Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Papa, I Can Hear You

Shame-Faced Admission™: I’ve only read Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction. And not much of it at that.

“The Killers” turns up in numerous collections of noir writing and I devour it every time. “Fathers and Sons” I came across in an anthology, and it left a mark. There are one or two others, the titles of which escape me now. But his longer work is terra incognita to me.

Hemingway looms so large in American letters that I knew he had to be the first author I read as part of this project. So which book did I choose? The Nick Adams Stories, which:

a. is not a novel, and
b. contains the two stories I knew I’d read.

Hardly an auspicious beginning. But I view this process as a marathon. I don’t want to pull something early and come up lame.

The collection, originally published in 1972, is the first to put every story about Hemingway’s alter ego in chronological order, following Nick from childhood to fatherhood. Several of the pieces are incomplete, fragments of what Hemingway intended as longer works.

My favorite story was easily “Big Two-Hearted River,” in which Nick heads deep into the Michigan woods, builds a camp, and goes fishing. That’s it. The story benefits from being placed in sequence; it occurs after Nick has returned from action overseas, and his monastic trip is clearly a way for him to exorcise his demons. Curiously, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” the story that precedes it and illuminates what those demons are, was published eight years later.

But it’s not the context that gives the story its power; Rosemarie, who also read the book, said, “Sorry. All I got out of that one was fishing.” It’s the marriage of technique and theme. Hemingway describes simple actions with similar prose. The unadorned language mirrors Nick’s efforts: hard work, carefully observed, yields its own satisfactions. Knowing what Nick has recently endured only adds to the effect, allowing you to see how this trip heals him.

Rosemarie singled out “The Last Good Country,” an unfinished novella, in which Nick and his younger sister go on the run when Nick is accused of poaching. It has wonderful moments, but it’s obviously meant to be something more. “Fathers and Sons,” with Nick reflecting on his own youth while his son sleeps beside him, hasn’t lost any of its impact.

I’m ready to move on to Hemingway’s novels. Reading the short stories has been like peering into the windows of a house. Now I want to see what’s inside.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, you should definitely start with The Old Man and the Sea, then.

It's like a literary purgative. That'll get that crazy little hankering for Hemingway right out of your system.

9:27 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home