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Hemingway-A-Day

As a pleasant diversion, I'll be reading one Hemingway story a day from The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories and posting some thoughts here.

The following story is the final one in the collection. I'll be posting my general thoughts about the book as a whole within the next few days.

Date: Wednesday, July 25
Story: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
Impression: A remarkable story which is both a big-game hunting adventure and an interior portrait of a bitterly unhappy marriage. Macomber makes an embarrassing display of cowardice after wounding a lion, which his wife is more than happy to exploit to strengthen her already-upper hand in their relationship. But a later hunt for water buffalo emboldens him, making him "come of age" at the not-so-tender age of 35, culminating in a tragic incident which may or may not have been an accident.
Qualm: None whatsoever. Even the blatant misogyny of Wilson, while appalling to this reader, fits perfectly within the context of the narrative. A simply terrific story.
Passage:
    Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped short like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in that same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was very good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.
    "Here's to the lion," he said. "I can't ever thank you for what you did."
    Margaret, his wife, looked away from him and back to Wilson.
    "Let's not talk about the lion," she said.


Date: Tuesday, July 25
Story: "Fifty Grand"
Impression: Very straightforward story about an aging boxer, at the end of his career and running on fumes, preparing for his final fight. He sees no chance to win, and instead bets what is presumably his life savings--the fifty grand of the title--on his opponent. He's abetted by two gamblers (associates of his clearly unscrupulous manager) who, as it turns out, try to double-cross him by getting his opponent to hit him below the belt, which would win him the fight but lose him all of his money, along with the comfortable post-boxing life he plans for himself. But the boxer is shrewd and quick thinking ("It's funny how fast you can think when it means that much money") and refuses to go down to the mat. The fight sequence is quite riveting.
Qualm: None in particular, though perhaps I'd like to see at least one of the characters--the boxer, the trainer, the manager--question, at least slightly, the morality of the situation. Unless, of course, Hemingway is implying that everyone in the fight game is so unscrupulously immoral that no would even think to question it.
Passage:
    "Listen, Jerry," Jack put down the glass. "I'm not drunk now, see? You know what I'm betting on him? Fifty grand."
    "That's a lot of dough."
    "Fifty grand," Jack says, "at two to one. I'll get twenty-five thousand bucks. Get some money on him, Jerry."
    "It sounds good," I said.
    "How can I beat him?" Jack says. "It ain't crooked. How can I beat him? Why not make money on it?"
    "Put some water in that," I said.
    "I'm through after this fight," Jack says. "I'm through with it. I got to take a beating. Why shouldn't I make money on it?"

Date: Monday, July 24
Story: "A Way You'll Never Be"
Impression: A shellshocked American GI--the ubiquitous Nick Adams, now making his third appearance in the collection--wanders through Italy during WWI, either having been relieved of combat duty or simply AWOL. Near the front he finds a battalion under the command of an old cohort of his, and claims to have been sent by the American consul as a morale boost to the Italian troops, who supposedly would take his appearance to mean that American intervention is forthcoming. His old friend the commander is understandably concerned for Adams' well-being, but appears even more concerned for the morale of his troops--if the infantry sees the woeful Adams as an example of American aid, they're likely to become even more disillusioned than they already are--and subtly sends Adams on his way.
Qualm: There is a thoroughly bewildering passage--a rambling, two-page-long paragraph--which shows the chaotic thoughts going through Adams' damaged mind as he tries to sleep. While I know this passage is intended to show how mentally imbalanced he is, it's also a very difficult read. His later rant, in which he instructs a baffled group of the commander's assistants on the importance of using grasshoppers for fly-fishing bait, is rather comic in tone and brings across his derangement much more easily.
Passage:
    "Don't worry," Nick said. "I'll go in a little while."
    "Lie down a little while, Nicolo."
    "All right."
    He shut his eyes, and in place of the man with the beard who looked at him over the sights of a rifle, quite calmly before squeezing off, the white flash and clublike impact, on his knees, hot-sweet choking, coughing it onto the rock while they went past him, he saw a long yellow house with a low stable and the river much wider than it was and stiller. "Christ," he said. "I might as well go."
    He stood up.

Date: Friday, July 21
Story: "The Killers"
Impression: Two mob hitmen take over a small-town lunchroom, lying in wait for their target, an ex-heavyweight boxer who apparently doublecrossed their bosses. The boxer never arrives, and the hitmen depart, with puzzling nonchalance. The scene in which the lunchroom patron tracks down the boxer, who is holed up in his boardinghouse room stoically awaiting his fate, is quite touching in its quiet hopelessness.
Qualm: Despite its hardboiled premise--the looming execution of the boxer, the uncertain fates of the three innocent bystanders--the narrative is rather flat and mostly free of tension. The hitmen are casual rather than threatening, which points less to "banality of evil" than it does to their professional indifference. This is the least compelling story in the collection so far.
Passage:
    Ole Andreson rolled over toward the wall.
    "The only thing is," he said, talking toward the wall, "I just can't make up my mind to go out. I been in here all day."
    "Couldn't you get out of town?"
    "No," Ole Andresen said. "I'm through with all that running around."
    He looked at the wall.
    "There ain't anything to do now."

Date: Thursday, July 20
Story: "In Another Country"
Impression: The American narrator and an Italian major recuperate from their battle wounds in a Milan hospital during WWI. Besides coping with their physical wounds, each struggles to cope in other ways--the narrator for being an outsider who feels unworthy of his medal of valor, and the major in premature grief for his dying wife. The major's character is particularly well-developed, in just a few pages.
Qualm: The three decorated Italian soldiers are thinly drawn, which makes sense in that the narrator feels little kinship with them, and thus they are indeed ciphers to him. But although the narrator feels a connection with the other soldier ("the boy who had been wounded his first day at the front"), that character is barely there either, and could have been fleshed out considerably, to the story's benefit.
Passage:
    I was never ashamed of the ribbons, though, and sometimes, after the cocktail hour, I would imagine myself having done all the things they had done to get their medals; but walking home at night through the empty streets with the cold wind and all the shops closed, trying to keep near the street lights, I knew that I would never have done such things, and I was very much afraid to die, and often lay in bed at night by myself, afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again.
    The three with the medals were like hunting-hawks; and I was not a hawk, although I might seem a hawk to those who had never hunted; they, the three, knew better and so we drifted apart. But I stayed good friends with the boy who had been wounded his first day at the front, because he would never know now how he would have turned out; so he could never be accepted either, and I liked him because I thought perhaps he would not have turned out to be a hawk either.

Date: Wednesday, July 19
Story: "Fathers and Sons"
Impression: A man, Nick Adams, reflects on his deceased father and what the father taught him (hunting and fishing) and didn't teach him (sex), with the latter knowledge having been gained from an enthusiastic Indian girl, Trudy, whom Nick befriended in his youth. Recollecting his relationship with Trudy and her brother Billy, Nick muses on a vanished way of life while also interacting with his own young son. A vivid, elegaic tale.
Qualm: Nothing in particular, other than the observation that this is the third story out of five thus far in which the protagonist is a writer. Not that Hemingway is necessarily intruding into his own stories, but I'm starting to wish for a bit more authorial distance.
Passage:
    "They were Ojibways," Nick said. "And they were very nice."
    "But what were they like to be with?"
    "It's hard to say," Nick Adams said. Could you say she did first what no one has ever done better and mention plump brown legs, flat belly, hard little breasts, well holding arms, quick searching tongue, the flat eyes, the good taste of mouth, then uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended, the great bird flown like an owl in the twilight, only in daylight in the woods and hemlock needles stuck against your belly. So that when you go in a place where Indians have lived you smell them gone and all the empty pain killer bottles and the flies that buzz do not kill the sweetgrass smell, the smoke smell and that other like a fresh cased marten skin. Nor any jokes about them nor old squaws take that away. Nor the sick sweet smell they get to have. Nor what they did finally. It wasn't how they ended. They all ended the same. Long time ago good. Now no good.

Date: Tuesday, July 18
Story: "The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio"
Impression: In a small-town Montana hospital, thinking man Frazer is laid up with a badly broken leg, pondering all of the various "opiates of the masses" which people use to cope with everyday life, or in Frazer's case to avoid life entirely and dull his senses ("He was thinking well, a little too well."). Meanwhile, a comically naïve nun, Sister Cecilia, flits about, worrying about the Notre Dame football team and whether she'll fulfill her childhood ambition of becoming a saint--clearly, religion is her opiate-- while the two-bit gambler Cayetano recovers from taking two bullets in the stomach from a losing cardplayer. All in all, a well-set, thoughtful and effectively dialogued piece.
Qualm: Seems a bit heavy on dialogue until you consider that lengthy hospital stays in the days before television meant there was little to do but talk, in which case all of the conversation here makes perfect sense.
Passage:
    "Do you have bad luck with all games?
    "With everything and with women." He smiled again, showing his bad teeth.
    "Truly?"
    "Truly."
    "And what is there to do?"
    "Continue, slowly, and wait for luck to change."
    "But with women?"
    "No gambler has luck with women. He is too concentrated. He works nights. When he should be with the woman. No man who works nights can hold a woman if the woman is worth anything."
    "You are a philosopher."
    "No, hombre. A gambler of the small towns. One small town, then another, another, then a big town, then start all over again."
    "Then shot in the belly."
    "The first time," he said. "That has only happened once."

Date: Monday, July 17
Story: "A Day's Wait"
Impression: Very slight story about a young boy with influenza and his father's efforts to comfort the boy. Hemingway being Hemingway, the writer can't resist having the father, while the boy is resting, occupy himself by going outside with his rifle and shooting some quail. The poignancy of the scared boy's condition contrasts rather uneasily with the father's hunting exploits.
Qualm: The story is so brief (3 pages) and the prose so sparse that it really failed to engage me, either emotionally or intellectually.
Passage:
    Coming out while you were poised unsteadily on the icy, springy brush they made difficult shooting and I killed two, missed five, and started back pleased to have found a covey close to the house and happy there were so many left to find on another day.
    At the house they said the boy had refused to let anyone come into the room.
    "You can't come in," he said. "You mustn't get what I have."

Date: Friday, July 14
Story: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Impression: A brief but quietly moving piece, in which two waiters commiserate in their café near closing time, waiting for the last straggling customer to go home. The younger waiter is tired and impatient, eagerly longing to return home to his wife. The older waiter, quite alone, is in no hurry to go home, and ponders how important this "clean, well-lighted place" is to the local citizenry. Hemingway sets the story effectively and economically, imparting the physical setting--the late night café, probably in Spain, presumably during war or military occupation--in just a few spare paragraphs.
Qualm: None in particular, unless one prefers tidy endings. The story does finish inconclusively, leaving much unsaid about the older waiter's life.
Passage:
    "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 café."
    "Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long."
    "You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves."
    "Good night," said the younger waiter.
    "Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself.

Date: Thursday, July 13
Story: "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"
Impression: Marvelous story of an aging writer who is stranded on an African savannah and slowly dying of gangrene. With too much time on his hands and death steadily approaching, he regrets all of the stories he never got around to writing, "the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well," while also quietly resenting the security and comfort he settled for in marrying his rich wife, which led him to abandon the writing he saw as his true calling.
Qualm: There's a bit of a perspective problem in that while most of the story is written from the writer/protagonist's point of view, in the final passage he dies, with the point of view inevitably shifting to that of the wife. It's a problem that every fiction writer with a dying protagonist faces, but Hemingway handles it well, keeping the final passage brief and understated.
Passage:
    "If you have to go away," she said, "is it absolutely necessary to kill off everything you leave behind? I mean do you have to take away everything? Do you have to kill your horse, and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?"
    "Yes," he said. "Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour."
    "Don't."
    "All right. I'll stop that. I don't want to hurt you."
    "It's a little bit late now."
    "All right then. I'll go on hurting you. It's more amusing. The only thing I ever really liked to do with you I can't do now."

July 26, 2006 in Books | Permalink

Comments

Pete,

I like this story-a-day thing you've got going on. I've thought about doing it myself (with poems, too) but never seem to get around to it. I think you've inspired me.

You've also nudged me to revisit Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea blew me away (and remains one of my favorites), but For Whom the Bell Tolls and Farewell to Arms made me want to punch myself. Holy over-ratedness Batman....

- JS

Posted by: Joe Smith at Jul 18, 2006 2:35:59 PM

Pete, you might want to check out the 1964 film version of "The Killers," a loose adaptation that's a pretty good movie. Ronald Reagan is superb in his final role, playing against type as a villain. He gets to slap around Angie Dickinson, who smolders in her role. Lee Marvin, as one of the hired killers, is also very good.

Posted by: Richard at Jul 21, 2006 9:39:56 AM

I am curious to know what you think of what he did to Fitzgerald in "Francis Macomber."

Posted by: Richard at Jul 26, 2006 8:12:09 PM