November 16, 2008

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

I've been reading Hemingway's complete short stories just to see if I'd been judging him too harshly all these years. It appears I haven't been judging him harshly enough. What kind of mass hypnosis are the people under who insist Hemingway innovated a lean, economical style--'the Iceberg style', which was named 'multum in parvo' in Ancient Rome and described a style thousands of years old even then? 'A Reader Writes' is one and three quarter pages long, and only the letter embedded in it is necessary to tell the story; the frame device is a laborious description of the letter writer deciding to write to an advice columnist in the newspaper, followed by an even more laborious account of her thoughts after writing the letter, none of which adds anything to the thought process already revealed in the letter. It would be a slight enough story even at half a page, but that's its correct length, and it's typical of the percentagest in more serious, and lengthier, stories such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. On average his best stories are about twice as long as they should be if his aim is any degree of concision.

I'll grant you though that it's hard to say in some cases how much overwritten a story is because his other consuming vice, a persistent mislaying of tone and emphasis, makes it difficult to know what was intended, and therefore what the natural length of the story might have been. 'A Natural History of the Dead' starts out promising, and might have turned out remarkable if he'd kept to his initial idea--describing the battlefields he's witnessed from the laconic, emotionless perspective of a scientist, a satiric technique that if well handled produces a mood the opposite of detachment (see Swift's A Modest Proposal). Alas, unlike Swift, Hemingway is concerned to make it impossible for literal-minded readers to think badly of him as coldblooded, so he keeps breaking in with sentimental effusions. The flaccid floundering this occasions is not pretty to watch:

"Most of those mules that I saw dead were along mountain roads or lying at the foot of steep declivities whence they had been pushed to rid the road of their encumbrance. They seemed a fitting enough sight in the mountains where one is accustomed to their presence and looked less incongruous there than they did later, at Smyrna, where the Greeks broke the legs of all their baggage animals and pushed them off the quay into the shallow water to drown. The numbers of broken-legged mules and horses drowning in the shallow water called for a Goya to depict them. Although, speaking literally, one can hardly say that they called for a Goya, since there has been only one Goya, long dead, and it is extremely doubtful if these animals, were they able to call, would call for pictorial representation of their plight but, more likely, would, if they were articulate, call for some one to alleviate their condition."

The sentimental overwriting, far from taking you viscerally into the pity and horror of the scene, has the opposite effect--blocking even an effective picture arising in the mind's eye (sure, I can do Ernest bloated too).

Goya understood multum in parvo far better than Hemingway ever did. Find a well-printed copy of 'Los Caprichios' and take your mind off this bloated nonsense.

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