Pickin’ up hookers instead of my pen,
I let the words of my years fade away.
–My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, Willie Nelson
My father currently has the ambition to collect the entire works of Ernest Hemingway in hardback. You would think that this would make Christmas season all the more easier but I inherited a troublesome character trait from the man: if I want something, I tend to buy it. Thus the conflict emerges that, whenever I stumble upon a hardback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls I pick it up, laughing at my fortune that I finally have something for the old man and…and then I remember he has a hardback copy because he has my hardback copy and I place the book on the shelf grumbling before eventually kicking a little old lady down the stairs to quench my desire for bloodshed.
The greatest tragedies are the novels that you never write but you tell yourself that you’re going to write them. Before you say, but I do write them remember that you’ve spent the last hour Googling your own name on your laptop at a Starbucks and you haven’t even opened up Microsoft Word. Are you beginning to see why you’re wife left you Gary? The missed novel is unfortunately often attributed to the nature of the would-be writer who themselves are a figure of tragedy and, to some great extent, wonderful parody. So great is their tragedy that it even has its own stock character. If anyone watches Family Guy as religiously as I do they have probably seen the Cameo of Alan Alda where he plays a baby who carries around a tape recorder to remember ideas for short stories and novels. Such gems include, “Idea for a short story: Guy picks his nose, then eats it” or perhaps “Idea for a Novel: Guy loses his blanket, goes on an adventure to find it, it’s under his bed the whole time.” For the record this is supposed to be a reference to a Woody Allen movie where Alan Alda played a similar character. I could also break down the character of Brian who has become the text-book example of “how NOT to be a writer” but honestly that’s an entire post in itself. While this perfect example of the not rare enough creature “the pompous ass” is one example of writers not writing, one of the far more hopeful visions is offered in Neil Gaiman’s graphic Novel The Sandman: Seasons of Mist between a conversation of Matthew the Raven and Lucien the librarian of the Realm of Dream. I could write the exchange, but the visuals are far more telling than my weak prose:
I believe I began to drool the first time I read that brief passage, and while I don’t believe in an afterlife, I do recognize that should one exist and I am granted entrance to immortality I shall do everything in my power to find this library as soon as possible. Before you ask, what about meeting your family and ancestors I would remind the reader that Dickens was on that shelf and can you picture every book J.D. Salinger DIDN’T write but wanted to? Fuck family!…I just lost my invite to Christmas.
This beginning musing though only serves as a lead-in to my real focus which Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
The story was originally publish in Esquire magazine in 1936 and apart from being one of Hemingway’s Africa stories,” which for the record it’s the only good “Hemingway Africa story,” it’s still considered one of the man’s triumphs standing alongside his first novel The Sun Also Rises, which is about a man who can’t get an erection, and A Farewell to Arms, which is about a man who loses the love of his life and probably can’t get an erection…too soon? The short story is about a man named Harry who has spent his life womanizing rich women to live a comfortable lifestyle while also fancying himself a writer despite the fact he never writes. Harry’s leg is rotting because he has gangrene and in one exchange his current wife Helen asks why it has happened to which he gives the following response:
“I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn’t pay any attention to it because I never infect. Then, later, when it got bad, it was probably using that weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene.” He looked at her, “What else'”
“I don’t mean that.”
“If we would have hired a good mechanic instead of a half-baked Kikuyu driver, he would have checked the oil and never burned out that bearing in the truck.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“If you hadn’t left your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury Saratoga, Palm Beach people to take me on—”
“Why, I loved you. That’s not fair. I love you now. I’ll always love you Don’t you love me?”
“No,” said the man. “I don’t think so. I never have.”
“Harry, what are you saying? You’re out of your head.”
“No. I haven’t any head to go out of.”
“Don’t drink that,” she said. “Darling, please don’t drink that. We have to do everything we can.”
“You do it,” he said. “I’m tired.” (6).
For the record, Hemingway relationship manuals have only recently been taken off the market seeing as how “Being a Dick to Your Spouse” really isn’t selling this season. One wonders however briefly though what must be the cause of the animosity towards Hemingway as an author given the fact up to this point in literary tradition this conversation would have taken twenty to thirty pages with a different author, the description of landscape would have included symbolic references to either English Imperial might or veiled homoerotic references to Greek gods, and finally the female character would have been overly emotional and the exchange would have climaxed with her fainting. This is mock caricature of the Victorian narrative structure but that’s only because I’m working on the precedent that few people actually like Hemingway as an author outside of a few hipsters who are still raving about Midnight in Paris. We get it Phil you love For Whom the Bell Tolls, you know your bookmark hasn’t moved in over three months. You’re not fooling anybody.
I was often shocked by the level of animosity dealt towards Hemingway by many of my fellow English majors. Alongside Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Dickens there was no writer who warranted such animosity, hatred, or, worst of all, genuine apathy. One of my friends, who I could always count on as being a sane and well-read man, and who’s currently working on translation of Greek classics using comics, asked me flat out why I would like the works of a man who was just a general prick. I offered the best answer I could: Because he was a prick who changed literature forever.
Hemingway’s style is unlikely to move most contemporary readers, but that’s only because they can’t process what a dramatic shift the prose style caused. Hemingway’s “short sentences” seem the stuff bad creative Writing Classes taught at your local Adult Civic Learning center but that’s because his style influenced a generation of writers that processed it, absorbed it, and incorporated it into their own styles.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro then reveal another aspect of the man’s work, his ability with narrative and its power to reveal the human condition.
In the early parts of the story Harry is feeling the reality of his situation and comes to a definitive conclusion:
So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this was the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now. (5).
What I find painful about this review is that I in fact started it several days ago and only recently began it again. Part of the reason is that I am reaching those final weeks of Grad School where papers emerge over the hill like Deathclaws ready to steal away bits of your flesh and meat, and so I can claim on one level physical and mental exhaustion. The reality however is that, as so often happens when I write these essays, there is some part of me that recognizes that I am not ready to write them. Even if this is just a shit-for-shit blog, and I only service a few readers and a dozen handfuls of lonely men looking for black dicks, the process of writing about a book or story requires the willingness to speak into the void, the courage to fill up the great infinite space with your voice, even if it’s just your opinion about a movie or a book. I drag my feet, I find videos to watch instead, I have a pile of books that require one chapter a day or else I feel I haven’t accomplished anything that day and so these little excuses come to fill in the void left by that question: why can’t I just write? I want to write, and when I don’t I feel terrible, nevertheless there still exists the fear of actually writing because there is a fear that I’ll muck it up, and the great essay that should have been now is just another piece of shit blog entry on the internet. It’s the fear of failing that original inspiration that keeps me away from the keyboard and I’m sure I’m not alone in this fear. Harry, in many ways, comes to embody the archetypal writer for I suspect that most of us are always recognizing a failing in ourselves, or something missing.
The conflict of this of course is that it’s self bull-shitting.
Harry watches Helen from the tent approaching, and while he thinks about his life, their marriage, and his decisions to not write he begins to recognize his bull-shit for what it is:
She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What was this? A catalogue of old books? What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil. It was strange, too, wasn’t it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one? But when he no longer was in love, when he was only lying, as to this woman, now, who had the most money of all, who had all the money there was, who had had a husband and children, who had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and who loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession; it was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved.
We must all be cut out for what we do, he thought. However you make your living is where your talent lies. He had sold vitality, in one form or another, all his life and when your affections are not too involved you give much better value for the money. He had found that out but he would never write that, now, either. No, he would not write that, although it was well worth writing. (11-12).
It’s easy to think many things, and one of my favorite lines in the film Death Proof by Robert Rodriguez is a brief one spoken by Cherry Darling: “That’s the thing about goals, they become the thing you talk about instead of the thing you do.” In the case of Harry there is displayed this wonderful brilliant tragedy of a man who might have been but wasn’t because he didn’t…I think that makes sense. Just to be safe. The ultimate determining factor of deciding whether someone is a writer is really only if they actually write. The reason the platitude “actions speak louder than words” is a platitude is because it’s based in truth. Harry’s tragedy is not just that he wasted his life, it’s because he knows that he wasted his life, and in the end he has wasted Helen’s as well.
Discussing feminist sentiment in relation to Hemingway may be tricky territory because more often than not many critics and casual readers echo my friends sentiment that Hemingway was a prick, and given the fact he was married four times even I have to admit here Hemingway was not always a pleasant man. Looking at the way Harry treats his wife, not to mention the way he’s treated the numerous women he has come across, it’s hard to garner much sympathy for the man. Harry observes Helen and his own behavior:
It was not her fault that when he went to her he was already over. How could a woman know that you meant nothing that you said; that you spoke only from habit and to be comfortable? After he no longer meant what he said, his lies were more successful with women than when he had told them the truth.
It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones. (10-11).
I distinctly remember taking a Renaissance poetry course taught by one of the few male professors at the school, a man who unfortunately later turned out to be a colossal prick and an asshats even by Hemingway standards, but he did impart one lesson to me that has stuck, namely that men desire more than physical ability or wealth, companionship. One of the reasons men tend to re-marry quickly after a long time partner has died is because men are simple creatures, specifically creatures of habit. Men desire companionship in this life, and that observation is not designed to justify Harry being a dick, but instead to offer up a possible root cause for the behavior.
The conflict still stands that, companionship or not, Harry leaves his wife when the plane finally arrives to take him to the hospital and the story ends with this scene:
Just then the hyena stopped whimpering in the night and started to make a strange, human, almost crying sound. The woman heard it and, stirred uneasily. She did not wake. In her dream she was at the house on Long Island and it was the night before her daughter’s debut. Somehow her father was there and he had been very rude. Then the noise the hyena made was so loud she woke and for a moment she did not know where she was and she was very afraid. Then she took the flashlight and shone it on the other cot that they had carried in after Harry had gone to sleep. She could see his bulk under the mosquito bar but somehow he had gotten his leg out and it hung down alongside the cot. The dressings had all come down and she could not look at it.
“Molo,” she called, “Molo! Molo!”
Then she said, “Harry, Harry!” Then her voice rising, “Harry! Please. Oh Harry!”
There was no answer and she could not hear him breathing.
Outside the tent the hyena made the same strange noise that had awakened her. But she did not hear him for the beating of her heart. (27-28).
Leaving your wife in the Serengeti to be eaten by Hyenas, she doesn’t die don’t worry but still, is probably not going to help you get in the Afterword section of Gloria Steneim’s next book, and forget Malala coming to your next fundraiser or birthday party. For the record Malala and I are still buds, she’s just really busy right now with speeches and junk, but she’s gonna call…she will…totally will.
As I said before, action is the defining quality of human beings and should only ever be the standard by which judgments of character are made. Harry as a writer is a tragic figure because he wasted whatever talent he had by not writing, but as a husband Harry fails miserably because ultimately never do right by any woman. Some might argue that in the text he decides to continue the lie that he’s in love with her, and while that has some moral element to it, the fact remains that he still abandons her in an alien territory. Then again being dead may have some part to play in that.
Plenty of feminist critics have ripped Hemingway to shreds, and in many ways the man does deserve it, but my aim here is to explore what I feel is the important element of the story which in many ways I’ve already said in numerous instances, but indulge me one more time to observe the writer who doesn’t write, for that figure is the most interesting character I know.
Harry during the story often fades in and out of memories, and while he’s thinking about his service in the war and a liaison with one of his many wives he thinks the following:
He remembered the good times with them all, and the quarrels. They always picked the finest places to have the quarrels. And why had they always quarrelled when he was feeling best? He had never written any of that because, at first, he never wanted to hurt any one and then it seemed as though there was enough to write without it. But he had always thought that he would write it finally. There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would. (17).
The chances to write are the few precious moments between what we have to do and what we should do and what we want to do. Writing this is ultimately a sacrifice of time I could be spending writing other papers for school, playing Fall Out 4, harassing my wife, washing the dishes, or having a night out or dinner with friends, and yet here I am, illuminated by the dull glow of my word processor writing about writers who don’t write because that act defines me in some capacity.
The Writer who doesn’t write sacrifices his voice, that strange instrument that is vital to the soul and the only tool that seems to cancel out the impressive darkness of infinity. I suspect on some level that fear of the emptiness is what keeps writers from writing, if not that then perhaps terror that their words, their combinations of words won’t create the right meaning and thus they’ll be doomed to mediocrity or laughter. Often the non-writing writer is a figure of neurosis in the vein of Woody Allen who ultimately finds his voice in the spirit of a young woman and isn’t that just creepy. Like Bath-Me-In-Purell creepy. I can’t explain why the non-writing writer fascinates me so, my only guess is it’s the vision of a human that I left behind. I know that sounds egomaniacal, but dammit I’m getting too old to waver in my convictions. My writing is what I am, and to live without it is death.
Christopher Hitchens once expressed in an interview that his one terror at discovering his stage 4 cancer was not death, but whether it would keep him from writing.
Hemingway remarked that writing was not a hobby, it was his essence, and when he discovered he could no longer write he made his last contribution to the zeitgeist by swallowing the end of a shotgun. Thus entering a new verb into our lexicon.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro remains one of the most important short stories in the American Literary Canon because it forever seals that lesson that parents try to teach young ones as best they can: Live life, and if you want to do something then do it. If you’re going to call yourself a writer then the only act that matters is actually writing, otherwise all you’ve really done is masturbated in public, and trust me man nobody wants to see that….nobody…nobody.
And also, just to be clear, nobody wants to read it, but you should probably write it down anyway.
For clarification all the passages from the short story were cited from my own Scribner Paperback copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro: And Other Stories, however I have included below a link to website that has the entire story if the reader is interested, which I hope they are otherwise I have only the solace of knowing that 400 Philipino man named Voight is reading this, don’t get me wrong he’s a nice guy and funny as fuck, but it’s terribly demoralizing knowing that he’s my only reader.
**Writer’s Second Note**
I’ve also included here a link to a video that is a small brief biography of Hemingway and also an interview with Orson Welles discussing his friendship with the man.
here also are a few articles about the man’s work and his lasting impact:
**Writer’s FINAL Note**
At the beginning of the short story there is a small epigram, usually a quote from another work that’s supposed to have symbolic meaning for the rest of the work, you know, like my Willie Nelson Quote. For the record Hemingway’s epigram is his own words but it still has significance to the text. The story begins:
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. (3).
The Leopard’s symbolic significance in the story is up for debate, but keeping in line with my effort here I’ll suggest that the leopard mirrors Harry’s desire to overcome his weakness as a writer by going to Africa and shoot things because that’s what rich European Men or asshole dentists with little dicks do to feel like men…okay, anger much. Honestly the most likely symbolic significance is man’s desire to overcome nature and supplant his identity as lord of the Earth indelibly upon the edifice of time but ultimately those like Harry who bawk at the challenge ultimately freeze and remain a stagnant memory of what might have been.
But that’s three whiskeys in so my ability to critically analyze might have been a little clouded. I mean, it’s Hemingway after all.