In an interview for The Paris Review in 1958, Ernest Hemingway pronounced what has now become famous in short story theory: the principle of the iceberg.

“Surely.  If a writer stops observing he is finished.  But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful.  Perhaps that would be true at the beginning.  But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.  If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg.  There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.  Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.  It is the part that doesn’t show.  If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Although Hemingway was referring to the art of writing in general, his statement appears as particularly appropriate when considering the short story genre.  Indeed, with this metaphor, Hemingway expressed a technique central to the art of the short story, that of suggestiveness.  Because of its shortness, the short story often relies on this principle and is often characterised by ellipsis.  As a result, the reader becomes an active agent in the creation of the story.  This might leave interpretation more open, but might also result in misinterpretation or a less rich interpretation.

I had been curious to read the short stories written by the man who enunciated this principle for a while and to see how he put it into practice.  I finally managed to read a couple of his short stories this week and I must admit that they have left me perplexed (not in a bad way).  They seem at first to resist the notion of unity characteristic of many short stories following Edgar Allan Poe’s predicament, thus, perhaps, opening the path to a new generation of writers who have tended to experiment and even subvert the genre and its conventions.  I do not believe that Hemingway’s and Poe’s principles are mutually exclusive, on the contrary, but I find that Hemingway’s stories open too many doors to be actually characterised by Poe’s notion of unity.  This is my initial reaction to Hemingway’s stories and I think it could be because they appear as an expression of existentialist, somewhat abstract, reflections.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, which you can read here, is the first story I ever read by Hemingway.  It was published in 1933 in Winner Take Nothing.  Let me tell you something, if you find Beckett depressing, then do not go near Hemingway. 

The story is set in a café, in Spain, where two waiters are waiting for an old man to finish drinking so that they can close up and go home.  As they wait, the waiters discuss the old man’s suicide attempt the previous week and this prompt them to consider why he would rather sit there alone in a café rather than drink at home.  Significantly, the two waiters are differentiated by their age and the older one empathises with the old man.  He points out that the young waiter cannot understand:

“‘You have youth, confidence, and a job,’ the older waiter said.  ‘You have everything.’

‘And what do you lack?’

‘Everything but work.'”

The story points to the emptiness of life, particularly for those who lack “everything but work”.  This is also suggested by the repetitive prose and the extensive use of “and”, thus resulting in an enumerative style, which reflects the repetitiveness and mundanity of daily life.  Indeed, as the older waiter is on his way to a bar, his thoughts are about nothingness:

“It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.”

Thus, modern life is characterised by nothingness and things like “a clean and pleasant café . . . well lighted” become important as they seem to restore a certain order in a chaotic world.

Sobrino de Botin, restaurant frequented by Hemingway in Madrid

“A Very Short Story”, which can be read here, might be short in length but covers a few year relationship and how it ended.  It was published in 1925 in In Our Time.  In the space of a few lines, Hemingway recounts the love affair between a soldier and a nurse.  They meet during the war but never get married, not even after the end of the war when the soldier returns and goes home to find a job so that Luz can later join him.  However, Luz discovers that there is more than one man on earth and she breaks up the relationship.  Although she changes her mind later, the soldier never replies to her letter but we learn that “[a] short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.”

This story offers a grim but realistic view on relationships, particularly when one is young and during a time of war when there are fewer opportunities to meet someone.  It also challenges this idea of everlasting love and suggests that promises might be empty and result in nothing. 

I would have liked to spend more time reflecting on these stories, read more of them and read more about Hemingway as I was only familiar with the “iceberg principle” and The Old Man and the Sea, which I read so long ago I cannot remember it in detail.  However, I have promised to put this post up today and I would not like to have made an empty promise and offer you nothing, nada.

This post is part of The Classics Circuit tour on the Lost Generation held by Rebecca.  You can find links to all the posts presented as part of this tour here and read more on Hemingway and other Lost Generation writers.

This post is part of the America Lost Generation tour held at The Classic Circuits.  Visit the site to read more post on Hemingway and other lost generation writers.