About six years ago I gave up reading Hemingway. I did this because every time I read more than a paragraph of him, my own writing became rank imitation for weeks afterwards. At that point I had read and re-read everything he wrote. Some of his short stories I can still virtually recite. I decided it was time to break free. When I made the jump across the pond to Thailand, I took no Hem. (Though “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was heavy on my mind. More on that later.) Until about two days ago, I hadn’t touched anything by him since.
So I was in the public library – wonderful thing, public libraries, by the way, after having lived in the Third World where such a concept is unheard of – looking over the DVDs when I saw The Snows of Kilimanjaro. It stars Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and it is not very good. I imagine it was pretty ground-breaking at the time in its use of animal footage and the Paris parts are interesting. But the ending is classic lame Hollywood, transforming Hem’s stringent ending into an unearned redemption, and the plotline is badly skewed to reflect the prudish sensibilities of the 50s. The main highlights are the parts where lines from Hem’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are incorporated directly into the dialogue. Which, naturally, made me want to re-read the story. So I commenced to do so.
What a work of art. I appreciate it more than I did when I was younger, with more life and writing under my belt. Ultra-real dialogue entwined with the sort of stream of consciousness that Joyce et al. could have learned a thing or two from. Magisterial descriptions and experience pinpointed on bare turns of phrase.
If the story has a weakness, it is the constant reference to real historical events that now, nearly a century later, are fairly obscure. Wouldn’t take more than a quarter-hour on Wikipedia to remedy the gaps in my knowledge, I suppose, but that’d be quite a lot of distracting info to keep in your head while re-re-reading. It’s a weakness that runs across a lot of Hemingway, actually, the constant references that were common knowledge in 1936, say, but have since been misted over. Having said that, it’s not essential to grasp all the references to grasp the upshot.
I wonder if Hem wrote this story at least partially as a warning to himself. I wonder if he re-read it himself, in his sad declining later years. Myself, I took (and take) the story as both a work of art and a warning. When presented with a chance to join the workaday world that half decade ago, I re-read “Snows”, declined, and got on another Pacific-hopping plane. I’ve sometimes questioned the wisdom of that decision but never its intent.
Hem’s anti-hero died with the bitter taste of self-inflicted failure in his mouth, at the literal and figurative foot of the mountain he failed to even attempt to climb. Most wouldn’t blame him. It’s a steep steep path to the peak of a literary Kilimanjaro. Failure is a near-certainty, success a remote chance. As Hem said elsewhere, if that daunts you, it should. So I do my best not to let it, and climb on anyway.