kilimanjaro really do conceal remarkable deaths.  "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is only a couple of slim pages, but the story it tells is tremendous: two waiters gossip about a deaf patron who, they understand, recently tried to kill himself.  The younger waiter wants to go home; the older one knows what the cafe being open might mean to the deaf patron.  It is a "clean, well-lighted place," and a bastion against existential terror:

Turning off the electric night he continued the conversation with himself.  It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.  You do not want music.  Certainly you do not want music.  Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours.  What did he fear?  It was not fear or dread.  It was nothing that he knew too well.  It was all a nothing and man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.  Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada.  Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.  He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

Like the best writers, Hemingway captures a familiar feeling with words we didn't know were available.  Someone who can't sympathize with that feeling I do not understand, and suspect they must not read a lot of books.

Elsewhere, Hemingway uses this style to a different effect.  I especially enjoyed the story "A Day's Wait," about a boy who has a fever of 102.  He becomes silent and contemplative, until, at the story's end, he asks his father when he will die.  His French boarding school friends, you see, have told him that you can't survive a fever past 44 degrees--Celsius.  The reveal is funny, but the boy's steely reserve is, like the quiet resignation of the gangrenous vacationer in the title story (quoted above), subtly profound.  The concept is clever, but there is no sense of gimmickry.

I also found that Hemingway's reputation for unchecked machismo was overstated.  It seemed to me, from these stories, that Hemingway was as familiar with the hollowness of masculine posturing as much as anyone--just look at the final story, "The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber," about a stuffed-shirt so embarrassed by his running from a lion while hunting in Africa, that he gets himself killed by a water buffalo.  That outcome is not so surprising, but Hemingway, in his staccato way, fills the story with other kinds of dread: the dread that Macomber might be killed by his wife, who is disgusted by his cowardice, or by their guide, who sleep with Macomber's wife--or that he might kill them.  When it ends the way you thought it might, you find yourself surprised anyway, and a little sad about the inevitability of self-destruction.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

I'm pretty sure most of the machismo attributed to Hemingway is due to his real-life exploits and not his work. This is a great collection. I really like the story about the fever as well.