I’ve been through peaks and valleys with my admiration for Hemingway. Fact is, when I read about him I like him less but when I read his actual writing, I admire him enormously again. He left all these astonishing books–so what if he, like his compatriot Picasso, wasn’t faithful. To take a Tom Robbins quote about the rich and apply it to geniuses: “A lot of geniuses are assholes, but a lot of idiots are assholes too and at least a genius can contribute something great to the world.”
I’m following a book about Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s first wife (The Paris Wife by Paula McLain) with Hem’s 1923 The Sun Also Rises, a novelized version of their time in Pamplona with some friends and frenemies to fish and watch bull fights. I was expecting a puffed up piece of dated macho posturing. Yeah, I’d read it before, but all I could remember about it was that the characters traveled to Spain to see the bull fights and there were a few love triangles going on. But the book–written a century ago!–deserves its lasting, luminous reputation.
First, the title. It is very beautiful, and even more so to me when I read that Hemingway took it from Ecclesiastes in the Bible, not because I’m a big fan of the Bible but because it gives the beautiful phrase even more gravitas and starts the reader off with a subtle foreshadowing of the main character’s Catholic upbringing. Jake Barnes’ lapsed Catholicism may be deep background but it adds an important layer of complexity and richness just as the ancient, often empty, chapels and cathedrals in Europe give their villages and cities much of their character.
The dialog in The Sun Also Rises is incredibly natural yet not a bit boring. I’ve read that Hemingway wrote the dialog pretty much verbatim from conversations he had with his friends. But a lot of people could take down their conversations and it wouldn’t come close to Hemingway. Maybe his conversations were just more interesting.
Some of my favorite scenes are in Spain when the protagonist Jake Barnes and his friend Bill go fishing. I love how Jake, who is impotent due to a war time injury, forgets his cares and is completely engrossed in sweetly boyish activities like digging for worms and jointing his fishing rod and later laying the cold, dead fish between layers of ferns in his game bag. My grandfather and my ex-husband were boyish like that. They would hate to hear these activities described as sweet or boyish, but that’s what I love about these kind of men; that expertise, the way tying flies or loading a gun becomes second nature after so many seasons of practice.
It seems like everyone in the book is an alcoholic. Where the wine or whiskey bottles are located in a scene is always important. Jake makes sure the corks are tight and hides bottles of wine behind a board in a stream to keep them cool. A Count talks about preferring magnums of champagne to 750s, something you still hear in wine circles today, which is sort of like saying you prefer flying private to commercial–wealth signaling. Characters have hangovers and headaches, they pass out, they overshare, they get silly. Hemingway writes drunks really well.
Alcoholics have alcohol-seeking super powers. One of my favorite passages:
“Isn’t that a pub across the way?” Harris asked, “Or do my eyes deceive me?”
“It has the look of a pub,” I said
“I say,” said Harris, “Let’s utilize it.”
Harris doesn’t let Jake and Bill pay for the wine. People rarely let Jake pay, which was the case for Hemingway too–his talent and his lack of funds kept him somewhat dependent on his rich, less talented (but still pretty smart and definitely up for anything) friends. He often rewarded them with less than attractive portrayals in his books.
It amazes me that a macho like Hemingway would write himself as impotent, but it’s brilliant. Jake never has to compete in that arena and it is no fault of his own–it’s the result of a macho war time injury. He is a steer as he describes in the scene about steer being used to calm and direct the bulls. Jake Barnes is a calming force directing the drunken, love-mad (horny) bull-headed characters who are emotionally dangerous to themselves and others. He compares the way the bulls use their horns to a boxer, and one of the least likable men in the story is a boxer as was Hemingway, famously, an amateur and buffoonish boxer. It’s as if Hemingway gave the best of himself to the character Jake Barnes and the worst of himself to the character Robert Cohn.
There are a few passages that struck me as being so insightful or originally written that I felt moved to just type them out and let them speak for themselves.
In the following three paragraphs, Hemingway, who was about 25 at the time he wrote this, has some incredibly mature thoughts on the nature of friendships between men and women, the idea of getting your money’s worth out of things and the idea of learning how to live in the world and truly enjoy it.
“Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about 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 thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. He gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for some thing. He paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living with learning to get your moneys worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your moneys worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seems like a fine philosophy. In five years I thought it will seem just as silly as all the other fun philosophies I’ve had.
Perhaps that wasn’t true though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.“
In the next passage, Hemingway writes a drunk and jealous lover really well. The fact that a woman in 1926 is known to be staring at a matador’s extremely tight pants and wondering about how he gets into them must have been scandalous at the time of the writing and could still make a person blush today.
“Tell him bulls have no balls!” Mike shouted, very drunk. From the other side of the table.
“What does he say?” [asked the matador Romero]
“He’s drunk.” [Jake replies.}
“Jake,” Mike called. “Tell him bulls have no balls!”
“Do you understand?” I said
I was sure he didn’t, so it was all right.
“Tell him Brett wants to see him put on those green pants.”
“Pipe down, Mike.”
“Tell him Brett is dying to know how he can get into his pants.”
During this Romero is fingering his glass and talking with Brett. Brett was talking French and he was talking Spanish and a little English and laughing.
Bill was filling the glasses.
“Tell him Brett wants to come into…”
“Oh, pipe down, Mike, for Christ’s sake!”
Romero looked up smiling. “Pipe down! I know that,” he said.
The last passage I want to present is a great description of being very drunk and reviving oneself enough to join friends for dinner. Been there.
I went out the door and into my own room and lay on the bed. The bed went sailing off and I sat up in bed and looked at the wall to make it stop. Outside in the square of the fiesta was going on. It did not mean anything. Later Bill and Mike came in to get me to go down and eat with them. I pretended to be asleep.
“He’s asleep. Better let him alone.
He’s blind as a tick,” Mike said. They went out.
I got up and went to the balcony and I looked out at the dancing in the Square. The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright, and incline to blur at the edges. I washed, brushed my hair. I looked strange to myself in the glass, and went downstairs to the dining room. “Here he is!” said Bill. “Good old Jake! I knew you wouldn’t pass out.“
“Hello, you old drunk,” Mike said.
“I got hungry and woke up.“
“Eat some soup,” Bill said.
The three of us sat at the table, and it seemed as though about six people were missing.
I love that last line which says so much–after the excitement, violence, beauty and ugliness that occurred during the fiesta, the people most responsible for all of it are gone and there’s a void and loneliness paired with some sobriety and a good measure of relief. The book goes on a little more about Brett, the Siren who has run off with the matador and is once again unable to stick with one man and has Jake come to Madrid to rescue her as he is strong but safely impotent, but for me it could have ended here.