a brown stain on white snow by hemingway

A story that opens with a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard at 19,000 feet only has a few possible endings. When that story is written by Hemingway, the endings rapidly narrow down to one: death.

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

That’s not Hemingway, of course. But who can resist Thomas Gray when speaking of exits? I certainly can’t. Anyhow, for the countless thousands of paths that lead to the grave, it’s a wonder any of us are alive at all. It doesn’t take much, really: a touch of influenza, a mosquito bite, a burst vein, a rogue cell.

For Harry, our protagonist in the sublime short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, it’s a tiny scratch on the knee. That’s what eventually lands him in the grave.

Because Hemingway is one of our great masters, I relish an opportunity to to rap his knuckles for mangling a passage. Bad Papa.

Harry’s in a dreadful way. The vultures, “the huge, filthy birds, their heads sunk in their hunched feathers,” are moving closer and closer to him as he lies on a cot, helplessly waiting for a plane to rescue him. The birds move like a hand across the face of a clock measuring the passage of time.

At first they circle in the sky. Then they perch heavily in a tree. And finally they squat on the ground, sidling and crouch-jumping toward Harry.

Instead of relying on these and other clues, Hemingway splatters readers with a data dump—in the form of dialogue, no less:

“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.”

In three sentences flat, we’re buried under a mound of details and a causality, to boot, from a scratch, through carbolic acid, to gangrene. We now posses a brief yet totally unnecessary history of Harry’s infection.

If these details have any place at all in the story, they should be revealed through restrained exposition rather than an explosion of narrative incontinence.

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4 Responses to a brown stain on white snow by hemingway

  1. Kat says:

    Beautifully-written and very interesting! I haven’t read much Hem, but I enjoy the way you approach the dialogue. You’re right: we can die of anything any time! Tsk, tsk, Hem. Nice quote from Gray, too.

  2. If you have time, read The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber. It’s a great short story with a brilliant ending.

  3. Keving, yoiu capture my heart across thousands of miles. Thank you for this beautifully written, profound note. Thank you for your dedication to thoughtful reading and the time you spend sharing it with us. I almost never have access to any of the beautiful books you mention on your web log. This time, incidentally, I have “The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber.” I bought it many years ago from a street corner in Tehran and never read it. I am going to read it very anxiously now.

    • Hi Ali, great to hear from you. How’s the translation coming? Very happy to hear that you have that short story by Hemingway. I’ll blog about it in the coming weeks, in particular, the ambiguous/engimatic ending, which I think is quite brilliant. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on the American stereotypes that Hemingway relies on to make this bit of fiction work: soft American men and predatory American women, etc. Hope you and your family are happy and well. Best, K

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