Life and Death
It was one of those runs where because of the interviews I had scheduled I was reading a lot of thrillers. I enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t want to live on a rollercoaster, and by thriller number three I found I was growing tired of every page being a matter of life and death. I had a collection of Hemingway short stories, and to give myself a break I thought I’d find one I hadn’t read yet. The story I chose was called “An Alpine Idyll,” which, as is often the case with Hemingway, was also about life and death, beginning as it does with our narrator and his friend coming down out of the mountains and happening upon the end of a funeral. The paragraph that got my attention, however, had nothing to do with death per se—or much of anything, really, except what it is like to ski in the mountains in May when it is hot in the day and cool in the morning and evening.
It is a fairly long paragraph for something so mundane. What’s more, I have never skied, not in May or in any other month. But Hemingway does a great job of describing how tired the narrator and his friend were of the constant sun, and how generally dissatisfying he found spring skiing to be. Again, I have never skied, but by the end of the paragraph I was relieved that the narrator was no longer skiing and was down in the valley out of the sun. What’s more, and most importantly, it mattered. It mattered somehow that they had stayed too long on the mountain and that the taste of melted snow reminded him of the unsatisfying experience of spring skiing.
In fact, it mattered – at least to me – just as much as all the life and death moments in all those thrillers. I do not want to suggest that this sort of subtlety is the pinnacle of good writing. It isn’t. But I know why I have sought it out in my reading life. I have never had a gun put to my head nor held a gun to someone else’s; I haven’t gone to war or been chased by a serial killer. But I have awakened from an ordinary night’s sleep, dropped my feet onto the floor, and felt as if my next choice mattered. I have also awakened and felt as if my next choice didn’t matter. The difference between those two days is as stark to me as the difference between life and death.
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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com