I have a confession to make.
I judge a book by its cover.
Or, to be more precise, I judge it by its title. Back in the days when I still had some money, before I became unemployed and poor, I used to buy a few books online. The reason for that is that there are no fabulous second-hand bookstores in my town, and even when I was working I wasn’t wealthy enough to buy new books from an established bookstore, unless they were my lovely Penguin Classics. So I begun to buy books online, mainly through Ebay, and never for more than $10 a pop.
When you limit your choices like this you take what you can get, and if you find a Hemingway for under $10, with the intriguing and glorious title Men Without Women, you don’t ask questions. You just click buy.
Luckily, when you buy a Hemmingway, you buy a literary goldmine, and that is exactly what I got. Men Without Women is a collection of Hemmingway’s short stories, published in 1927, squeezing itself in between The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. It is a beautiful little collection of tales, centred around the lives of tough, unruly and life-hardened men.
The thing I like best about Hemingway, (and I do love this man), is that his style of writing is so simplistic and easy to read, yet so wonderfully executed. The problem with some of the classicists of his era is their overworked, elaborate and often impenetrable prose. This is never true of Hemingway, meaning you can pick him up for a read no matter what your mood. Yet his prose is masterful, and never more so than in these short stories, some of which are no more than three pages long. To be able to construct a meaningful, engaging and entertaining narrative, which is of itself complete, in the space of three pages is nothing short of genius, in my mind.
Jack doesn’t say anything. He just sits there on the bed. He ain’t with the others. He’s all by himself. He was wearing an old blue jersey and pants and had on boxing shoes. He needed a shave. Steinfelt and Morgan were dressers. John was quite a dresser too. Jack sat there looking Irish and tough.
– Fifty Grand (Men Without Women)
Here he gives us setting, description, tone, character and mood, and he does it in nine simple sentences.
Anyway. I think by now you might have grasped the full extent of my love affair with Hemingway.
If the focus of these stories sounds narrow, his material is anything but. In A Canary for One, we meet an American couple travelling on a train from Marseilles to Paris. We hear the story through the mind of the unnamed male protagonist, as he describes their encounter with an American lady they meet on the train. The story is simple and light-hearted, made up of conversation’s the protagonist and his wife have with their fellow traveller, polite and informative. They discuss their respective families, travel, marriage, love, and domesticity, painting a picture of overall contentment.
The story continues, inconsequential and amicable, potentially forgettable, until Hemingway delivers the final line.
We were returning to Paris to set up separate residences.
The unexpected shock of this line, delivered in the context of the conversations that precede it, gives the story its impact and power.
One of my favourites in the book is Hills Like White Elephants, in which we are given a snapshot of the lives of an American and his girlfriend, sitting at a railway bar waiting for the express to Barcelona. Again, the conversation is light and familiar, the couple talk, order beer and have minor theoretical disputes about elephants. Yet in this story, it is what Hemingway doesn’t say that lingers in the mind. We realise that the couple are in fact discussing the girls upcoming abortion, which is never expressly mentioned, simply alluded to.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
The girl did not say anything.
‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
‘Then what will we do afterward?’
‘We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.’
A heart-wrenching discussion follows, in which the couple debate the operation, again using nothing more than delicate allusions. It ends with a plea from the girl, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’ and a moment of tension, ending in the arrival of the train. Again, much of the power of the story comes in the ironic execution of the final lines:
‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
This is a book you could read in a day, an afternoon, a stolen hour, depending on your reading speed. It is a fabulous example of Hemingway’s earliest work, and solid proof of his accomplishment as a storyteller.
To end in the words of Hemingway himself:
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.