Monday, July 12, 2010

Recent Reading

I've been working my way through The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  Frequent readers of this blog will probably have guessed that by how many times I've reference him in the past couple months.  I tend to read a couple stories, go on to another book, then come back for another dozen or so stories.

Of course, there are the greats that everyone talks about:  "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", "Hills Like White Elephants", "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber".  But I'd like to talk about one that I just read last night called "A Canary for One".

Luckily, the full text of the story is available on Google Books, so you can read it online here.  In fact, I suggest you do so and then read the rest of the post hidden after the jump.

Well, I hope you've read it. I'd like you to be a complete blank slate when reading it (like I was).

That was a kicker, wasn't it?  In lots of short stories, the writers go for a twist ending.  Here Hemingway gives us a swift jab to the gut.  Not a "I see dead people" or "The killer is inside the house" twist, but a HOLY CRAP! ending that makes you want to read the story again immediately.

Even with his trademark sparse style, Hemingway paints a vivid picture of the three Americans traveling through the country side on their way to Paris.  You get a clear sense of the chatty, middle-aged American woman who our narrator is obviously trying to ignore.  She's prattling on about her daughter, where she buys her clothes, and how great American husbands are.  She's completely oblivious to the fact that the narrator and his wife are taking their last train ride together before they divorce.

Sure the "set up separate residences" line is a gut punch.  And you think of how uncomfortable it must have been for the narrator and his wife to listen to the middle-aged woman talk about American husbands (a little foreshadowing perhaps?).  But here's something else:  The narrator and his wife never exchange a single line of dialogue.  I'll wait while you go back and look.

Clever bastard, that Hemingway.  The narrator tells the tale like an eavesdropper on the conversation.  Doing it this way, Hemingway has already created a separation between the narrator and his wife that works on a subconscious level well before we get to that last line.

Many writers like to throw a shocking last line in (I've done it too).  Something that jars the reader.  Makes them gasp for more.  Completely changes the picture you've been painting the reader.  But Hemingway's last line fits perfectly inside the jigsaw puzzle of the story.  He just makes you realize you've been looking at the picture upside down.

There's a reason many call him the greatest short story writer who ever lived.

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