On Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

17 Jun

The Sun Also Rises [1927] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation--namely, a group of ex-patriots surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

The Sun Also Rises [1926] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation–namely, a group of expatriates surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

Ernest Hemingway–grizzled, über manly, misogynistic, brawling, brilliant writer that he is–has been a strong influence on my life as a reader, ever since 15-year-old LitBeetle picked up A Farewell to Arms because she was really, really bored. Don’t get me wrong: the racism and sexism, the unabashed machismo gets my blood up, and not in, like, a sexy way. Hemingway is a pure and simple dick. I can temporarily suspend my moral outrage,though, because I’m absolutely in love with his spare and simplistic prose. With The Sun Also Rises, I basked in Hemingway’s iconic understated voice, and it left me sighing and staring appreciatively off into middle distance (not to mention left me wanting to drink wine from a leather flask).

In the first four pages of TSAR, Hemingway basically sketches out the entire plot of School Ties by introducing Robert Cohn, a young fighter who bruised his way up in the world and played a lot of football, so I kept picturing Brendon Fraser stalking around Paris with his jerk friend Matt Damon. The Sun Also Rises, though, is told from the perspective of Robert’s friend, Jake Barnes, who coasts through an indulgent, careless life as an expatriate in Paris. He spends his days writing news articles to wire back to America and spends his nights drinking copious amounts of gin, sherry, and absinthe. He is a proud member of the Lost Generation, and he is a mirror of young Ernest Hemingway’s life abroad. Having lived through the most horrific war in human history, Jake and his friends drown their disillusionment in unbridled pleasure-seeking, which seems harmless at first, but sentiments escalate when the setting changes to the violence of Pamplona’s bull fights and when everyone becomes tangled in an icky little love triangle, like you do. Jake’s love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley, is a free-wheeling, free-loving woman who can’t help herself but break a few hearts. Robert Cohn is the Jewish-American writer who vies for Brett’s affections, along with Brett’s fiancée Michael Campbell and Jake’s American friend Bill Gorton. So, I guess that makes it more like a love pentagon. It’s a whole mess and, according to Hemingway, we can pretty much lay blame on the Jew and the woman, obviously.

Here's a cheat sheet to all the characters:

Here’s a cheat sheet to all the characters: Jake Barnes, the self-pitying drunk; Brett Ashley, the heartbreaker drunk; Robert Cohn, the brooding drunk; Mike Campbell, the mean drunk; and Bill Gorton, the funny drunk (and then there’s Georgette, but we left her in Paris).

In Pamplona, watching the brutal running of the bulls and the bull fights, the love polygon gets heated, and all the drunks get to flex their drunky drunk muscles in high melodrama fueled by selfishness and Spanish wine. Jake hangs back as more of a passive, journalistic observer as the plot unfolds. Robert Cohn’s obsession with Brett grows during the fiesta, and so does everyone else’s anti-Semitism. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones, but my heart started racing as the tension built. I fully expected someone to whip out Valyrian steel and start lopping off heads. Hemingway’s hard-boiled, no-nonsense prose drives the atmosphere toward that tension. He builds with spurts of dialogue to move the plot along and rhythmic, repetitive descriptions to set the stage with lasting images.

Hemingway creates a environment that perfectly demonstrates the lostness of his Lost Generation. Jake and his friends wallow in their petty infighting, careless quips, and sadomasochism. At one point, Jake leans out of his hotel window, drunk as he has been for the entire week-long fiesta, and watches a man being gored to death by a bull in the streets below him. The bull’s horns pierce straight through its victim from the lower back and out through the man’s chest. It seems Jake feels nothing at the sight. Brett and the others love the fighting and the danger and even the gore. Only Robert Cohn feels sick to his stomach at the violence, and his sensitivity is one more reason for his companions’ derision. Cohn is the odd man out, the man who can’t participate in the irony and the coldness, the man who feels too much and actually invests himself in people. To the Lost Generation, a culture of calculated abandon and intentional denial, Cohn is weak so he is cast off. And also he doesn’t drink nearly enough.

Even now, Hemingway continues to be a polarizing author. Many readers hate him and his macho style, but he’s still revered as one of the best American authors to date. Tell me in the comments below if you’re Team Hemingway or a Hemingway-hater, and I want to know why!

Hemingway's own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (From Wikipedia)

Hemingway’s own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t hit that.) (From Wikipedia)

“Badly cogido …. All for sport. All for pleasure.”

Read it if … you’re a sucker for terse prose, Modernists, or feeling simultaneously superior and self-loathing about everything in general. Hemingway incorporates the confusion of the Lost Generation in a handful of iconic characters. TSAR is the perfect snapshot of the ruination The Great War and Modernism laid to young men and women and writers around the world.

Don’t read it if … your prosaic preferences lean toward more descriptive writing. Hemingway doesn’t tend to wow readers with flourishes or catchy turns of phrase, and, where other writers are more like painters, Hemingway is a blunt instrument hammering an image home. If the weather is wet, Hemingway will let you know things are wet and they’re damp and everything is wet and glistening with water because it’s raining wetness. If there are soldiers marching down a mountain, goddammit, Hemingway will force you to feel those footsteps in your bones. Don’t read Hemingway if you’re not prepared to be Hemingwayed.

This book is like … Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, which tells a slightly different tale of the expatriate scenes in Paris, only 30 odd years later. Like TSAR, Giovanni’s Room gives us protagonists who appear as cold observers, seemingly unfazed by the self-destruction all around them and yet complicit in it. And, of course, let’s not forget the most obvious allusions to The Story of Ferdinand by  the master Munro Leaf, because, you know, bull fighting.

I'm used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

I’m used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

 

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5 Responses to “On Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises””

  1. Ms. C June 17, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

    Hemingway bothers me less than Kerouac.

    But while on the subject of literature and Spain and bullfighting, I recommend the contemporary silent film Blancanieves. Yeah.

    • litbeetle June 17, 2014 at 10:26 pm #

      Adding the movie to my list! I agree with you, though. As far as annoying male writers go, the Beats always bothered me most.

  2. Thom Hickey June 18, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    Thanks. Liked your conflicted review. H can appear to suffer from false hair on the chest syndrome! Redeemed to some extent by style which is best read in the short stories rather than the novels which seem self parodic eventually. Fitzgerald a writer who had all the gifts H lacked. Regards Thom.

    • litbeetle June 18, 2014 at 1:10 am #

      Thanks, Thom! Glad you stopped by 🙂 It’s also good to know you’re solidly in the Fitzgerald camp but still appreciate Hemingway’s work. The two can be pretty polarizing. I’ll definitely check out more Hemingway shorts!

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  1. LitBeetle’s Top 10 Books of 2014 | litbeetle - January 6, 2015

    […] of cheap wine, and in this highly specific genre of literature, Ernest Hemingway is king.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to […]

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