My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I picked this collection of Ernest Hemingway‘s The Short Stories (2003) up again because I cannot write dialogue. A young Hunter S. Thompson would type Hemingway’s stories out on a typewriter to get the feel of his cadence, his rhythm, and his way of articulation. There is something unique about Hemingway’s writing, and I think that his short stories are one of the best showcases of his particular talent for dialogue and the dramatic, yet stripped-down, crescendo.
As I mentioned, I cannot write dialogue. Many writers cannot. There’s a balance between remaining true to colloquial speech, i.e. what people actually sound like, and filling talk with unfamiliar, or unnatural, dialect, i.e. what you think people should sound like. Hemingway has that ability to remain true to colloquial speech. You see, dialogue doesn’t give away the narrative. Often fictional characters will provide a plot or scene summary through dialogue, but that’s not how we speak, is it? Think back to your last conversation. You probably knew the person, so you didn’t have to mention specifics, like time, place, other people involved, or the issue at hand. You just spoke. Hemingway captures this intimacy well.
My finest example is “Hills Like White Elephants” (my very favorite story in this collection). We assume the topic that the young couple is discussing by the very nature and gravity of the conversation, but the point is that we never know. It’s between them. We are listening. That is the absolute epitome of Hemingway’s aesthetics: No character in the narrative is there to tell us, the reader, what is happening. We have to figure that out ourselves. It is always speculative. (Another perfect example is in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” when Mrs. Macomber returns late one evening after, presumably, having an affair with the tour guide. The dialogue that follows between her and Francis is absolutely perfect as it is stripped of a water-downed, cliché, overly dramatic, explanatory history of this couple that we come to expect from a narrative).
There is a second literary achievement within the nature of this colloquial, intimate dialogue. What Hemingway gives the reader is the absence of a climax. Consider “Hills” for a moment. If there were to be a climax there would be a decision reached about the “simple operation” they are discussing. Someone would yield, or acquiesce, and we may even see the event or its aftermath; but, again, that is the point: we are seeing a moment; a fresh moment in all its beautiful commonness, its banality exposed amongst drama. After all, drama doesn’t have a soundtrack, or a minor chord, or a handsome actor’s hair blowing in the wind while they knit their brow; it is in the very small conversations of the everyday. And that’s what Hemingway captures.
I don’t believe most people can stand Hemingway any longer. Our culture is saturated with climactic events and one thousand crescendos that end in triumph. We have no need for the small moments, or the dreaded mistaken speech, or the indistinguishable conversation that lovers have that leaves us out. And that’s fine. There is no nostalgia here; only a wanna-be-writer with a grave appreciation for the fastidious beauty of intimate dialogue. Maybe I should buy a typewriter and start re-typing “Hills”? We shall see…