Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

This was a reread for me, and it was quite interesting coming back to Hemingway’s short fiction after having not read much of it over the last 10 or 12 years. I figured it made sense, considering that 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

I was happy to reacquaint myself with several pieces in here that I loved when I first reading – including “A Day’s Wait” (a story about a boy with a fever who thinks he’s going to die because he’s confused the metric and imperial thermometers), “Hills Like White Elephants” (about a couple discussing an abortion), “Fifty Grand,” (about a boxer who bets against himself) and several of the Nick Adams stories.

What was also interesting was how some of these stories failed to register with me the first time around but now strike me as incredibly powerful and memorable. A stand-out was in fact the first story in my edition of this collection, which is “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In just 30-odd pages, Hemingway creates a tale as rich and complicated as any novel in this story about a troubled husband and wife on a hunting excursion in Africa.

It’s tricky to try to say something original or unique about Hemingway’s writing; his work is so deeply canonized that comments about his themes or approach seem to be just part of the literary atmosphere. But I will say this: I think I’ve got a better understanding, after rereading this collection, of why Hemingway ultimately ended his own life. The man clearly saw the themes that preoccupied him – courage, honour, masculinity, battles in the external world as well as battles in the soul – as not only huge but monolithic. Unshakeable and unwilling to be negotiated. That’s the kind of pressure or world view you can handle easily in your twenties and thirties, but not so much in your fifties and sixties. I think these stories show us the psyche of a man who gambled with his soul with every piece he wrote.

What he’s left us, thankfully, are several of the finest pieces of short fiction the world has ever seen. He remains, 50 years after his death, a proven master at so many things that make a short story great: the concision, the precise turn of phrase, and the saying of very big things in small ways.

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