I’ve chosen twelve Hemingway stories – and you can’t stop me. I won’t argue with you about Hemingway’s character. There are reasons he has become unfashionable. But those failings are part of his tragedy – and that tragedy also makes him fascinating. He was wounded right from the start. He was always lost, like so many of his generation. From this pain he produced some of the most astonishing prose of all time. His writing was not only technically accomplished and full of unforgettable images and symbolism, it was also sensitive, insightful and honest. He might have messed up his life, but in his pages he often got close to perfection. And here’s the proof:
‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (First published in transition in 1927, and then collected in Men Without Women, 1927)
This is one of Hemingway’s most famous stories and one of the best examples of his iceberg theory of writing. The idea is that he gets the most from the least. The few words you see on the surface have great weight and depth beneath them, hidden under the water.
Here we have a couple sitting at a table beside a train a station on a hot day. It feels like these two young people are there before us in HD, every line of their features delineated, every emotion revealed in extreme close up. Actually, Hemingway barely gives any more description than I gave in this paragraph’s first sentence. He just provides the station, the table, some beer and the heat. He leaves it to us to fill in the rest of the image, just as he leaves it to us to fill in the gaps in the couple’s stilted, frustrated conversation. The hard and painful thing they are talking about is barely mentioned. And yet we are made to know just what it is. I won’t say more about that here, for fear of bruising the delicate beauty of the story. Suffice to say, what we get by implication and silence is worth more than we would ever get if it were all spelled out. (The iceberg theory in a nutshell: Papa don’t preach.)
It’s an amazing technical feat – but when you read the story, none of that really matters. It’s the emotion that counts. The tragedy and fear and bleakness of the young couple’s situation. It’s also worth noting that it’s the female character who carries our sympathies and the moral weight of the story. There are centuries’ of female struggle in her anguished one line outburst at the climax, where she begs the man to “please please please please please please please stop talking”.
‘Che Ti Dice La Patria’ (First published as ‘Italy – 1927’ in The New Republic and then collected in Men Without Women)
But Papa didn’t just rely on allusion to get his point across. Sometimes he gave it to you as blunt and forceful as a bull’s head ramming into your stomach at full charge. In this story Hemingway’s narrator and a friend drive into Italy two years after it has been taken over by Mussolini. They are not impressed. Hemingway understood fascists long before most others. Here he lays out their pettiness, hypocrisy, cruelty and stupidity with clinical precision.
Hemingway also knew what to do with fascists – which was to hate them, hard and cold and absolutely. This story is furious. It’s nasty. This weary bitterness of tone is only augmented by the knowledge that Hemingway had been wounded when fighting for the Italians in the first World War, and often written about its people with love. The fascists were Brexiting a place he held dear and he knew no good could come of it. It’s a warning we still need to heed.
‘In Another Country’ (First published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and then collected in Men Without Women)
In fact, here is a story inspired by Hemingway’s earlier experiences in Italy. And an unanswerable demonstration of the futility and ugliness of war. How’s this for a first sentence:
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.
What these haunted, injured men do instead is work on machines that they are told will make them better – but which we readers know will barely help them at all. Meanwhile, we learn about their ruined relationships, their hopes as crushed as their limbs, their few pleasures, their frightening, empty, crippled future. All that takes up just five pages, plenty of those taken up in turn with descriptions of the useless medical procedures. Did I tell you Hemingway is a genius?
‘The Killers’ (First published as ‘The Matadors’ in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and then collected in Men Without Women)
It’s nearly all dialogue and it’s nearly all brutal. It’s a crime story where the crime isn’t committed – but the victims are nevertheless scarred and doomed. Two thugs enter a diner looking to kill a “Swede” who normally eats there in the evenings. They don’t find him – but that doesn’t make anyone any happier.
This is noir without the glamour, just the truth and darkness of situations where men intend to hurt other men. The sharp back and forth between the two would-be-killers inspired numerous films – but none of them had the cruel force of this story or its expansive overview of the problems in prohibition America.Hemingway himself said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.” He did it though.
‘On the Quai at Smyrna’ (First published in the 1930 Scribner edition of Men Without Women as ‘Introduction by the Author’, re-titled as ‘On the Quai At Smyrna’ in The First Forty-nine Stories in 1938)
I’ve used up my first four selections with stories from Hemingway’s second major collection, Men Without Women, and that one probably isn’t even my favourite. For sheer, raw power, you can’t beatIn Our Time. Plenty of the stories in that slim book would nowadays be called Flash Fiction – especially the four- or five-line explosions of war-horror that intercut each the more complete stories. Even those full stories can be very short. ‘On the Quai Of Smyrna’ is a case in point. It totals less than 750 words, but it contains volumes on the pity and casual cruelty of war. It’s a black stream of horror: dead babies, women clinging onto their dead babies, women giving birth in the dark (“surprising how few of them died”) and pack animals having their legs broken and then being thrown into the water. “My word yes a most pleasant business” it concludes with sarcasm that doesn’t so much drip as gnaw into you like sulphuric acid.
‘Indian Camp’ (First published as ‘One Night Last Summer’ in ‘Works in Progress’ in The Transatlantic Review in 1924 and then collected in In Our Time in 1925)
Oh man. Oh god. Again, I don’t know how to describe this story without spoiling the awful tension it produces. You might have to take my word on this one. It starts with a lovely description of a doctor and his son making paddling their way across a lake to a shanty where “inside on a bunk” a “young Indian woman” has been “trying to have her baby for two days” – and oh man, oh god. We see it through the eyes of the steadily-less-innocent boy as the doctor works and — that’s all you’re getting. So many of these stories are so artfully constructed that the only real way to understand them is to read them. But once again, it’s worth pointing out Hemingway’s sympathy for the woman and his admission of his own fear and vulnerability. Somewhere beneath the macho posturing, there was always something more beautiful.
‘Big Two Hearted River parts I and II’ (First published in This Quarter in 1925 and then collected in In Our Timein 1925)
This is a story about a man going fishing. He walks for a while, he pitches a tent, he sleeps, he wakes, he eats his breakfast, he goes to a river and he casts his line. Each detail is carefully and beautifully realised – and in that meticulous focus something magic happens. The story turns into everything that the writer isn’t describing; the worries he is so carefully avoiding, the pain and ruination of a young man who has… what? Well, you have to fill in your own spaces, but given the story’s position at the climax of a collection about the ravages of war and agonies of love, that isn’t too hard. We feel the weight of the story all the more because it doesn’t try to say what can’t be said. It’s a miracle of concision and precision and silence. (It’s also, incidentally, a very good story about fishing. You can enjoy Hemingway on all kinds of levels.)
‘Cross Country Snow’ (First published in The Transatlantic Review and then collected in In Our Time in 1925)
Yay! Ski-ing! I don’t even like skiing. But I love it when Papa describes it:
On the white below George dipped and rose and dipped out of sight. The rush and sudden swoop as he dropped down a steep undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body.
Yes please. That’s the other thing about Hemingway. For all his pain and anger, and for everything he got wrong, he can still show you how good it can be to be alive.
‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (First published in Esquire in 1936 and then collected in The First Forty-nine Stories in 1938)
But then, there’s also death. And – oh boy – I just can’t. I know I’ve already busted through most sane adjective allowances in my last few descriptions, not to mention excited interjections, but: wow! This fucking story. Holy shit. Fuck me. God almighty. Oh wow. This is one hello of a good story. Just read it. And make sure you get to the end. Because after the most fearsome beginning and overview of the agony and waste of existence Papa gives you the most exhilarating, remarkable, unspeakably uplifting moment of beauty. Before crashing you right back down again and emptying out everything like a nuclear wind. This is 1930s Hemingway, after all, and he was pretty pissed off. But wow. Fuck. Wow. He could write.
‘A Clean Well Lighted Place’ (First published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1933 and then published in Winner Take Nothing in 1933)
Don’t just take the excessive praise from me though. Take it from James Joyce. He called A Clean Well-Lighted Place “one of the best short stories ever written.” And he would know. This one is an argument between two waiters about when to shut their café, which has just one person in it, nursing his drink, lingering as long as he can. One of the waiters is keen to go home. The other understands that home isn’t an easy place for some people to go to – and that they need the refuge of a “clean well-lighted place.”
In the waiters’ exchange, Hemingway conjures all the eternal howling and empty darkness of the universe and sets against it a bright café, and a drink and not being entirely alone for a little while longer. It is among the most beautifully heart-breaking things you will ever read.
‘Fifty Grand’ (First published in Atlantic in August 1927 and then published in Men Without Women in 1927)
Here’s the kind of macho story people who don’t read Hemingway expect him to write. A pumped-up, exciting, proto-Rocky training sequence in a boxer’s boot-camp, followed by a fight so vivid you can hear the thud of glove on skin, feel the fists pounding into your face. Except, of course, that’s not really the story. The real story is about compromise, endurance, shame and pain and human frailty. It’s sad and true and wonderful.
‘A Day’s Wait’ (First published in Winner Take Nothing in 1933)
Let’s end with something lovely. It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy who is ill and full of fear. So much fear that he can’t even talk about it. Still, his father sees that “he was evidently holding tight onto himself about something” and gently sets out finding out what. It’s quiet and tender. In its happy resolution, it’s even light-hearted. But with the kind of happiness that also brings tears of sadness and relief. Ah. Thanks Papa. You’ve made me feel human.