Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Meeting the Story On Its Own Terms

The first time that I read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” was as required reading in tenth grade English class. The teacher of the class was not keen on female students in general, and not keen on me in particular. If the material at hand was a play or a story that lent itself to reading aloud, he assigned roles and had us do so. If one of the roles was a woman of questionable virtue, he invariably assigned that role to me. No surprise then that he had me read the female character in “Hills Like White Elephants.” That he assigned the male role to the boy who sat in front of me on whom I had an unrequited crush rendered my discomfiture complete.

The second time that I read “Hills Like White Elephants” was in a university Creative Writing class. The professor had us read the story, then write a story of our own composed primarily of dialogue. I still have it and I contemplated quoting a bit from it for your entertainment. But I thought better of that idea when I reread my story and found it to be a near complete rip-off of Hemingway’s. Nevertheless, it was a very worthwhile exercise. I was terrible at dialogue back then and now I’m told that it's one of my strengths. Hemingway’s story helped me to move some way from one pole toward the other.

It’s an enormous pleasure to reread “Hills Like White Elephants” now neither as a creative writing exercise nor as an exercise in high school humiliation, but simply as a story, meeting it on its own terms at last.

Much has been made of Hemingway’s journalistic background and of his innovation in bringing a stripped-down, reportorial style to his fiction. His style doesn’t always work for me. Perhaps paradoxically, I think it’s least effective in his non-fiction. For example, I adore memoirs of expatriate literary Paris in the 1920s, but I find Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to be a lifeless thing when set next to Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together or Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris or John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse. “Hills Like White Elephants,” on the other hand, demonstrates Hemingway’s minimalism at its very best.

In this story, the reader’s vantage point is entirely external. It unfolds as a conversation between strangers upon which the reader eavesdrops, with only a minimum of descriptive detail offered to orient the scene. The characters don’t have names (apart from the twice overheard “Jig”); they are simply “the man” and “the girl.” We don’t know what they look like nor where they’ve come from. Yet before long, we know a great deal about them. For every line of dialogue, even at its vaguest and most oblique, speaks volumes. Every descriptive detail is a telling one.

My favourite line of dialogue from the story: “I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”

My favourite descriptive detail: “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.”

I feel as if I can grasp their entire relationship up to that point simply by virtue of that line and that detail.

The economy of words in this story is perfect. To be sure, a great deal is left out and this can generate considerable confusion. But it also offers the reader an opportunity to participate in the story. All of those gaps are there for the reader to fill. The reader is invited to imagine where the couple came from, what their life together was like before this point of crisis, and where it all will lead.

To me this is the magic not just of this story but of the short story as a genre. Jackie Kay says of the short story:

A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create. There is space for the reader to think for ages, to mull the impact of a story over, to try and recover from it!

For me “Hills Like White Elephants” is that kind of story. Indeed, my Hemingway rip-off that I referred to above was titled “Reunion” and in it I imagined “the man” and “the girl” meeting up again ten years later, what they would say to each other, and what that would reveal about what had happened in between.

For other perspectives on "Hills Like White Elephants" and to participate in a discussion about the story, click over to A Curious Singularity.


litlove said...

Can you believe I've never read any Hemingway? Looking forward to this story, Kate, and helped along so much by your lovely post here.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is my all-time favourite short story, by, well anyone. And I read it pretty much the same way that you did: first in high school, then in a creative writing class, and then over and over again years later in grad school because I needed an escape from Victorian literature.

We were just in Cuba and went to see Hemingway's house -- the oddest thing about it? He wrote his weight day after day on the bathroom walls.

And it's funny, I still think about that story from time to time wondering if it even matters what happened between the two.

Oh, and did you ever see the strange short film adaptation with Melanie Griffith?

Kagemusha said...

What an excellent blog. I love your format. Very well-written and insightful! I will definately come back to read more! Great job!

Anonymous said...

I, too, studied this in a college creative writing class, where one of our exercises was to write a story in this style. The prof read my story to the class, but looking back, it was a terribly cliched piece! Still, it was a helpful experience and I found the Hemingway story quite thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post about coming at one piece of work from several angles--I've gone through this as well. Every so often I re-read Salinger's novella Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters to renew what I've gotten from it earlier, to re-consider its formation, and to enjoy again.

The deaf mute's cigar, left behind "by way of explanation" always makes me smile, and the novella still has a puzzle or two for me. But mostly I read of that lost 1940s world of Manhattan and love the story's conflict and the narrator's predicament all over again.

Nice post on Hemingway. I liked Moveable Feast more than you, but part of my appreciation is reading into it his jealousy of Fitzgerald. I think F Scott was capable of so much more, and Hemingway knew, so reacted competitively.

I think a lot of his personna was compensation for having a writer's sensitivity; all his american male training was to react to any threat with force.

As sad as that is on a personal level, the pressure it created in him, and the slow, perfected release of that pressure, gave us some wonderful fiction.