Over the course of the past four years, through late nights, underground commutes, tea breaks and embarrassingly long toilet breaks, I've read this book from cover to cover. With a lack of time to finish off novels while at uni, I found these stories hugely readable, the perfect way to relax in those spare minutes between larger projects. What's more, they're absolutely as enjoyable as Hemingway's longer works.
This book is perfect as something that you can dip in and out of, to be dropped when time is short and picked up again when you have ten minutes to spare. 'The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber' and 'Snows of Kilimanjaro' are two longer stories that grip you and don't let you go until you fall out breathlessly at the other end. The Nick Adams stories are favourite retellings of youthful adventure, following a boy growing up in the Midwest, later becoming a man on the run, or at war, or living an expat life in Europe.
For those who have read Hemingway's novels, there are stories that strike upon the same themes, locations and events which took place within those longer books. Readers of For Whom the Bell Tolls are taken back to the Spanish Civil War in stories of soldiers, civilians and journalists surviving and dying in the ruins of Madrid. Readers of Death in the Afternoon or The Sun Also Rises will be thrilled by stories of bullfighting, children playing as matadors, and the personal tragedy and thrill of fear in the ring.
The breadth and richness of this collection is astounding. While I won't say that every story is brilliant, not one is wasted time. Unerringly, the stories hook you in. Before you know it, a ten-minute break has trickled into an hour. This book has travelled around the world with me, and it truly is like carrying a great friend with you everywhere you go.
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This is perhaps one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write, mainly because I don’t feel qualified to critique an author of Ernest Hemingway’s calibre. It is tempting just to write that I enjoyed some of the stories more than others. But that’s not really helpful because one can write that about any collection of short stories. Instead I shall pick out four stories that have stayed in my mind long after I have finished them.
The first is ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ – which is also the first story in this compilation. At one level this is a story about big game hunting in Africa. I won’t give away any more than that in case it spoils the story for anyone who hasn’t read it. At another level, it explores death, fear, sexual fidelity, machismo and probably a few other aspects of the human condition that are less obvious. The meaning of the story is still debated today and there is disagreement about what exactly was happening inside the heads of the three main protagonists. In one sense, the story has a clear beginning, middle and end, and is neatly finished. But of course, it isn’t neatly finished and that is where the fascination lies.
The next story is ‘The Undefeated’ about a courageous but stupid matador facing an equally courageous but stupid bull. It is not clear whether the title refers to the matador, the bull or both. Whilst it is clear that this story is inspired by Hemingway’s fascination with bull-fighting, it is more an analysis of the recklessness shown by those who have nothing to lose. The story might equally well have been about a gambler upping the ante to win back his money, or an alcoholic drinking to prove his victory over the bottle.
Third is 'The Last Good Country' which is an account of a young man fleeing from the law with his younger sister. It is an account of survival in the wild, and it carries strong suggestions of incest. The female character is in love with her brother, but he appears to be less certain of his feelings although he clearly is not indifferent. This is an unfinished story - although many readers, including myself, find it as complete as is necessary to make it a satisfying short story. Regardless of whether or not it is unfinished, it is a fascinating read. It has been suggested this story is the beginning of a novella or novel and that Hemingway got bored with it, or couldn't work out how to take it forward. We shall never know. But I think it's fine just the way it is.
And finally ‘The Killers’. This story was published in 1927 when Hemingway was only twenty-eight. It is about two hit men who enter a bar to kill a boxer who failed to ‘throw’ a fight. It is a tale of brutality, corruption, courage and one man’s indifference to death (or three men’s indifference if you include the two killers who know nothing about their intended victim apart from his identity). One of the most striking things about this story – apart from the understated quality of the narrative – is the fact that it is almost entirely carried by dialogue. We ‘see’ what happens because we ‘hear’ what happens. Whilst other writers have copied this technique, it was innovative at the time. This is a story that repays several readings in order to get the full flavour and all the nuances.
To be blunt, some of the other stories in this compilation probably shouldn’t be there. They seem to be scraps written down by Hemingway for his notebook as the basis for longer stories that never got written. Some are barely one page long. It’s possible I’ve missed something in them, in which case I apologise to Hemingway’s ghost. But 90% of the stories are first class, original and entertaining and excellent models for anyone aspiring to write short stories.
Overall, this is a terrific collection of tales by one of the great writers of the 20th Century. Strongly recommended.
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