The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

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.

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7 responses to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

  1. I enjoyed reading this, and it reminded me of one of my Short Story classes where we were asked to compare the writing style of Hemingway and Stein… worlds apart. In this class, we were asked to try to write like each of these writers. I can appreciate the sparse writing style of Hemingway, and the work it takes to convey so much in short sentences. However, I don’t really relate to the macho plot lines and didn’t really like reading him. I’m not drawn to read any more of his work. I do think that people interested in writing well should read at least one of his short stories and really look at the way it is crafted. It is a valuable lesson. Thanks Alastair – good post..

      • I’ve no doubt Hemingway was a miserable turd (although I’ve enjoyed some of his novels and longer short stories–“Kilimanjaro” and “The Short, Happy Life of Somebody or other”), but it is important to measure historical figures (and artistic figures) against their own milieu, and not ours. This doesn’t mean that we should excuse racism, sexism & the like simply because they were the rule of the day, but still, I think, we must appreciate that fact when we consider Hemingway’s legacy.

        Having said that, I much prefer Steinbeck and Faulkner to Hemingway, although Papa is still preferable to James Joyce.

      • You’re absolutely right. He was no more racist or sexist than anyone else of the period. However, he certainly wasn’t a forward looking agent of change either. He died in 1961 so it’s not like he was a Victorian traveller or anything. I prefer his contemporaries like DH Lawrence, Laurie Lee or Graham Greene.
        I think my big problem with Hemingway is that he seems such a hypocrite. One the one hand, he writes about nature and animals and how beautiful they all are. The next line, he’ll be describing his joy in slaughtering them all. That’s not something that’s a part of his time but part of his character.
        It’s that dichotomoy that makes him so fascinating of course, both as a man and a writer.

  2. That had to smart! I think it’s fair to say publisher are fickle. As for not liking the characters, it would be a good test for the editors to list all of the loveable ones in say the average Cormac McCarthy novel.

    I do have to wonder what I’d make of Hemingway’s novels if I read them again. I have a feeling it would be pretty much your take on him.

    Have you read The Indian Camp? It remains a favorite:
    http://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/4/hemingway/camp.htm

    • Basically you can have anti-heroes and unpleasant characters if you’re famous, but new authors have to tread carefully it seems.
      The Indian Camp is a good one and it is in this collection. Another story that was really good was My Old Man. It’s about a US jockey in Europe. It was so different to all the hunting and killing tales that it felt like a great relief, and also the characters are a bit lower class and living on the edge. That was my favourite tale.

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