Is this the truly essential Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, The Collected Stories, ed James Fenton, Everyman’s Library Classics.

For a number of years in the UK a book has been available called “The Essential Hemingway”, consisting of the whole of his novel “Fiesta”, excerpts from some of his other novels, and most of the major short stories. It’s a good collection, which has a decent stab at trying to be a version of “Hemingway’s Greatest Hits”. However, to really get to know this writer, and to know the full force of the smack around the intellectual and emotional chops that he can produce, you need to do yourself a favour and read the stories, preferably in order. I’m going to argue here that it’s the collected stories that make up the truly essential Hemingway.

The Everyman edition is  a beautifully produced hardback volume of all of Hemingway’s collected and uncollected stories. There are some major differences between this and the other claimant to the title of ultimate Hemingway story collection, the ‘Finca Vigia’ version. In the ‘Finca Vigia’, the editors include pieces that for the sake of argument they class as short fiction. However, the editor of the Everyman, James Fenton, doesn’t include these, arguing that they are excerpts from longer works which are available elsewhere (for example, sections from the novel “To Have and Have Not”).

As a result the Everyman contains the celebrated 1939 story collection The First 49 Stories, together with work uncollected there, some post-1949 short fiction and some items of jevenilia. I bought it as a replacement for my very old Jonathan Cape edition of The First 49 Stories, and I am very pleased with it.

It is worth investing in this book rather than the other collections of Hemingway’s short fiction for two main reasons. The first and most obvious one is that this book collects the short fiction altogether in one place. This simplifies things because Hemingway’s short work has been rounded up in various books over the years, and sometimes rather confusingly. Also, this book captures the essence of his brilliance, so much so that it is this book that truly deserves the title “The Essential Hemingway”. And although Hemingway wrote three indisputably classic novels (“Fiesta”, “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) I increasingly feel that this book contains his finest writing of all.

I think Hemingway is one of those writers you keep coming back to if you identify with his work. Personally speaking, my interest in other authors has come and gone over the years, but Hemingway is one of the very first ‘serious’ writers whose work I sought out in my teens, and my interest has remained consistent for 20 years. I might go a year or more without reading anything by him, but he’s always there, the yardstick by which all other prose writers- and a good few poets too- are judged in my mind.

No-one beats Hemingway for the clarity and precision of his vision of the world and the way he expressed this. It’s often overlooked these days, but this man really did change the way that a lot of people wrote. He learned from the best literary teachers in order to form his own pared-down, razor-sharp way of writing. Like other great artists he forged his own style, and it’s a testament to his talent that this is present from virtually the very beginning, in the “In Our Time” collection. This book still has the power to move a reader very much. I can only imagine the effect on the reader when it was first published in the 20s.

Hemingway once wrote of Nelson Algren’s work that “this is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch”. This statement is not the product of the bullish machismo that Hemingway is still accused of (and, let’s face it, was guilty of in his laziest writing). Instead it’s really a statement that acknowledges how some writers are unflinching and extremely serious to the point of being brutal. The same statement applies to Hemingway. He was a great artist, and as such he tackled the big universal themes head on. Many of his very best stories deal with some of them: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a portrait of three very different people, the eponymous American society figure, his faithless wife and the British hunter they engage to lead them on safari. In relatively few pages the story says more about courage, cowardice, shame, regret and human weakness than some writers manage in a whole novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjiro” tells of a dying writer who feels that he has dissipated his talent and laments all that he will never have the chance to write. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is effectively a monologue by a British Officer who witnessed the Greek evacuation of Turkey, but behind the seemingly offhand language and stiff-upper-lip understatement, the reader glimpses the full horror of a whole people forced to up sticks and move en masse. “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is a profound vignette, being a study in hopelessness and loneliness, a piece that James Joyce no less considered to be one of the best short pieces ever written.

There are other stories in this book that are rightly hailed as classic, and others that are less well known. If you are a newcomer you will find plenty to engage you. If you know his work you will probably find fresh delights in this edition (upon receiving this book the first title that caught my attention was “The Capital of the World”, a story I’d either overlooked or just plain forgotten. When I read it it was a real heartbreaker!).

Another bonus of this edition is its focus on the work from the 1950s. There’s a school of thought that says Hemingway did his best work early, and then dissipated his talent through too much shooting, fishing and drinking, so that it only re-emerged in beautiful late flickers like “The Old Man and the Sea”. Well, the later stories prove that there was plenty of life left in the old dog, before his nerve and then his mind finally failed him.

The only thing this book lacks is Hemingway’s preface from the original edition of The First Forty Nine Stories, which contains one of the most telling phrases I know not just about writing but about anything in life worth doing:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused. 

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