It has been a while since I had wept over a book. But I just did. Actually, it was over a short story by Hemingway: My Old Man. It’s hard to know whether this is because of the author’s august style after my recent dry spell in reading classics, or because of the obvious subject.
The tale is narrated entirely from the perspective of a young boy, Joe, who spends his days training and going to the races with his portly middle-aged jockey father, occasionally winning, but more often struggling, with him.
Through his adolescent, partly blinkered, eyes — shielded from some of his father’s commercial activities — he tries to tell the story of his old man. But when he hears unsavoury comments made, after the jock falls to his death in a race, Joe realises how little he knows him despite how much he thinks he does.
According to some Hemingway scholars, the genius of the Nobel Laureate here is in drawing parallels between how a returning soldier understands the war — WWI of which the writer was himself involved — and how Joe explains his father’s life: anecdotal, intimate, teeming with information, but grossly patchy. I marvel at his virtuosity.
Then, as I read on to other stories in the collection, I observe again and again the same masterful use of metaphors. In The End of Something, Nick Adams — believed to be Hemingway’s autobiographical character — breaks off with girlfriend Marjorie whilst fishing at a bay against the backdrop of a once-thriving lumbering town that now lies in ruins. Just as remote mills were closed to pave the way for modern enterprises in the early 20th century, Nick was terminating the tradition of settling down and starting a family early for a new kind of lifestyle.
I believe one of the many reasons why Hemingway was so good is that he was psychologically acute. As such, he could leave his characters’ personality indeterminate. When Nick’s father throws the wobbly in The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife, after being accused by a worker of pilfering logs, we see him carefully polishing his shotgun in his room, exchanging laconic dialogue with his wife in a different room. The author leaves the reader to piece together clues about the couple’s temperaments and dynamic. Or to accept that no full understanding of one’s actions, let alone others’, is really possible.
It is also Hemingway’s particular skill to weave tenderness and compassion into the most uncompromising stories of violence and gore. Up In Michigan will wring ambivalence out of the most impervious. Liz, who works at the town’s tea room, is deeply infatuated with blacksmith Jim. But when he forces himself on her and rapes her, she is shattered. Yet, despite feeling cold and miserable at the docks, she kisses him on the cheek, and takes off her coat and tucks it neatly around him.
In Indian Camp, Nick (still a lad) crosses the lake with his doctor father to deliver an Indian woman from a difficult pregnancy. “Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” Without available anaesthetic, the doctor performs a Caesarian with a jack-knife and saves mother and child. The young father, however, who lies on the upper bunk with a wounded foot, slits his own throat. “Is dying hard, Daddy?”/”No, I think it’s pretty easy Nick. It all depends.”
“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.”
Still, Hemingway is not a universal hero as he is to me. I suppose there is no denying some of his fiction is steeped in misogynistic overtones and he can be abrasive with his satire.
In Cat In The Rain, a piercing ridicule of the female race, an American woman holidaying with her husband in Italy is bored with her life. At their hotel, while he is propped up on bed reading a book, she becomes enamoured with the hotel owner. “She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper.” So, when she craves for a kitten that seems to have eluded her, and the hotelier sends it up, one is left to ponder what Hemingway is saying a woman really wants.
The collection ends with two linked narratives: Big Two-Hearted River Part I and Big Two-Hearted River Part II. In amongst his perpetual dance with violence, compunction and death, nature and masculinity are well-known Hemingway themes, and these are amply found here.
Hemingway may have fallen out of favour with the literati in recent years, but his works (I feel) are an essential read for anyone who cares about story-telling and literature and the English language.
Many great short story writers are showy in style. Mostly because they can. There is appetite for thought experiments and unusual writing over a sprint in a way there isn’t for a novel. Hemingway is certainly not like that. He writes relatable stories and does not surprise us with arduous choice of voice or register, using strong, simple, words pruned down with savage exactitude.
Well, the fact is I do know why I wept over My Old Man. It is because of the words:
My old man was dead when they brought him in…I lay down beside my old man, when they carried the stretcher into the hospital room, and hung on to the stretcher and cried and cried, and he looked so white and gone and so awfully dead…I loved my old man so much.”
For obvious reasons.