In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been limiting my author reviews to novels and excluding other work, like short stories. I’ve done it for convenience; it just keeps everything tidier, but it’s a damn shame for the likes of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was such a prolific short story writer, and so much of his best work was produced in that form, that I’d be doing both him and his potential readers a disservice if I didn’t mention it. You can’t fully experience or evaluate Hemingway’s work without digging into his short stories.
Moving on, it’s easy for me to pick my favourite Hemingway novel: The Sun Also Rises. It’s no contest. This book stands head and shoulders above the rest. I think some of this comes down to Hemingway’s problematic approach to writing about sexual relationships specifically and women in general.
For example, I found just about everything in For Whom the Bell Tolls interesting, besides the development of its awkward romance. I found Across the River and Into the Trees entirely sub-par because its female lead was so poorly and flatly written that she distracted from the rest of the book. And, though True at First Light is problematic for several reasons, which I’ll touch on later, the relationship between the main character and the local woman, Debba, is uncomfortable to read at the very least.
What separates The Sun Also Rises from these other books is quite possibly the main character’s impotence (spoiler alert?). Because there’s no chance for the main characters to consummate their relationship, there’s also no chance for Hemingway to ruin the novel with an unbearably awkward love scene. And because all of the interactions between these characters is soaked with unfulfilled desire, it makes the whole story more dynamic and rich. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that these characters’ dissatisfaction is emblematic of their generation, the one that Gertrude Stein so aptly described as ‘Lost’. It’s no coincidence that the male lead is suffering the lingering effects of a war wound and that’s keeping him from moving forward as a productive member of society. In some ways, a whole strata of society was struggling to piece its psyche back together after WWI. All this to say, The Sun also Rises succeeds on multiple levels.
I suppose A Farewell to Arms comes in second on my list of top Hemingway novels, but I don’t remember having anywhere near as strong of a reaction to it. From what I vaguely recall (you’ve gotta cut me a break because it’s been years since I read a lot of these books), I thought it was good, but not amazing. I’d be happy to read it again, but not much of my first reading has stuck with me.
To Have and Have Not is at least half good, by which I mean I like the first half much more than the second half. Islands in the Stream is similar, though it’s the first third of that book that I like the most. But, it brings us into the troubling waters of posthumous publications and unfinished books. Also residing in this strange space is The Garden of Eden and True at First Light, which I touched on earlier. These two books were so heavily edited after Hemingway’s death, it’s questionable as to whether they can even be included on his list of novels. It is a damn shame that The Garden of Eden was never finished, because it showed real promise and was, possibly in some ways, ahead of its time. The way that the female lead experiments with her sexuality is certainly intriguing and would probably resonate a lot more with readers these days than Hem’s bull fighting or lion hunting work. Unfortunately, the real test of whether or not this is a good novel is how it all ties together and, in its unfinished state, you just can’t really evaluate it. True at First Light doesn’t seem to have anywhere near as much potential as The Garden of Eden, but what it does have is similarly unfulfilled.
This leaves two more novels, Hemingway’s first and last: The Torrents of Spring and The Old Man and The Sea. Torrents of Spring isn’t bad, but it’s not a serious novel like the rest. It’s satirical and as a piece of satire, I didn’t get the joke. That’s not Hemingway’s fault, but I can hardly think of the book as a timeless classic. On the other hand, The Old Man and The Sea is definitely considered a timeless classic. It won the Pulitzer Prize and basically landed Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature! These prizes are funny things, though. They’re not always awarded when they should be and have a tendency of showing up late to the party. To put it another way, you could argue that The Old Man’s prizes were actually more like lifetime recognition awards for everything that came before. The book itself is, in my opinion, tedious and drawn out.
In conclusion, if you’re going to try Hemingway, please start with The Sun Also Rises. If you don’t make it any further than that, at least your time will have been well spent. But, if you’re willing to invest a little more into Hem, try a few of the others in the top 5 of my list. Beyond that, you’re not missing much, especially if you make time for the short stories.
For my next author review, I think I’ll go for someone completely different: Nick Bantock.
The Sun Also Rises
A Farewell to Arms
To Have and Have Not
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Islands in the Stream
The Garden of Eden
The Old Man and the Sea
True at First Light
The Torrents of Spring
Across the River and into the Trees