Real Time Short Stories

Cafe Shorts 2: Ernest Hemingway “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Posted on: June 7, 2011

We left our three generations of tika-taka park footballers on the verge of a story. By interrogating the scene, fantasising about its emotional backdrop and thereby injecting a narrative kinesis into the mundane moment, we can occasionally find quick routes to a story.

When Hubert Selby Jr saw a newspaper story about a man who locked his mother in a closet, he had not only an opening line –

Harry locked his mother in the closet.

– but the whole novel of Requiem For The Dream. Asking and answering questions about this curious turn-of-events in a parent-child relationship allowed him to map out characters, back-stories and the parallel plots of the son’s heroin addiction and the mother’s Valium dependancy. What Selby did with the newspaper story, what we might do with our father and adult son going through their muffled rituals of playtime, is identify a central dynamic from which all else can be developed. We can actually strip away the rest. We can kick the football
into touch, close the park gates, send the kid off to boarding school, and build on whatever we’ve found in the father-son relationship that makes this a story worth telling. That story dynamic can be further deconstructed, though. Perhaps this isn’t about a father and son but about two different generations. Perhaps it’s not a personal tension between the two men but a case of each locked within the preoccupations that govern the life he is leading and the time of life he has reached.

So perhaps we can sit “in the corner of a tea-room, café, coffee shop; nursing cup after cup; observing the comings and goings…” and find our story dynamic in the contrasting attitudes of the two waiters on duty.

Ernest Hemingway was a champion coffee shop sitter-and-writer so it’s only right we should turn to him for the second of our occasional Café Shorts series. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, the dimensions of the place in question are fundamental to the dynamic Hemingway is exploring. As the last customer, a suicidal, deaf drunkard throws back brandies and prevents the waiters from closing up for the night, we see in their conversation the tension between one who views the café as a place of work and the other, older waiter, who understands it as a place to be.

“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It is not half-past two.”

“I want to go home to bed.”

“What is an hour?”

“More to me than to him.”

“An hour is the same.”

“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home.”

“It’s not the same.”

The story beautifully articulates the kind of philosophy that can only be perfected by sitting on your arse and keeping your throat lubricated. The younger waiter has everything but appreciates nothing: he has all the time in the world but he lets it go, hurries it past, allows it to fritter away while he waits for a better time to come. The older waiter has nothing, knows he has nothing and knows there is nothing – Hemingway gives him the bravura recital of the Lord’s Prayer with each noun replaced by “nada” – so he understands what the old man seeks in a clean, well-lighted place, where the task of being can be reduced to its most passive elements, where the act of living can be summed up, as the older waiter seems to do at the end, as “probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”

There is a profound anguish being portrayed here and yet the light remains. We continue to sit and watch, speculating on the lives of those in our field of vision, and waiting until the next story makes itself known to us.

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4 Responses to "Cafe Shorts 2: Ernest Hemingway “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”"

[…] (RSS) Blog Catalog Cafe Shorts 2: Ernest Hemingway “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” […]

[…] you caught my appraisal of the Ernest Hemingway story, A Clean Well-Lighted Place in the Cafe Shorts series last month, you may be interested to know that the story is mentioned in […]

[…] The narrative starts with the assumption that this is a memoir of time spent in the company of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Manolete, Dali, Matisse and the whole […]

[…] I don’t believe there is great room for doubt about Hemingway‘s plot here. The conversation has an authentic emotional ebb and flow and is never a blur of […]

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