Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Back to back best books. Of course The Sun Also Rises is a classic of 20th century American literature, but has anyone read it lately?  I'm afraid to google it to see a a bunch of reassessments.  For me, it holds up.  It's flawed, it's imperfect, but it is also impossibly beautiful.  We haven't reviewed any books by Ernest Hemingway, only one about Ernest Hemingway, and that is probably one of the worst posts ever on Flying Houses (actually I don't think it's that bad, but it is extremely pretentious and off-putting).  I'll try to do better, here.

This is a quick little book.  67,707 words.  250 pages with fairly sparse print per page.

It's the story of a group of expatriate Americans in Paris, and their stay in Pamplona for the fiesta in the early 1920's.  It opens up with a portrait of Robert Cohn, one-time collegiate boxer and writer.  He is friends with Jake Barnes, a newspaper reporter with an injury from World War I.  Jake is also friends with Bill (I can't remember his last name) who is a writer and makes his entrance in the novel telling a very colorful story with many n-bombs (I realize this may be an offensive term, I apologize), though he does not seem to be a racist.  Actually he is portrayed as more of a beatnik type character, a precursor to Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty.  All of these characters, in a way, are precursors.  The Lost Generation gives way to the Beat Generation...

There is also Lady Brett Ashley, and her fiancee, Mike (I can't remember his last name).   

Everyone is in love with Brett.  Eventually she hooks up with a young matador, Pedro Romero, who is 19.  The group drinks a lot, and they talk about bullfighting.

There is such a force of style in this book that the reader cannot help but be hypnotized.  That was the overall impression for me this time around.  The book is extremely dialogue-heavy.  Sometimes the dialogue is brilliant, and other times it feels unimaginative and clunky, as if the same scene is playing out over and over again: Jake & Co. get drunk and talk about how they all love Brett. 

Her entrance in the novel is notable because of the commentary from Jake on her companions.  The first time it went completely over my head, but this time it seemed pretty obvious they are supposed to be a bunch of gay dudes: "I was very angry.  Somehow they always made me angry.  I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure." (28) Also, the casual way he describes a prostitute he sort of picks up is charming and humanizing.

The real drama of the novel comes between Mike and Robert Cohn.  Mike gets very drunk in almost every scene and he usually says really inappropriate things:

"'Breeding be damned.  Who has any breeding, anyway, except the bulls?  Aren't the bulls lovely?  Don't you like them, Bill?  Why don't you say something, Robert?  Don't sit there looking like a bloody funeral.  What if Brett did sleep with you?  She's slept with lots of better people than you.'
'Shut up,' Cohn said.  He stood up.  'Shut up, Mike.'
'Oh, don't stand up and act as though you were going to hit me.  That won't make any difference to me.  Tell me, Robert.  Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer?  Don't you know you're not wanted?  I know when I'm not wanted.  Why don't you know when you're not wanted?  You came down to San Sebastian where you weren't wanted, and followed Brett around like a bloody steer.  Do you think that's right?'' (146)

So there is this love triangle story that is complicated by Romero, and Jake--though truly, the heart of the novel is the love story between Jake and Brett.  Could it be described as a love pentagon?  Bill is the only character that is not romantically linked with Brett.

Ernest Hemingway is a romantic figure, particularly in his associations with Paris.  Both The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast are essential literary documents, particularly for any American traveling to Paris (and perhaps Spain).  There is a certain feeling in the work that makes the reader feel powerful.  The words have an import.  Sometimes, this style masquerades itself and masks otherwise unimaginative dialogue.  Usually, Hemingway's style is best served by the way his characters describe their surroundings, rather than the dialogue that is recorded.  Occasionally, dialogue is elevated to high art, as in the famous closing lines of the book, arguably the greatest ending of all time:

"Down-stairs we came out through the first-floor dining-room to the street.  A waiter went for a taxi.  It was hot and bright.  Up the street was a little square with trees and grass where there were taxis parked.  A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side.  I tipped him and told the driver where to drive and got in beside Brett.  The driver started up the street.  I settled back.  Brett moved close to me.  We sat close against each other.  I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably.  It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white.  We turned out onto the Gran Via.
'Oh, Jake,' Brett said, 'we could have had such a damned good time together.'
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic.  He raised his baton.  The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
'Yes,' I said. 'Isn't it pretty to think so?'" (250-251)

I mean really, that's what The Sun Also Rises is about, right?  The ending.  Perhaps it is not the greatest but it should be in the top 5 for 20th Century American fiction.  A Farewell to Arms would also make that list.  Hemingway is a great writer of endings.  There are a lot of "problematic" aspects of this novel that might otherwise keep it out of the pantheon of Great Books, but the ending makes up for everything.  Despite its flaws, the novel paints an indelible portrait of a time and place, such that the reader is transported there as if they had lived it themselves, and any novel that successfully achieves such a lofty goal as that demands to be read for generations.  From what I understand, Hemingway and Fitzgerald have not receded from their post as the greatest 20th century American writers, or their reputation as that.  In The Sun Also Rises, perhaps more than any of his other works, Hemingway lives up to his status as a literary icon.

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