Lost in Spain: “The Sun Also Rises”
I never read Hemingway, but my great-grandfather once got in a fistfight with him. Let me explain both clauses here. My great-grandfather, Guy C. Hickok, attended the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona with Ernest Hemingway in 1929 and they both spent too much time and money on drinks at a local thirst emporium after the bullfight, which led to a sort of disagreement over whether my forebear should try to ride out his drinks in his hotel room or continue imbibing with his friend on the street. Somehow, the room’s ceiling fan became implicated in the argument and was pulled free of the ceiling, at which point my great-grandfather stood up and punched Hemingway. It’s unclear whether the punch was returned or not- in one version, they traded blows and then laughed about it, while in another they just laughed- but the final resolution was that they went back out and got drunker.
This story got passed around every summer at family gatherings in Long Island, Maine, over salty pots of boiling lobster and dripping bottles of beer, along with the account of the road trip Guy and Ernest made through Fascist Italy, the time that Hemingway came for dinner and the parents had to explain to their kids what was meant by “a case of the clap”, how Guy was sent to report on the liberation of Auschwitz, and when his wife was summoned to testify at the hearing committing another friend, Ezra Pound, to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital. We never heard stories of football victories or were pressured to become accountants. Instead, the kids were asked if we’d written any stories, learned any French, or read The Old Man and the Sea. Naturally, it took me three decades to finally read any Hemingway.
The other thing is Hemingway looms in the mid-ground of English prose like a darkened mountain that can be gone around, but not really avoided. At some point, if you’re going to write, you have to wrestle with him. His influence is felt in nearly everything that came afterwards, for better or worse, perhaps even more pronounced in nonfiction than fiction. This is daunting. The irony is that I read Hunter S. Thompson in High School instead of Hemingway, which is like listening to Led Zeppelin and saying you have no familiarity with early American blues. I think I sensed however that English-language prose tussled with Hemingway’s style and came out of the experience changed. What could I hope to come out with?
I was led back to Hemingway by simply wondering what it must have been like to be that young professional writer whose colleague and close friend was busy becoming one of the most significant authors of the twentieth-century. How does one make sense of that? What was it like to be an also-ran? Or to be a newspaperman in the 1920s in Paris when prose writing was being so completely transformed? Judging by Ronald Weber’s recent history ‘News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars’, not to mention ‘Tropic of Cancer’, it was something like the Marx Brothers visiting a drunken orgy. And then, suddenly, it was over; après ils, the Nazi deluge.*
The word that comes to mind after reading The Sun Also Rises, the greater of the two great English novels written in and about this time and place, is ‘dissolute’. A feeling of moral and spiritual exhaustion permeates the characters, the story, even the language, which seems stripped down to its flinty core to get through the lean months. The scraps of information that appear in glimpses would form entire chapters for other authors. But the characters are too exhausted and weak to dig too deeply into them and Hemingway follows their lead.
The novel begins as scattered, little impressionistic portraits of “writers and artists” floating about like dust particles in the boozy atmosphere of 1920s Paris before three of them gradually drift into orbit around a woman- who eventually blows them away. As Weber explains, writing for newspapers in Paris was a plum assignment of the era because American prosperity and a devalued franc made living cheap, readers were interested in Europe following the war, and editors back home gave fairly free reign to writers abroad. For many, it was like an extended working vacation from American values and prohibition. The journalists in the novel rarely work though, since, “in the newspaper business… it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working.” In these early vignettes they mostly sitting in cafés drinking beer and absynthe and discussing women.
Or a woman. The sun at the center of this mini-universe is Lady Brett Ashley, a recently separated sophisticate who spends much of the novel drinking and trying on different men to see if they fit. She is a 1920s edition “new woman”- Hemingway tells us she was cutting her hair short before anyone else- and she has considerably more vitality than any of the other characters. In spite of Hemingway’s assumed chauvinism, Brett is the most vivid and interesting character in the book and gets off some of the best lines. My favorite: “I’m damned bad for a religious atmosphere. I’ve the wrong sort of face.” She’s most comfortable in the world of men depicted here- and we should note the androgyny of the character- while the men around her come off as booze-soaked blankets by comparison. Her trouble is her passionate indecision. We sense she is compelled to try forging some sort of relationship with her male lovers when she’d rather just screw and drink and fall in love with them.
Jake Barnes, the newspaperman, she can’t even screw. It is hinted that he was made impotent by wounds sustained during the war, although he mostly suffers them in silence. As the narrator of the piece, in general, he hangs back from the crowd, who themselves hang back from real engagement with the world. He is “technically” a Catholic, but seems a believer in very little. The writer is of the world, but not in the world.
Her next suitor, the author Robert Cohn, is a cringe-inducing caricature Jew in many aspects, pathetic instead of sympathetic, insecure, obsequious, and hopelessly consumed by his unreturned love for Brett. At any rate, this is how all of the other characters see him and it could be argued that he is as castrated by his racial identity as Jake is by his war wounds. Made to feel inferior at Princeton, Cohn debases himself.
Mike Campbell, an “undischarged bankrupt”, she will presumably end up with, but only after he has watched her dalliances with other men and stewed in drunken, but naturally impotent rage. Unlike Cohn, he seems to have accepted her sexual superiority on some level, but it’s the level of defeat. He cares and doesn’t care.
Confronted by this collection of windless sails, Brett runs off with a bullfighter, the only really virile character in the story. A lifelong aficionado, bullfights held a special significance for Hemingway. In the nonfiction Death in the Afternoon, he describes bullfighting as, “not a sport in the Ango-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an… attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather, it is a tragedy; the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the animal.” This, he must have known, was an accurate reading back to the mutual origins of the bullfight and tragedy in ritual bull sacrifice, a pagan blood rite with special significance in a Catholic country. Like Jake, Hemingway was “technically” Catholic for marriage, but he understands the liturgical importance of violent death in the Catholic tradition.
But killing remains a pagan rite, one that Hemingway places at the heart of masculinity. In The Sun Also Rises, we are told that “Nobody ever lives their lives all the way up except bull-fighters.” Why? Elsewhere, he elaborates. The bullfighter, in killing, enjoys, “the feeling of rebellion against death which comes from its administering…” He experiences “pride, and pride, of course, is a Christian sin and a pagan virtue.” Naturally, Brett leaves with the bullfighter and, in turn, leaves him as not good enough for him. He is the only man in the story living in rebellion against death and thus completely alive. The others are partially alive having accepted the rule of death. The book, famously, opened with Gertrude Stein’s comment in conversation that the post-war generation of which Hemingway was a member was a “lost generation”. Here, they are depicted as deliberately lost in their escape from life. As Lady Brett remarks to one, “You haven’t any values. You’re dead, that’s all.” But, for a moment, what a lovely glow.
*As might be obvious, I have decided to focus my efforts on a daily basis towards writing a book about Guy Hickok- ideally combining literary and world history, biography, autobiography, detective work, philosophical speculation, and excerpts from his unpublished correspondence and roughly 3,000 newspaper articles. I’ll periodically post about it here, I’m sure. But, if anybody knows a literary agent or publisher…
Also, I would note this post consists of scattered thoughts written quickly after a first reading of the novel. I’m sure many will change over time and serve and this post will come to serve as a useful source of embarrassment.