Monday, 23 January 2017

Book Review: Green Hills of Africa

Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa: The Hemingway Library Edition (2015)

Green Hills of Africa is Hemingway's account of his safari in Africa in the 1930s.  The original book was published in 1935.  This version is very much a writer's edition.  That is, it includes the text itself, which is Hemingway's prose at its glassy best, hard and smooth as river gravel. 


It also includes the safari diary of his then wife, Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, his own notes while in Africa, some magazine articles from the time and also some rough drafts of the book itself.  One has a chance, then, to see the artist at work.  The editors deserve praise for creating a book of this type.

There is little sense here of the hunter as superhuman (which is why I find Elmer Keith unreadable) or of constant danger (they way you do with Peter Capstick).  What you do get is the sense of Hemingway's desire to feel alive - to leave no part of the human experience untapped.  So, in his view, reading mattered.  Tramping up hills mattered.  The tedium of fruitless stalks and failed hunts mattered.

Like two others of his era - Camus and Orwell - Hemingway wrote for a world where the depth and degree of human exerience was vitally important.  This is not to be wondered at: the vast tragedy of the Great War had told a generation of writers that God had gone AWOL and they drew the reasonable conclusion that the Renaissance humanists were right: Man (that is, humanity) was the measure of all things.  It would take the coming of the Lying State during the Spanish Civil War and the vast crime of the Second World War to prove to the same generation that the common welfare was even greater than the personal fulfilment (which is one of the points made by both 1984 and La Peste).

This reflection points up the difficulty our world may have appreciating Hemingway from other than a stylistic perspective.  In an age where public culture seems split between poe-faced solemity (which is not the same thing as seriousness) and bitter angry humour, the self-sufficient clarity of the inter-war years seems very foreign.

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