‘Homage to Switzerland’ by Ernest Hemingway

This is unexpected Hemingway perhaps: deadpan, strange, structurally experimental and in no way pursuing ‘realism’. I called one of my stories after it: ‘Homage to Homage to Switzerland’, which I wrote for Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith’s Winter Papers anthology.

Collected in Winner Take Nothing, Scribner, 1933, and in Collected Stories: Part One, Everyman, 1995. Listen to Julian Barnes read, and write about it here

‘A Clear Well-Lighted Place’ by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway. How lazy and obvious to pick him, for so many reasons. I wish I had discovered and been shown so many other writers when I was younger. I wish, at school, we’d been shown all those stories and voices that never had their chance. And I really did think about doing this anthology without this story, from the perspective of me now, not me as I went through life, and the stories I clung to, or that rose up unexpectedly and captured me.

However.

I was twenty when this story found me, came to me, as it was, by being read aloud to those who had turned up to an American Short Story seminar by one of my university professors. I was finding it hard to be alive, sometimes. The world was (is) so big, and human beings so small, so insignificant, or as I suppose I felt, was so insignificant, what would happen if I just… disappeared.

He read this story, in his beautiful voice (I still think of him reading this, or pieces of Moby Dick in The American Novel seminar, and nothing I’ve ever heard read aloud has ever come even vaguely near it) and I was moved. So. I found an old copy of the collected stories in a second-hand bookshop and cut this one out, stuck it in the back of my diary, and if I ever felt like I might be alone in the universe, I read it.

Obviously, I’ve moved on. I’ve read much better and more complicated and more stylish, more beautiful stories since. I’ve read more important ones too, ones that crack open the world and write it new.

But, this story, it made me pause and think that maybe there wasa point to me, that there was this huge café, with thousands upon thousands of tables, where the occupants were just looking for a clean well-lighted place, to feel connection. And it made me feel better, about everything. So.

It can be found in so many places, but I have a copy of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The First Forty-Nine Stories, Scribner, 2014

‘The End of Something’ by Ernest Hemingway

A boy. A girl. A lake, a boat. A conversation that doesn’t strike at the heart of the things that really matter, and then a single spoken phrase that brings everything crashing down. With just five short, devastating words, the boy destroys his relationship with the girl — spits on the affection she shows him — and the damage he inflicts is all the more brutal given how calmly he speaks to her. ‘The End of Something’ is a masterpiece of understatement, of reticence, and of compressed structure: everything that precedes those five words gives them an incredible charge, so that, despite their brevity, they send shockwaves through the entire story and bring the drama to a turning point. And that’s not all. After the girl leaves him, the boy comes to feel that he has done wrong, and he convinces himself that he can win her back. He makes plans to apologise, to return their relationship to the way it was before he spoke. But the story knows more than the boy does. Look at the title. It’s definite and final. There will be no new beginning. The words the boy can’t see — words that are given only to the reader — suggest the unwritten aftermath of the story, the unavoidable consequences of the words the boy chose to speak.

from In Our Time, Boni & Liveright 1925; reprinted in The First Forty-Nine Stories

‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway

As a writer, Hemingway preferred the world of soldiers and hunters rather than crooks and cops, but his short story ‘The Killers’ is one of the best crime short stories there is. Two men in black overcoats and derby hats enter a diner in a small town. The owner asks them for their order, but the two men do not know what they want and prevaricate. It eventually transpires that they are there to assassinate one of the regulars at the diner. What follows is a masterclass in veiled threats and subtle shifts in power as the two men assert their authority and control over the owner, the cook, and a customer called Nick Adams—all done almost entirely through menacing, Pinteresque dialogue. The situation is a kind of foreshortened version of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, with violence threatening to erupt at any time and the story seething with tension. And all this in just six pages.

First published in 1928. Collected widely, including in The Essential Hemingway, Vintage, 2004