I once heard a story about a friend of a friend. This man submitted his novel to a publisher. The publisher said that they liked the writing, the story, and they thought that this person was a very talented author. However, the editors turned the book down because they thought the protagonist was so unsympathetic that no reader would like him. Imagine the poor author’s dismay at this news, especially considering that he had based the main character on himself.
I thought of this a lot as I read The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway. This is a collection of short stories, which are often little more than sketches. They mostly feature interchangeable lead characters who are a weak sort of cipher for Hemingway himself. The most often recurring character is called Nick, and I didn’t like him at all.
Racist, sexist, arrogant and cruel, Hemingway was not a nice man and nor is his main character. The whole world seems designed as a playground for these wealthy foreigners, who spend their time in expensive hotels, barking orders at the locals in English. The main drama comes when these dilettantes start whining about their lives and how boring it all is:
It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places and some new ones.
The characters’ main way of assuaging their boredom and unhappiness is to kill things, and how Hemingway likes blood. Everywhere the characters go, be it the forests of America, the plains around Kilimanjaro or the Swiss Alps, they lay waste to the local animal life. Even in the title story when a character is lying ill in bed, he looks out at the wildlife of Africa and describes them as ‘the game’. The whole world view presented here utterly disgusts me.
The thing is, that much as I dislike Hemingway the man and his fictional creations, I have to admit that he is a fantastic writer. There has never been anyone who could write such powerful prose using such simple language:
Close beside the boat a big trout broke the surface of the water. Nick pulled hard on one oar so the boat would turn … As the trout’s back came up out of water the minnows jumped wildly. They sprinkled the surface like a handful of shot thrown into the water.
Being a contemporary of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, he also takes a modernistic approach to the structure of this collection. Each story is preceded by a snippet or memory from another world entirely. These brief paragraphs rarely relate to the following story, and usually focus on war or bloody encounters in Spanish bullfights. In many cases, these paragraphs are the most powerful sections of the book:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All of the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut.
Hemingway’s other great strength is that his books aren’t just bluster. All of his macho war veterans, hunters and sportsmen are plagued by self-doubt. There is a huge disconnect between the characters’ lifestyles and their internal world. These men are often scared, trapped and weak at heart. That gives a richness to his storytelling which few authors have.
As a result, Hemingway will always be read. He can surprise the reader at unusual moments by pulling the mask off these alpha males, and showing them to have a surprising depth and tenderness that is otherwise hidden from view. Nevertheless, I won’t be in any hurry to pick another Hemingway volume any time soon.