Thomp D. James’s insistence on the importance of Stephen King is most curious–so curious that I feel compelled to peruse some of his suggested readings. It is a wonder that the sheer weight of fine English novelists from Daniel Defoe onwards should not have tamped down Stephen King from the list. Yet, I wish to give the number ten spot on my own list to an author others would wish to see absent from such a list: Ernest Hemingway.
Some find Hemingway’s prose too simple or even his vision nihilistic (e.g. Kenji Nakajima’s “Big two-hearted river” as the Extreme of Hemingway’s Nihilism). But, concerning the former complaint, let the simplicity be understood as the poetic vision of Hemingway’s prose–the well known iceberg theory. The direct and unadorned style of Hemingway’s prose may cause some to feel as if they were reading a newspaper. But, Hemingway is certainly capable of great poetry, as may be evident from vocally reading this passage from The Big Two-Hearted River:
The river was there. It swirled against the log spires of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their [position] again by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.
He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.
By the way, “The river was there” reminds one of how a Roman poet might have introduced a similar descriptive passage: “Erat Flumen.” So, beginning his description in this way almost sounds like a nod to Silver Age Roman poetry. At other times, the sparseness of the words forces the reader to examine closely each word, whose latent richness can bring delight to the careful student.
Certain people call Hemingway nihilistic, but I do not think this is true. Rather, he describes the pain people endure, often without apparent logic or meaning, and leaves the question of whether this suffering has value open. Rather than nihilistic, I should call this humble. We see through a glass darkly. Was the love of Henry and Catherine of A Farewell to Arms, which ended with Catherine’s death during child birth along with what would have been their firstborn, vanity? In The Old Man and the Sea, was there any point to the old man’s struggle to bring in a marlin to shore, which ended with sharks biting it to pieces? A certain Spanish youth is killed in foolish and innocent horseplay: did his truncated utterance of the Our Father have any merit? Hemingway neither closes the box on hope nor elaborates on what we believe by faith. For that matter, he also avoids the fallacy of claiming that the subjective worth we bestow on our deeds gives them true value.
In following these methods, he creates characters and situations of marvelous reality. We relate to these people, we have met them, and we might even imagine them palpable enough to touch–the men, at any rate. Hemingway did rather poorly construct his female characters.
So, what should I recommend? Any of his short stories is the best place to start, especially The Big Two-Hearted River. My favorite happens to be For Whom the Bell Tolls with The Old Man and the Sea following a close second. I can say that Hemingway occasionally produces a lackluster work: I shall never read The Sun Also Rises ever again. But, try out his short stories. You might be pleasantly surprised.