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  • Sartre, Nada, and Hemingway's African Stories
  • Ben Stoltzfus

"The greatest literary development in France between 1929 and 1939," says Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1946 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "was the discovery of Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Caldwell, and Steinbeck. [. . .] At once, for thousands of young intellectuals the American novel took its place together with jazz and the movies, among the best of the importations from the United States."1 Hemingway's use of dialogue, short declarative sentences and his emphasis on action (instead of inner monologue) appealed to Sartre and Albert Camus, both of whom wanted to express new sensibilities in keeping with the accelerated rhythms of the machine age. In La Force de l'âge (The Prime of Life), Simone de Beauvoir writes that a great many of the rules that she and Sartre observed in their novels were inspired by Hemingway.2

Sartre, the author of La Nausée (Nausea) was reading Hemingway in the 1930s and admired what Claude-Edmonde Magny calls "la technique objective dans le roman américain" ["the objective technique in the American novel"].3 Sartre believed that psychological analysis, the hall mark of the French style from Mme de LaFayette to Marcel Proust, could no longer mirror the complexities of the new era or the sense of the absurd generated by the events of World War II. In their book, Transatlantic Migration: The Contemporary American Novel in France, Thelma M. Smith and Ward L. Miner state that in the wake of the American influence, "it was much more important to express the social interactions rather than indulge in psychological analyses."4

In addition to these new stylistic changes and an emphasis on social interactions, Hemingway's work, from the beginning, was imbued with a deep sense of loss and the absurd. When Gertrude Stein referred to the author of The Sun Also Rises as a member of the "lost generation" she was [End Page 205] already alluding to the alienation in these authors' lives and in their works5 —an alienation that Sartre strove to overcome in his literature of commitment and that Camus defined so eloquently in L'Etranger (The Stranger) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus).6 Coming to grips with the secular implications of death and the absurd is the essential theme in all their works.

In 1969, Scribner published a critical edition entitled Hemingway's African Stories7 (not to be confused with Green Hills of Africa), a 259-page autobiographical narrative in which, in his "Foreword," Hemingway says that "none of the characters or incidents [. . .] is imaginary."7 The Garden of Eden also has an African story embedded in the narrative, but Scribner's published version of 247 pages is a novel, and the unpublished manuscript is over 1,000 pages. Also, True at First Light (319 pages) is characterized as a "fictional memoir." Hemingway himself referred to "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as his African stories and this is the designation I use in this essay. Death is also the leitmotif that haunts Hemingway's oeuvre, and the title, Death in the Afternoon, in addition to the demise of bulls, is symptomatic of artistic, epistemological, and ontological affinities with Sartre's L'Etre et le néant (Being and Nothingness).8 Nowhere is this nada (the void, emptiness, meaninglessness) more insistent than in Hemingway's two African stories, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," because the absurd has the potential to reorient the subject toward life, and living life authentically and courageously was and is essential to happiness.

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

Although "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" mirrors the void and the shame in Macomber's life, it is also a story about a man who discovers courage and who fills meaninglessness with a new essence. Macomber is on safari in Africa and he is afraid of lions. He panics while shooting a large male, but the very fear that makes him run away from danger, teaches him, in less than twenty-four hours, how to face a charging buffalo with all...


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