Friday, 20 August 2010

Ernest Hemingway - an appreciation

It is a mystery to me why I haven’t read more Ernest Hemingway given that there are two pieces by him that have influenced how I’ve approached literature for more than four decades.
His short story Hills Like White Elephants is flawless. The American and his girlfriend Jig are waiting at a country station for a train on a blistering hot day in Spain. In just a few pages you learn all you need to know about the couple, their recent past – and their future.
By the way, the Wikipedia analysis of the story is cack. It finds symbolism at every turn, which I’m certain Hemingway wouldn’t have recognised. If you haven’t read the story before give it a miss in case it spoils the magic of the text.
Of even greater influence is a passage in Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. The Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie shares little with the book other than its title.
I can see why the book isn’t highly regarded by critics and Hemingway is said by an unreliable source to have considered it “a bunch of junk.”
Harry Morgan is a rough, down-on-his-luck boat owner running contraband between Cuba and Florida. Although he is the novel’s central character, it’s the author’s depiction of Morgan’s wife Marie that stayed in my memory.
She is an overweight, middle-aged, ill-dressed bottle blond worn down by her hard life bringing up young daughters on little money.
Marie’s existence transcends these handicaps through the love and desire she has for Harry, which is reciprocated by her husband.
Towards the end of the book, distraught and dishevelled she is hurrying home after learning Harry’s fate.
Marie passes a stranger, Richard Gordon, who is writing a novel about a strike in a textile factory. “He had seen, in a flash of perception the whole inner life of that type of woman,” writes Hemingway.
Gordon will use the “appalling looking woman” in his story making her a frigid monster that has forced her husband into the arms of another woman. We, the reader, know that Gordon is completely wrong in his interpretation of Marie’s life. Hemingway reminds us writers are fallible but audaciously he convinces us of his ability to look inside the mind of a woman with whom he has no common ground other than his gift as a writer.
I’ll leave the last words to Marie.
“He said he never had anything like me and I know there wasn’t any men like him. I know it too damned well and now he’s dead.”

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