Monday, August 1, 2022

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful trip with unpleasant companions
After having made a name for himself in literary circles with his short stories, future Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway published his first novel in 1926. The Sun Also Rises is an autobiographical novel based on Hemingway’s experiences as a foreign correspondent in Europe. It centers around a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris who travel into Spain to go fishing and attend the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, which includes the famous running of the bulls. The novel is narrated by Jake Barnes, a wounded war vet and reporter from Kansas City. In Paris he encounters an old flame, Lady Brett Ashley, for whom he still has feelings. At least two other men in his social circle, however, are also in love with her. A thoroughly modern woman, she bestows her affections freely upon whomever captures her interest. This results in much in-fighting among the men in the traveling party as they booze their way around Spain.

Ninety percent of this novel isn’t really fiction at all but rather travel writing, and good travel writing at that. Hemingway is obviously recalling real travels that he undertook in Spain, and he vividly brings the setting to life with his descriptive prose. As for the fictional content of the book—the relationships between the characters—there is really only about enough plot here to fill a short story. Though the novel is set in France and Spain, it contains no French characters and only a few Spanish characters important enough to warrant names. The travelogue is heavy with tourist experiences of hotels, cafes, and trains. Mostly what the traveling party does is drink and get drunk, but in the background the week-long festival in Pamplona brings interest and vivacity to what would otherwise be a dreary narrative. The most effective passage in the book is Hemingway’s expertly rendered account of a bullfight. One can draw whatever conclusions they wish by considering this as a metaphor for masculinity, nature, or freedom, but even if one just takes the scene face-value as sports journalism it is an exceptional piece of writing, calling to mind the verbal artistry with which Jack London used to recount boxing matches.

Hemingway garnered praise for his sparse use of language, particularly in this novel. His economical, journalistic style of prose employs few words to say what he wants to say and deliberately leaves much unsaid, leaving the reader to deduce many of the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. Hemingway’s modern rapid-fire style does make for brisk and addictive reading that propels the reader through the narrative. On the other hand, one could argue that The Sun Also Rises is awfully repetitive with its endless scenes of alcohol consumption and often pointless dialogue. Of course, many conversations in real life are pointless too, so in that sense the characters are more a reflection of reality than those of the romantic literature that prevailed before Hemingway’s modern era. The blunt shallowness of the characters, however, does make many of them unlikable and difficult to care about. There’s also an anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish character that tarnishes the book and reflects poorly on the author.

The Sun Also Rises was likely a groundbreaking novel for its day, one that took critics and readers by surprise for its modernist innovations. By now, however, we’ve lived through two generations of writers who grew up reading Hemingway and trying to emulate him, so much of the book’s cutting-edge originality is lost on readers of today, as is the author’s commentary on the “Lost Generation” of our grandparents and great-grandparents age. Stripped of that context, this is a very good piece of realist writing about a time and place, but it is inhabited by a group of characters who fail to move the reader with their angst, self pity, and disillusionment.
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