Thursday, November 06, 2008

Book 21 – The Sun Also Rises

By Ernest Hemingway

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”

“It sounds like a swell life,” I said. “When do I work?”

A couple of years ago, a friend, downsizing his collection, gave this book to me when I was over for a visit. It became my “commute” book over the winter, but my metro rides were usually too short and/or too crowded to read more than a couple of pages at a time. Then winter was over and I was cycling, and this book got left under a pile of other books, forgotten. More than a year later, I picked it up again, but had to skim over the first third again since it’s been so long!

I haven’t done this book much service as a reader, but it’s actually quite a terrific book. I mean, it’s Hemingway, so quality writing and literary merit are a given. The only other Hemingway I’ve ever read was his memoir, A Movable Feast, which I don’t remember much except that it had great atmosphere, in that Paris-was-yesterday kinda way. The Sun Also Rises is very similar in that respect, except it’s a fictionalized story of a group of American expatriates who pilgrimage to the Spanish town of Pamplona for the annual fiesta and bull fights. The story is told from the POV of Jake Barnes, an American WWI veteran and now a writer living in Paris.

Although I knew that Jake was injured from the War, I didn’t realize until much later that he actually lost his manhood as a result! The reference to Jake’s unfortunate injury is quite subtle if you’re not paying attention, which was what happened to me. If I had figured this out earlier, I would’ve understood better why Jake and Lady Brett Ashley have such an interesting, but complicated friendship. Brett is beautiful, narcissistic, self-destructive and destined to a series of failed relationships, while Jake is doomed to a life of celibacy, and unconsummated love for Brett. Sure this may sound clichéd and stupid, even back in the day, but with Hemingway, it works. It helps that the main characters are sympathetic and so goddamned likable. Like Brett’s talent as a quick wit and social catalyst, or Jake’s high-powered observations about his friends’ strengths and foibles, and his willingness to overlook gibes if a good repartee is going.

There is still a very modern and sophisticated quality about The Sun Also Rises, while at the same time, the novel truly encapsulates its own zeitgeist. There are fine and funny moments in 1920’s Paris when the characters go out on the town, wandering from café to café, or meeting up for a nice meal...

We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Someone had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans, so we had to wait forty-five minutes for a table.

Most of the key characters have been directly, or indirectly, affected by the War, having lost their purpose in some way (hence the “Lost Generation”). Since the majority of these early day slackers are full-fledged adults in their late-twenties or early thirties, they may lack direction in life, but they still appreciate good company, lively conversation and drink. The dialogue among these colourful people is constantly amusing – they exchange pleasantries, they gossip, they rib on each other. But above all, they imbibe.

There is a lovely moment when Jake and his friend Bill take a side trip to a remote Spanish village and go trout fishing. They pack a picnic and a couple of bottles of wine and have a great time. They get along with the locals and they drink more bottles of wine. They meet a British fellow named Harris and they get along well with him too. They find a pub and he buys each of them a bottle of wine apiece. Harris confesses to Jake and Bill that he hasn’t had this much fun since the war.

There are definitely undercurrents of loss and emptiness, and lots of post-modern aimlessness, but for me, it’s this awareness combined with the many little moments of humanity that makes this novel a memorable and enjoyable read.

It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. 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.


Redwing said...

Now this is a review. A great mix of summary and critique and reflection.

I read A Farewell to Arms a long time ago and I have The Sun Also Rises on my on-deck shelf (which is about to break from the weight).

I like Hemingway's style. There is an efficiency of language and blah blah blah, but I like that he leaves the margins wide enough that I can fill them in myself. He doesn't have to tell me that the clink of the glasses sounds like pebbles falling down a waterfall and such nonsense.

beemused said...

Thanks Redwing. Totally agree with you there. I would not hesitate to pick up another Hemingway again in the sometime future.

Olman Feelyus said...

I think "social catalyst" was perfect for the meaning you wanted to convey.

Great review.

Buzby said...

I am with the consensus: this is a great review. I recommend that you pick up Garden of Eden. It is Hemingway's last book and was published soon after he died. It is my favorite.

dsgran said...

"yes, isn't it pretty to think so?"

One of the best closing lines of any book, ever.

beemused said...

thanks for the comments everyone. I'll put Garden of Eden on my list...maybe for 2009!