Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
What a scoundrel, that Ernest Hemingway. At least that’s what I think that many people think about him: Hemingway was a lush that had all the best times and travels, enjoyed more fun than anyone (except for the suicide part at the end), but was lucky enough to have won the cosmic lottery and received extraordinary gifts of prose that enabled the sun never to set upon his rambling, moveable feast.
Then the backlash: Hemingway was a lush, etc., but was lucky enough to trick everyone into believing that he had won the cosmic lottery and gained extraordinary gifts of prose, etc. The Hemingway has no clothes. On this contrarian view, Hemingway is only well regarded by his male readership because they wish they could be like him, and female readership with him.
Thank goodness for Words of Angehr, so that this whole mess will be sorted out once and for all.
This is my first Hemingway. On the basis of The Sun Also Rises (1926), billed as his first masterpiece, is he a great writer? The answer requires me to dip into Beatleology. Ringo Starr, the drummer of the Fab Four, is considered one of the finest of the kind in rock and roll, and a distinctive one at that. The problem is, Ringo apparently lacked some basic drumming skills for which he had to improvise alternate techniques that would hide his faults; these Starr cover-up moves were hailed as genius by legions and generations of imitators, although most of the imitators knew meat and potatoes drumming better than Ringo. Sooooooooooo, is Ringo a great drummer?
Sure he is, and Ernest Hemingway is a great writer. But not the greatest. It’s his minimalist prose that makes some readers into true believers, and yes, Hemingway must have had bad experiences with adjectives when he was growing up. The Sun Also Rises has a spare beauty of style that gives a toughness and clarity to its characters and narrative. (I actually think West Texas is beautiful, so maybe I’ve been set up to be a Hemingway fan.) At the same time, I suspect that his bag of writer’s tricks is smaller than some of his contemporaries’. But hey, I’m beginning to really dig the Beatles.
Most importantly, however, the style of The Sun Also Rises serves the story magnificently. A gang of disaffected, not-so-young-anymore Americans maraud around post-World War I Europe, looking for diversions as they hen-peck each other to death. If that sounds a little bit nasty, it is. The central axis of the novel is the doomed relationship between Jake, for whom a vaguely-described war injury has left him impotent, and Lady Ashley, whose beauty is failing ever so imperceptibly but inexorably. This doomed, unconsummated affair attracts other “friends” that are animated by the sadnesses that spill over from Jake and Ashley.
Aside from Hemingway’s gifts as a writer, I’m glad I read The Sun Also Rises because despite (or perhaps because of) the meanness, the book is true. I relate to Jake as he relishes the obvious anxiety of his friend Cohn:
At the station the train was late, and we sat on a baggage-truck and waited outside in the dark. I have never seen a man in civil life as nervous as Robert Cohn—nor as eager. I was enjoying it. It was lousy to enjoy it, but I felt lousy. Cohn had a wonderful quality of bringing out the worst in anybody.
We all have our Cohns, don’t we?
Still, Jake is honest enough to realize that the problem isn’t Cohn at all. After Jake learns that Cohn and Ashley have become lovers, he ruminates,
Why I felt that impulse to devil him I do not know. Of course I do know. I was blind, unforgivingly jealous of what had happened to him. The fact that I took it as a matter of course did not alter that any. I certainly did hate him. I do not think I ever really hated him until he had that little spell of superiority at lunch. . .
Jake hates because he wants to.
I’ve heard people criticize Jake as facile and ill-formed, but in Jake, Hemingway comprehends the difficulty of staying hateful all the time and the inconsistency of the contrary. It’s easier to dabble in genuine spite and then hide behind masks. Later in the novel, at a dinner of the same crew that has occasionally savaged each other thus far, Jake relents: “There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”
If only life were that simple, but Hemingway knows it’s not, which is why the book cuts as deeply as it does. All of the characters in The Sun Also Rises end worse than they began—older, meaner, more dissolute—but at least they have the dignity to be sad about it, which is itself rather an act of courage.