A brief survey of the short story part 34: Ernest Hemingway
Stripping down fiction to austere minimalism, these are some of the most influential stories ever written
Chris Power The Guardian, Friday 15 July 2011
Ernest Hemingway in 1960. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
"Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft that burns," Ernest Hemingway told the Paris Review in 1958. "He learns several important things very quickly." By the time he made this statement, which seems almost to parody his macho persona, Hemingway's long and hugely successful career as a writer was effectively over. He had been in two successive plane crashes in 1954 when he had gone on safari to recapture the happiness, and perhaps the inspiration, he experienced on a similar trip to British East Africa in 1933. That expedition had inspired the last two major stories he wrote, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". Their publication in 1936 marked the end of a remarkable 13 years in which Hemingway left an indelible mark on the short story.
Hemingway's earliest published stories are stark formal experiments. In Our Time (1924), a 32-page book of vignettes often just a paragraph long, describes scenes from the first world war (Hemingway served in the Red Cross in Italy), the Greco-Turkish war, criminal life, and the bullring. They rank with Felix Fénéon's elevation of faits-divers to the status of art, but are fired by an even greater intensity through what Edward Said identifies as their "incredible purity of line and severity of vision".
"When he was young," Frank Kermode notes of Hemingway, "he worked very hard at never saying anything the way anybody else would say it, and his success was remarkable." His numerous influences include Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and his Parisian mentors Pound, Stein, and Ford Madox Ford. He only became derivative later in his career, and then only of his younger self. His next two collections, 1925's expanded In Our Time, which interleaved the vignettes between longer stories, and 1927's Men Without Women, saw him hone his style to acuteness, producing writing so compressed that, as Frank O'Connor writes, "[a]t an extreme point it attempts to substitute the image for the reality".
A New Republic review of 1927 compared Hemingway's prose to cubism, but the more direct comparison is with the powerful "form as content" approach Joyce developed in Dubliners. Blended with Hemingway's journalism training and the tenets of Pound's Imagism, this results in prose that deals with its subject in short, simple sentences mostly comprised of nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly, synonyms are spurned; key words are repeated in patterns to evoke the thing itself, as in the introduction to "In Another Country":
"In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and snow powdered the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds flew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains."
The sense of "cold fall" permeates, dominating the paragraph's beginning and end, while the repetition of "wind" is remorseless; it whips around you as you read. Amid this concrete description, the detail of the dead deer hanging "empty" is particularly resonant. This ascetic style's material effect is that the stories' meaning often lies hidden deep within the words, or even in the spaces between them. Joseph M Flora has said that "deciphering nuance quickly becomes the primary challenge to [Hemingway's] readers". Hemingway's most powerful stories are masterpieces of implication, "conveying," HE Bates wrote, "emotion and atmosphere without drawing up a tidy balance sheet of descriptions about them".
Consider "Big Two-Hearted River", outwardly a methodical description of a trout-fishing trip during which absolutely nothing unusual happens. Nick Adams (an autobiographical character who appears in two dozen Hemingway stories) camps, fishes, and considers then decides against fishing a nearby swamp. Yet despite this calm surface it is, as Italo Calvino describes, "a very depressing tale, with a sense of oppression... of vague anguish besetting [Nick] on all sides". The concrete reality of the story is subtly shown to be a slender bridge spanning dark torrents.
Charles May describes this story as "the best example of Hemingway's transformation of ordinary everyday objects and events into projections of psychic distress". Nick has returned from the war psychologically damaged and is attempting to rehabilitate, but none of this is mentioned. This omission follows what Hemingway calls the "iceberg principle", which many lesser writers have foundered on. "A writer who omits things because he does not know them," Hemingway writes, "only makes hollow places in his writing". In his stories these lacunae are pregnant absences where raw emotion lies encoded. They are almost all there is to what many regard the quintessential Hemingway story, "Hills Like White Elephants", in which an abortion is discussed but never explicitly mentioned. The couple's desultory conversation swarms with unarticulated meanings.
Taken as a whole, Hemingway's fiction portrays a brutal world dominated by conflict and surrounded by nothingness: the "nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada" the waiter recites in 1933's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place". In that story, however, we see an example of the "Hemingway code", in which the arbitrary violence and meaninglessness of life is met with dignity, which in turn confers meaning. This battle informs "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1936). Although for me one of his less successful stories (like Calvino, "I cannot take 'lyricism' in Hemingway"), it nevertheless contains individual passages that rank alongside nearly anything else in his oeuvre. Some of the dying writer's memories are as sharply evocative as the early vignettes, while his description of the "sudden evil-smelling emptiness" of death is as compelling as Tolstoy's "black sack" in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich".
It's fashionable to knock Hemingway, but risible as certain aspects of his life and work may be, the influence of his best writing seems to be underestimated not because of its lack of relevance, but its ubiquity. You don't have to look hard to find a short-story writer influenced by Carver, for example, and to be influenced by Carver is to be influenced by Hemingway, whether consciously or not. Taste is subjective, but the literary impact of Hemingway's spare, complex stories is measurable and profound.
A brief survery of the short story part 22: Julio Cortázar
Cortázar's vividly experimental, uncanny tales are among the best work of 'el boom' in Latin American writing
Julio Cortázar at home in France in 1974. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis
Since his death in 1984, Argentine novelist, poet and short story writerJulio Cortázar's reputation in the English-speaking world has fluctuated, the trend heading more towards a waning than a waxing. Known-of rather than widely read, some recognition is still afforded him as the author of the 1963 novel Hopscotch, and also of the excellent short story from which Blowup, Michelangelo Antonioni's iconic depiction of Swinging 60s London, was liberally adapted.
Hopscotch's reputation comes partly from its experimental form: a three-part novel comprising numbered paragraphs, it can be read according to an alternative, non-linear pattern in which the final section becomes a metatextual commentary on the first two. More importantly, Hopscotch was influential in terms of the shifting registers and jazz-influenced riffs of its prose. A key text of the so-called Latin American "boom", Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes have both credited it with modernising Latin-American literary language, while Gabriel García Márquez paid homage by alluding to it in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Yet it is Cortázar's short stories that represent, in the words of Argentine critic Jaime Alazraki, the "vertebral column" running through his work. Those written in the 1950s and 1960s offer the strongest case for their author's greatness. A fecund mixture of surrealism, symbolism, nouveau roman experimentation and Borgesian fantasy, Cortázar enthusiastically seeds his realistic settings – for the most part split between Buenos Aires and Paris – with impossible invasions of the fantastical and supernatural. The effect is often a refined philosophical take on the "uncanny tales" strand of speculative fiction.
Cortázar left Argentina for Paris in 1952, where he remained for the rest of his life, taking work as a Unesco translator. He translated Poe, whose aura pervades House Taken Over (1944), first published in Borges's magazine Los anales de Buenos Aires. It describes a brother and sister living a self-contained life in their large family home in Buenos Aires. When unnamed others infiltrate part of it, the brother and sister seal it off and live in the remainder. The identity of these others remains tantalisingly obscure, brother merely telling sister, "'I had to shut the door to the passage. They've taken over the back part.'" Later, further noises signal that the entire house has been breached, and the owners flee into the night after locking up the house to protect burglars from whatever "it" might be that has taken residence.
Typically of Cortázar, and anticipating the magical realist style that would brand him and his fellow "boom" authors of the 1960s, fantastical happenings are mostly accepted by his characters with the same amount of surprise the opening of a beer might garner in Bukowski. Another defining trait is the prominence of ambiguity. Depending on its readers' theories, House Taken Over might be horror, social satire, political commentary or psychological thriller.
House Taken Over featured in Cortázar's first collection, Bestiary (1951), the title story of which augments ambiguity with surrealism. Isabel spends the summer at her Aunt Rema's house, a normal bourgeois residence but for one fact: a large tiger roams the premises, with servants and family members constantly reporting where it is and which rooms or parts of the garden must currently be avoided. The strange, resentful and implicitly violent atmosphere between Isabel's cousins adds a further layer of unease.
Identity proves to be Cortázar's greatest fascination. His characters frequently lose or swap their identity, or suffer some kind of possession. In Axolotl, a man at an aquarium appears to become one of the amphibians he is viewing. The Distances sees a rich woman hug a beggar on a Budapest bridge, only to watch herself walk away and realise she is now trapped in another body. A Yellow Flower describes a man murdering a teenage boy whom he is convinced is his own precipitate reincarnation. Perhaps most audacious among these is the profoundly chilling Secret Weapons (1959), in which a post-war Parisian man appears to become the executed German who raped the girl he is courting several years ago, during the Occupation. With its building atmosphere of terrible violence and small, significant details obsessively recycling and developing throughout the text, it's extremely close in style to David Peace.
You don't have to endorse the claim Cortázar made shortly before his death that his short stories were the best things ever to have been written in Spanish to appreciate him as a remarkable and versatile talent. His most appealing quality is the apprehensive oddness with which he infuses reality. Even one of his "straighter" stories, the Beat-influenced The Pursuer (1959), is richly strange, its narrative jumps and extended conversations between death-stalked Johnny (based on Charlie Parker) and the jazz critic Bruno adopting the rhythms of the form with which the story is concerned. Here, too, identities shift and break apart ("I am not I," Johnny says feverishly) while through Bruno, Cortázar makes the admission: "I prefer the words to the reality that I'm trying to describe." If you could do what he could with words, why wouldn't you?
Brazilian-born photographer Mona Kuhn, best known for her serene nude portraits, will be exhibiting her latest works at Flowers Gallery from 4th April – 10th May, 2014.
Her work takes a new direction in this latest series titled: Acido Dorado. Set against the backdrop of the Californian desert, and photographed at the golden modernist structure Acido Dorado in Joshua Tree National Park, Kuhn’s photographs playfully combine a number of visual strategies. Patterning, translucency and reflectivity are mixed with the casual closeness between photographer and her subject, Kuhn’s friend and collaborator Jacintha. Kuhn pushes the effect by introducing metallic foil as an additional surface, in some cases producing purely abstract results.
The human figure emerges like a surrealist mirage, fragmented and indistinct, only to be submerged in shadows or over exposed. The building’s facade is glass and mirrors; it serves as an optical extension to the artist’s camera and lens. Light is split into refracting colours, desert vegetation grows sideways, inside is outside and outside in.
The exhibition marks Kuhn’s increasing focus on photographic techniques that appear to dissolve the figure into its environment, whilst continuing her ongoing re-interpretation of the art-historical genre of the nude. This time she investigates further, by bringing together the figure, abstractions and landscape into one.
Ahead of the opening we spoke to Kuhn’s to find out more about her work.
When did you first become interested in photography?
MK: I first got interested in photography when I was 12. My parents gave me a small Kodak camera for my birthday, and the first images I ever took were of my close friends during my bday party. Much has changed since then, but I am still intrigued with the idea of collaborating with people I know well. There is a immediate sense of trust, which is the base of my work.
How has your upbringing impacted your work?
MK: As a family, we were moving around quite a bit, mostly in Europe, Brazil and the US. On weekends, we would often visit a museum, to understand the culture through the art. Then as a teenager, I would often take pictures of people who meant a lot to me, and who I did not know for sure if I would see soon again. Photography allowed me to keep a memento of that friendship.
What is it that attracts you to nudes?
MK: I see the body as a residence to our emotions, our soul, our inner selves. Gauguin has a wonderful painting titled “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” from 1897. I think it summorizes a question we all have, but one that i decided to use as basis to my source of inspiration. I photograph the human in us, without shame, without regret, free and timeless.
What is it that inspires you to shoot a particular model?
MK: For this series, I had the privilege of photographing Jacintha again, someone I have been working with for about 10 years.
It is hard to define what inspired me, other than a certain chemistry we share.
Black Widow / Private
Photo by Mona Kuhn
What is your process and experience in planning and coming up with a new series? Where do you start?
MK: I start my creative process by imagining colors. I don’t know why, but coloration comes to me first. From there I tie in emotion, then location and last the people. I might be working 6 months into a project before I find the right person to photograph. This preliminary phase gives me time to submerge, to really feel and bring out what I am trying to express. Specifically in this new series, I was inspired by the golden desert light. I was also intrigued by its reflections in glass, mirror, both materials derived from sand. From that basic element, my friend Jacintha and I played with how light defines the figure, landscape and architectural space, pushing the work further into abstraction.
Abstractions and landscape play a big role in Acido Dorado – what has influenced this new direction?
MK: In this new series, I was primarily concerned with light and space. I have been living in Los Angeles for 10 years, and have become familiar with the works by Ed Ruscha, Robert Graham and James Turrell. It is quite possible that their work has left an impression. But honestly, I have been mostly influenced by observing the vast desert landscape and the quality of light, specific to Southern California.
Between 2003 and 2006, Michal Chelbin has created a cycle of photos about the singularity and the familiarity of the world. These portraits are all different but “Strangely Familiar”. Creative And Live has asked her some questions about his work.
Creative And Live: How was the “Strangely Familliar” project born?
Before this project, I did a b&w project entitled ‘Lazarova” that was taken in big circuses in Israel and Europe. In 2003 I moved away from the big traditional circuses to the smaller groups of performers (mainly acrobats, ballroom dancers and contortionists), especially in Russia and Ukraine and to the real locations and started to work on what is collectively entitled “Strangely Familiar”.
C&L: The portraits were taken in different countries and places but I think each one of them reminds one an other. It is as if humanity was looking at us in the eyes. What do you think about this feeling and did you look for it or was it an unconscious effect?
I guess I was looking for that feeling, although I am not methodical and planned when I shoot but rather I go and photograph things that interest me. The portraits focus on individuals and I try to convey a sense of individual character but my I believe that my playground is between the private and the public; that My interest is not social or topical- it is more mythical. When I stage and create my own image and combine elements into the photograph — The choosing of the location, the casting of the subject, the lighting,— It’s my way to address universal themes such as the complexities of youth, family issues, the desire for fame.
C&L: Almost every portrait represents young people but, the innocence, the naivety and the juvenile facets have vanished. Was this due to certain directions you told your models? More generally speaking, what are the consequences of your directions in your work?
Many of my subjects are adolescents, in this difficult age between innocence and experience and I try to create an informal scene, in which they directly confront the viewer. As performers I think they mature very quickly- with the seductive costumes, the show it self might be more for adults then for kids. They always had a fake smile on their face, “a mask” ,so my first instruction was to tell them not to smile. It allowed me to focus on them as individuals.
C&L: You had an Artist Talk and a book signing at Aperture on April 29, an exhibition in Tel-Aviv during summer 2008 and a participation at the Presumed Innocence exhibition in Decordova Museum. “Strangely Familliar” is being received with a lot of enthusiasm, but have you continued working on the strange and the familliar? What is your next project going to be? if there is one…
I have three other projects I am working on, all portraits. Two of them are still in early stages so there is not much to tell. The third one is a series of portraits of athletes and wrestlers. It started when I thought of doing a group shot of wrestlers and went to a wrestling competition, but when I saw them so exhausted and sweaty after a fight I immediately understood how I wanted to photograph it. I am in the middle of it and hope to finish it next year.