Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The Finca Vigia Edition. Scribners, New York. 1987. F; 8/18.
Here we have most of (several of the Nick Adams stories were published later) the short stories Hemingway wrote, many originally written in the 1930s but first published through the 1950s and others appearing after his suicide in 1961. I didn’t read them all. The “First Forty-Nine”, most of which were written in the 1930s, are probably the best-known, including The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls fifty years ago in university but didn’t know about these monstrously moral and ambiguous short stories.
They had quite an impact on me. They describe in beguilingly simple prose raw human emotion, mostly male, pulling no punches on issues of cowardice, loyalty, war, deceit, and romantic love. The settings range from hunting in Africa to the Spanish Civil War, and a series involving autobiographical Nick Adams, with his physician father as a young boy, and hunting and fishing alone in the wilderness. But the main preoccupation is moral ambiguity as men deal with critical double-edged situations in war, bullfights, love affairs, and the wilderness.
I’ll comment on a few of my favourites, but no plot alerts so if you want to read them and haven’t, skip this paragraph. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber tells of a wealthy Englishman married to a beautiful woman, both on the kind of hunting safari in Africa that took place in those long-ago years. The guide, Wilson, is a man’s (and woman’s) man, and we understand that Macomber, faced with a hiding wounded lion, shies away from his manly duty to confront the creature and puts the native employees at risk. That night he wakes to know that his wife has crept away to be with Wilson. The next day Macomber somehow overcomes his fear and failed manhood in a subsequent hunt, but is shot in the back as he bravely confronts a dangerous animal, ambiguously in respect of intent, by his wife. Happy, but only for about eight hours. In My Old Man a young boy faces knowing, the day his beloved jockey dad dies during a horserace, that he was a liar and a swindler. Fifty Grand deals with a possibly fixed boxing match and leaves a lot of the underlying sleazy dealing ambiguous. Cheating, hitting below the belt, making money unfairly, and being a good fighter are all tossed into a lottery machine we don’t see the number pop out of. Now I Lay Me is a psychological exploration of two probably injured soldiers (one of whom is Nick Adams) dealing with sleeplessness and with much more troubling personal issues. In God Rest You Merry Gentleman two doctors, on duty in the emergency room Christmas night, deal with a morally troubled young man who fears his sexual instincts and mutilates himself. One doctor is obviously better technically than the other, but may be involved in illegal abortions. Sea Change explores a man’s reaction to his girlfriend’s apparently preferring a lesbian partner, but floating above that strong (and in the 1930s very taboo) sex preference is respect and love between them that may be even stronger.
The list of powerful snapshots of ordinary people’s lives goes on. Better or worse, it’s a very capable storyteller’s struggle with a moral and violent world not making sense. We old-fashioned aesthetes like to imagine that there is a certain kind of sense when someone like Hemingway gets his teeth into a terrible dilemma and sets it out for us. Yes, we say, I have at least in imagination been in that bullring afraid or foolishly overconfident, at that society party watching my girlfriend trying to attract another man, in that wartime Spanish bar with imposters risking their lives, out fishing and captivated by that wilderness. I’ve experienced “misunderstood gaiety coming into contact with deadly seriousness”, and reading this story I experience it again.
Hemingway loved to be in the thick of the action, flew and travelled all over the world, risked his life in a crazy ideological war, drank heavily presumably to get away from fear and madness, was injured and head-injured multiple times, made and broke intense romantic relationships, eventually got old, and early one morning blew his head off with a shotgun. There are and have been millions of macho egotists, but not many that intensely headlong who can also write like DH Lawrence. Great stuff.