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the first forty-nine stories

27 may 2019

I realized awhile back that I don't read enough short fiction. I have some stories in my teaching repertoire, but I rarely sit down with a magazine or a collection and just consume short stories. I prefer the way a novel, once underway, is guaranteed to hold your attention when you return. There is no way I could sit down and read a short-story collection straight through. But I could read a story per day – not try fanatically to finish a story every day; bookmarks work in short fiction, too. And at the end of, what, two months at most, I could finish a book of stories. Maybe I can try this now for a while. We'll see.

I started with Hemingway, partly for professional exigence and partly because he's a good writer, flawed but all the more interesting for being flawed, often disparaged but not really overrated. The standard edition of Hemingway's short stories is called the Finca Vigia Edition, after Hemingway's Cuban home. I would have gotten it, but all the copies I could find were in a minuscule font. Instead I opted for The First Forty-nine Stories, still in print in Great Britain.

What was I just saying? "Flawed but all the more interesting for being flawed." The First Forty-nine Stories contains some real masterpieces and some compelling lesser-known pieces. It also contains some stuff that would have been better weeded out. But the comprehensive nature of the volume gives a pretty full picture of Hemingway's concerns in the 1930s and 40s. And if you don't like a story in a collection, as another flawed but fabulous writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, once put it, "Turn over the leaf and choose another tale."

Several of the pieces in First 49 are very familiar from anthologies and syllabuses, and were even early in Hemingway's lifetime, as he ruefully noted. "The Killers" is the one in my own teaching repertoire: a great noir story that exemplifies showing, not telling. You'd call "The Killers" cinematic, except that there's not enough story there for a movie. When it was filmed, by Robert Siodmak in 1946, The Killers had to elaborate Hemingway's material extensively to get it to 103 minutes.

Also familiar but not overrated: "Hills Like White Elephants," which takes the tack, unusual 90 years ago and not too common today, of presenting a conversation in the words real people might actually use. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," with its awful imagining of dissolution and its agonizing narratorial (and one guesses authorial) self-criticism. "Big Two-Hearted River," which manages to be about everything by restricting itself to nothing but fishing. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," that wonderful study of depression. "Fifty Grand," an archetypal boxing story. (I'm surprised that there has been no feature film of "Fifty Grand," though there were a couple of TV plays in the 1950s.)

"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is another very familiar story, but now we are starting to get into the "flawed" part of Hemingway's work. "Macomber" is a compelling story; it is superbly written and paced. But it is among the most testosterone-soaked of the great English-language stories. I do not think that Hemingway is essentially misogynist. "Hills Like White Elephants" belies that accusation; it is all on the side of a woman trying to punch her way out of the web of rhetoric a man spins around her. "Macomber," on the other hand, is about the perfidiousness of woman, her deadliness, her basic selfishness. "Conflicted" begins to describe Hemingway on gender, but isn't the half of it.

Of the lesser-known stories … more are flawed, but there are some gems there too. (I say "lesser-known" but that reflects only on me, because for all its frantic pace, my reading is ultimately neither wide nor deep. All these stories are second nature to Hemingway fans.) Notably good ones I'd never read before (or not remembered) include "Che Ti Dice La Patria," a story of fascist Italy. It's a sharp collection of sketches, from the point of view of travelers: a bluff Fascist sort of commandeering their car for a lift, a brothel thinly disguised as a café (because there are no brothels in Mussolini's Italy), and another Fascist writing impromptu traffic tickets – because he can. Not just the banality of evil but its mundane details come out beautifully in Hemingway's rendering.

"Cat in the Rain" is one of several hills-like-white-elephanty stories in the book, where you're rooting for the cat instead of the couple. "In Another Country," about post-injury physical therapy, is a beautiful depiction of the accidents and losses of warfare. "A Pursuit Race" is mostly just intoxicated dialogue, but very well-observed, somewhat reminiscent of Jaroslav Hasek's brilliant drunk scenes in The Good Soldier Schweik. Two neo-Westerns, "Wine of Wyoming" and "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio," are very good of their kind. The first is a story of the idiocies of Prohibition, and the latter is another story of recuperation from trauma, enlivened by a sports-fan nun.

Less successful: "My Old Man" and "Fathers and Sons," quite different in method but both about difficult father-son relationships worked out across varieties of violence. Both ring false somehow, the violence and not the relationship becoming the reason for the story – actually that may ring true psychologically, but it makes for dissatisfying fiction. The former of the stories also affects a slangy register of speech in which Hemingway, for all his tough-guy profile, was rarely successful. He is much better doing preppie affectation or middle-class bromides, or in pastiches of public language for satiric effect like "A Natural History of the Dead."

"Fathers and Sons" is a Nick Adams story, and most of the Nick Adams stories don't work well for me. "The Killers" is told from Nick's perspective, but he is very much a spectator, and "Big Two-Hearted River" is also about Nick, but Nick alone with the countryside. When Nick Adams is enmeshed in social situations, the results are less interesting. The bulk of the Nick Adams stories are self-pitying or undercut their protagonist somehow – I realize it may be heresy to Hemingway devotees to say so, but I'm not convinced or moved by most of them. Nick seems to be more device than person, and the more he's purely a device the better the story is; when his stories are about him, they lack substance or get in their own way emotionally, like "Fathers and Sons."

Still, that leaves about a third of the 49 stories here very much worth reading. If that seems a slim haul from a modern master, it's 16 or 17 more great stories than most writers have produced, and above all one can always learn from Hemingway's artistry, even when it falls short of his ambitions. Reading Hemingway's introduction last, I find that, implicitly, he recognized how often he fell short. (I also find that he liked best most of the same stories that I do.) "You dull and blunt the instrument you write with," Hemingway observed, but better a dull instrument than one you've never used. He was right.

Hemingway, Ernest. The First Forty-nine Stories. 1939, 1944. London: Arrow [Penguin Random House], 2004.