(The first half will be about his legacy. The second half will be about “The Sun Also Rises.”)
My personal relationship with Hemingway’s writing has been very hit or miss, and it’s not because I don’t understand why he’s held in such high esteem. I do understand what new ways of writing styles he pioneered which did have great effect on modernists and later 20th Century writers, but I am of the mind that because you did it first doesn’t make you the best.
Ernest Hemingway is an important figure in history and in the writing world, but it is not because all of his titles were genius wonders, it was because of his fresh approach. These are two very different things. I believe that there is a difference between a writer who wrote one or two of the best American novels ever and an American writer who is one of the best writers of a century. Hemingway was not one of the best skilled writers of the all time, but he did write in a style all his own and amidst several lackluster books, Hemingway did manage to write some excellent books that should never go out of print.
Having said that, I would like to examine why I am not Hemingway’s biggest advocate and why his style was so important for those of you who do not know.
WHY I’M NOT GAGA FOR HEMINGWAY: After getting through 80-pages of “To Have and Have Not”, 40-pages of “The Old Man and the Sea”, and 50-pages of “In Our Time”, I was prepared to swear off Hemingway for good. I really wanted to enjoy these three books and chose them because his more famous books (i.e. A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises) were so famous I decided to stay away from them and read his lesser known works to see if they were just as good. They were not. And that is why I say that he wrote some of the great novels of the 20th Century but he himself was not one of the greatest writers in the 20th Century. In my opinion, a writer’s batting average must be higher than this.
It is not like me to dismiss books before the 100-page mark, and even then I read books at a 95% completion rate. I began these three books to see what all the fuss was about that I had heard about my entire life. I did not finish them because life is simply too short to read anything less than what truly grips you and makes you think about life. That’s just the kind of reader I am and you should read whatever makes you feel good. I’m not here to judge people, just novels.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HOW HE WROTE: He is the one responsible for brief sentences and long sentences, all very simple in nature, perhaps conversational, using very little adjectives and almost always being in first-person limited narration. He wrote simply to stay objective and was never deeply convoluted or overly poetic but always managed to create over-arching themes through his plots and strong metaphors throughout his pieces. While he does this well, it does not promise to be interesting. I do see these elements in his works, but I’m not always impressed. Some of that is due to the fact that these books are approaching 100-years old and were more seen as a more radical departure from traditional writing style back in the day. I respect that. But the people who rant and rave about his books fail to mention that, and when I am reading “The Old Man and the Sea” I feel like I’m watching a random conversation go on for an hour about how to catch a fish, with some hidden meaning that is not worth digging for. And some sentences are honestly almost “See Spot run. See Spot Jump.” Is this a children’s book?
He was all about “understatement” and being objective; telling the audience what was occurring and allowing them to infer a meaning of their own. He was the originator of “the Iceberg Theory” which states that much like an iceberg is only partially seen above the water, the inferences within a piece are mostly below the surface. The book needs to be thought about and digested and “read in to.”
In addition to this, he was also the writer who began the idea of writing things that—while sometimes are cryptic allegories for a larger meaning—are sometimes nothing more than your average everyday banter about absolutely nothing. Some consider this a waste of space; some see it as accurately capturing true speech and people’s slices of life. I’ll let you judge that one. I compare it to the 90s and 2000s director Quentin Tarantino, especially some of the scenes in “Reservoir Dogs” and “Death Proof” where we are really just watching people “shoot-the-shit” for about 15-long minutes. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s brilliant, but it’s always original. That’s how I feel about Hemingway.
As a side note, I will be reading “A Farewell to Arms” in the next year or so just to prove to myself that it was his best work and everything else I will ever read by him will probably fall short. I hope that is true, because I do not have time for “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, often cited as one of the best three or so he has written.
So this brings us to “The Sun Also Rises”, Hemingway’s 1923 novel about the Lost Generation, or so I am told by every quote and reaction I’ve read by other amateurs and professional reviewers. It has left me wondering, is the swill in their brains so indoctrinated from years of being told what is good art that they’ve all just agreed to agree with one another?—because unless everyone truly picks up on the exact same things and doesn’t just copy of each other, I’d be surprised. Original opinions are impossible to find from reviewers of Hemingway.
The title “The Sun Also Rises” is supposed to resemble the down and out characters by the end of the novel. Life isn’t over for them yet, and the sun may rise again, giving them another chance to fix their fucked up lives.
It is broken up into three books. The third book is one chapter and was unnecessary to split off into its own book. Book one is mostly in Paris. Book two is most of the book and takes place in Pamplona and Spain at Bullfights and fiestas. Book three is where everyone goes home and is needlessly one chapter long.
I already was rubbed wrong about this book for two big reasons. The first reason was that Hemingway and his editor decided to throw away, yes, just toss, the first thirty pages of this book and start at some arbitrary point. He felt this was modernist and gives it the feel of not having a firm starting place. If this was his intended idea, in order to say something about the chaos of life of how complicated it can be, he did a good job and this emanated through the novel. We will never know what the first thirty pages said. I feel this detracts from the novel because it begins with a whole chapter devoted to a secondary character, giving us his back story and teaching us about who he is and why. This never pays off, because you think this was done intentionally and there will be some important focus or reason that this character, Robert Coen, is described so vividly. No. With every passing chapter I was waiting for some more clues, and each time he was in a chapter with a few lines, I really looked for some meaning to guess what big role he had in the book and prepare for a big scene later on. Never happened.
The second issue I had with this book, before I even read the first page, was that Hemingway wrote this during his stay in Paris and Spain in 1925 and it took him only 8-weeks to write. The novel is a roman à clef; the characters are based on real people and the action is based on real events. I was hesitant about this, because while all good fiction is based somewhat on a situation or emotion felt on the author, simply writing a journal about your time in a country and changing some names and making some events more dramatic is lazy to me. I was preparing myself for a bore.
Some run-on sentences marred by too many commas in the book were up to 16, yes, 16 lines long. And whole chapters I could have skimmed through because our main character, Jake, was just talking about fishing and nature with a random Englishman that never came back or had any effect on the plot. You could argue that it was to show a peaceful time where no drama was going on and show how nice things can be without women and war which are always bad news, and in that regard you would be right. Again, this writing wasn’t poor, and even these long chapters describing the skylines of Spain were well done and enjoyable, they just weren’t moving the story along, and honestly, I am a story guy. I want conflict and resolution. If there are people out there who love descriptions of places they’ve never been or want a chapter of reprieve to read on a beach every once in a while, this book is for you. It very accurately, I am told, paints a picture of café life in Paris and the bullfighting celebrations which go on for days in Spain, and for that it is great.
The thing that made me most mad—and there are spoilers coming up right here—is that none of the main characters were killed; nor did they have any epiphany type of moments. It is very anticlimactic while also begin a sad ending I will touch on later. But the main point is these characters are not learning much, there is only the faint promise that they may get it after the book ends, except for the main character and narrator, Jake, who understands his life a LITTLE better, but is still a stupid sap.
I will explain. Every male character in this book, we slowly realize, is in love with this woman, Lady Brett Ashley. I’m not going to talk about the time period or how this was the new type of woman on the city scenes of Europe and New York. I’m going to just give it to you straight. Mike is supposed to be marrying her, but she is still sleeping around and flirting with everyone. The main character Jake is maimed in some way in World War I and is rendered impotent so he cannot make love to her but he does still love her. Robert Coen, who I was sure was going to be murdered at some point, just wandered off by the end of the book and really irritated me. There’s a bullfighter named Romero who is charmed by her, but cultural differences soon destroy that relationship after Lady Ashley leaves her fiancé, Mike, to run away with him for only a few days. What a bitch. All the while, everyone is faintly aware of the evil that she resembles and all are aware that everyone loves her, but they are all still friends anyway and go on this vacation together. It’s ridiculous. The only one who seems to have any sense at all is a fourth friend, Bill, who is a funny bastard with no interest in Brett Ashley and is just trying to have fun and drink. His character is most fleshed out and “real”, and what a character he is:
“Listen. You’re a funny guy. I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn’t tell you that back in New York. It’d mean I was a faggot. That’s what the Civil War was about. Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with Grant. Lincoln just freed the slaves on a bet. Sex explains it all. The Colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are lesbians under their skin. Want to hear more?”
I actually did!—because by this page, 116, I was welcoming some humor from the hundred plus pages of complaining and drinking and bullshit talking.
A note about the drinking. It’s in every chapter. This whole book is about people drinking and talking in cafes, bars, and taxis. They do this in Paris. They do this in several places in Spain. There is a huge blowout, and since Jake loves Brett, he comes to her rescue after the bullfighter, Romero, is done with her and they go back home. Everyone is separated and Brett says she thinks she’s going to go back to Mike now, like he has no say in the matter. “of course he will take me back,” she undoubtedly thinks. Psh. Bitch. If there is one thing this book does, it makes you hate that bitch Lady Brett Ashley. She even calls herself a “bitch” on about twenty times, lamenting like she has no control over her self.
On page 148 I got my first glimpse at what this whole hellish book could have been about, and that came with the narration of Jake thinking about woman and Lady Ashley:
“Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place you have to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I have been having Brett for a friend. I have not been thinking of her side of it. I have been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.”
I’m glad this moment came, in just the right spot on page 145. This excerpt is about how he is impotent and has been receiving Brett’s friendship without really giving her any physical affection. It is clear in the text that before there was Mike, Jake was the sole owner of Ashley’s heart, and this is reinforced on the very final page as well. These two people are in love and will always be in love, but because of Jake’s “situation”, he must let her go out and play the field of men, and he must allow it. But he will also end up paying the bill when he decides he must go and pick her up via train because she is all alone an moneyless and would surely have been raped and killed out there in Spain on her own. It’s a tragedy that she can give her physical love to every man but never her heart because it is with Jake, while Jake can give all the heart he want to anyone but can never consummate it physically with Brett, so they know it is impossible. Still, I hate Lady Brett Ashley. Fuck her.
One of my favorite lines, which sums up the entire book, was on page 155 during one of the parades in Pamplona:
“They put Bill and me by the arms and put us in the circle. Bill started to dance, too. They were all chanting. Brett wanted to dance but they did not want her to. They wanted her as an image to dance around.”
She wants her freedom in more than one way, but everyone, including some of the main and secondary characters, wants her for themselves or as only one thing. Maybe the society of men made her into a bitch and she is totally innocent in the matter. Arguable. This was the turn of the tides for the new woman of the 20th Century, with flapper hair and ultimate promiscuity. On page 183, she even talks about how she’s lost her self-respect.
In closing, this book is filled with anti-Semite remarks, long passages of description, and doesn’t come through on some of the anticipated payoffs. You will both feel sorry for and hate the treatment everyone gives to Robert Coen, who is obsessed with Ashley and doesn’t get the scene time or dialogue he should have, not to mention there was never more than a fist fight with him in it. He should have been killed somehow. I wanted a big meaning to the book, and I didn’t get it. There are no loose ends though; everything makes sense, in Hemingway’s defense, it just wasn’t very satisfying.
Read this if you like other Hemingway, but I have a feeling (from what I’ve heard) that “A Farewell to Arms” is better. I can’t back that up yet, though. This book was a drunk, selfish romp through several countries that reminded me of Casablanca mixed with On the Road by Kerouac and a tiny bit of “The Great Gatsby.”
The men are dumb for not knowing there are thousands of other women out there. These guys are all hopeless alcoholics, fated to do the same thing over and over, much like alcoholic Hemingway who writes about fishing or hunting in every goddamned book he ever wrote. Is there really nothing else you’d rather do than take a bus and train ride with people who torture each other? Again some of these complaints aren’t about Hemingway’s writing, but about the actions of these annoying, imperfect characters which I guess were people he really knew. Just felt a little thrown together at parts.
Totally underwhelmed, but did make me want to visit Pamplona. Paris was boring. Good ending. Needed more drama. Writing above average.
MOST GRADES: 8.5/10
MY GRADE: 7/10