If life is a rehearsal for which there is no performance, as Kundera says, then every moment that passes represents a missed opportunity. And the loneliness of that sentiment forms our capacity to be nostalgic for our own dreams, for times we didn’t live in.
Stories give us the opportunity to reclaim some of those moments—not by analysis, since to look is to touch (as Camus and Schrödinger would have it)—but by reliving them. We benefit even if the moment is relived in exact duplicate, since there’s no risk of a meaningful moment passing unnoticed. This time, set down in a more permanent medium, the moment is preserved. We can relive it endlessly and at will. The more accurately is it is preserved, the more directly it can be experienced, and the more satisfying it is to do so.
Which is probably why stories exist: as handholds by which we cling to the fragility of an ever-passing life.
Hemingway understood this, that writing is not about being distracted from life, but about paying attention to it. The melancholy that so many readers detect in his stories is not a facet of his plots or his writerly persona. It’s a byproduct of the accuracy of his depiction, a trace of our own nostalgia for the life that we recognize in his words.
This holds true even on a more finite scale. His stories consist largely of mundane details: washing, eating, traveling, stale conversation. Again, the familiar melancholy emerges, not beacuse we are bored by these details, but beacuse we recognize them. Yes, there is grief at moments lost to the mundane, but also a secret joy at seeing them reproduced elsewhere. Proof that we aren’t alone in our stagnation.
Of course, his protagonists are the ultimate in wish fulfillment. They are too light to be trapped, too sensual to be bored, and too hard to be broken. They are the cleanest vessels from which to view the tragedy of his more real, secondary characters; their failings, weaknesses, stubbornness, pridefulness, decadence, and distraction. This opportunity for voyeurism is what makes his work appealing.
Each story is a simple picture of an average moment, and we the readers are utterly safe from where we observe. Enveloped in the cynical competence of Frederic Henry, or the nihilistic certitude of Robert Jordan, he presents us with that most titillating of all objects for true voyeurs: a moment from our own lives.
And of course we are voyeurs, using books as tools to peer inside each other and ourselves. And of course voyeurism must ultimately be focused inward, to where the truly depraved and shameful scenes occur. In his stories, we are rubbernecking at the worst of ourselves, viewing from within an eye emboldened by its own precious invincibility. As a writer he is often criticized as egotistical and self-serving, but this is our misunderstanding. That egotism is our own for believing we are meant to be his protagonists.
Yet nothing is lost by revealing this illusion. We are still safe to watch, and nothing has changed in the stories themselves. In fact, the view is even more addictive—the only place we feel comfortable is in the harsh but fair eye of a cynical protagonist, the only place we feel the womb-like complacency of viewing without inviting scrutiny ourselves. Those protagonists must only be available enough to assure us they belong in the story at all. What remains is the reflecting pool