A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.
Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.
Today’s story, for day Six – A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, by Ernest Hemingway.
Read it online here:
Like yesterday, we have a story about the desperate perspective of age.
Unlike yesterday the point of view isn’t the person themselves, but a pair of waiters, one young and one old, one impatient and one unhurried, as they observe their last customer of the night, an elderly drunk stacking up saucers, one for each brandy.
I am so much in awe of Hemingway – for the pure efficiency of his prose. The story is very short, told almost entirely in tiny snippets of dialog – yet it is so full of complex subtlety and power. Where a lesser writer might describe in careful detail and attempted elegant metaphor the sound of metal on wood echoing across the darkness, Hemingway simply says, “They were putting up the shutters.”
He cuts out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary and in that gains an unparalleled dynamic efficacy.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a masterful collection of mostly unattributed dialog. So skillfully constructed with subtle inconsistencies that long-standing literary controversies have arisen over who actually said what.
A work of fiction should not spell everything out. The reader has to work for his entertainment, for his wisdom.
And then, like a clever piece of music, the text explodes into one final big paragraph which throws the lonely sad desperation of the older waiter onto the page with devastating effect. Finally, the reader understands what the waiter, and the author, and humanity itself shares with the poor old man that only wants to sit there and quietly drink his brandy in a clean, will-lighted place.
He only wants to put the darkness off for a few more minutes.
“Good night,” the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a 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. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.