Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – The Lost Generation

 

Book number 10 of 2024!

The last time I read Ernest Hemingway was in high school, when A Farewell To Arms was assigned in my 11th grade English class. I liked it, but not enough to read more of his stuff.

This past Christmas, I was given Lesley Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly, which is an account of Hemingway and other American expats living in Europe in the mid 1920s. So, I figured before I tackled Blume’s book, I should read the novel Hemingway based his experiences on: The Sun Also Rises.

Published in 1926, it was Hemingway’s first novel and it made a big splash. In an earlier post, I wrote about William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which came out around the same time. The two works could not be more different stylistically. Where Faulkner is elusive and opaque, with sentences running to paragraph length, Hemingway is terse and to the point. It looks like it should be easy to write like him, but it isn’t. Every word counts.

The Sun Also Rises chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a group of dysfunctional Americans and Brits in France and Spain. Jake Barnes, the narrator, is a journalist who was injured in WWI and is impotent. Robert Cohn is an acquaintance of his, Bill Gorton is a childhood friend, and Lady Brett Ashley is the beautiful woman about whom they all orbit. She is engaged to Michael Campbell, a bankrupt Scotsman, but she flits from one man to another.

In Paris during the day, they go from one café to the next, bickering and carousing. At night, they hop from one bar to another. If there is one constant, it’s a high level of alcohol consumption. From the beginning, Hemingway sets an atmosphere of aimlessness and nihilism. At the front of the book, he quotes Gertrude Stein’s epigram, “You are all a lost generation.”

Barnes and Gorton plan to go fishing in Spain, and then meet everyone in Pamplona for the annual fiesta and bull-fights. The most pleasant passages in the book describe Jake and Bill in the Spanish countryside, fishing for trout. Hemingway has a way of creating perfectly clear visual images of scenes with few words.

I got my rod that was leaning against the tree, took the bait-can and landing-net, and walked out onto the dam. It was built to provide a head of water for driving logs. The gate was up, and I sat on one of the squared timbers and watched the smooth apron of water before the river tumbled into the falls. In the white water at the foot of the dam it was deep. As I baited up, a trout shot up out of the white water into the falls and was carried down. Before I could finish baiting, another trout jumped at the falls, making the same lovely arc and disappearing into the water that was thundering down. I put on a good-sized sinker and dropped into the white water close to the edge of the timbers of the dam.

I did not feel the first trout strike. When I started to pull up I felt that I had one and brought him, fighting and bending the rod almost double, out of the boiling water at the foot of the falls, and swung him up and onto the dam. He was a good trout, and I banged his head against the timber so that he quivered out straight, and then slipped him into my bag.

Bill Gorton and Jake Barnes have a relaxed time until they go to Pamplona and meet up with Brett, Robert, and Mike. By this time, Brett has spent a few days (and nights) with Robert, and there is understandable tension between the two men. There are also wonderful descriptions of the fiesta and the bull-fighting.

Bill provides some comic relief, but it only serves to reinforce the feeling of pointless ennui:

Bill was buying shoe-shines for Mike. Bootblacks opened the street door and each one Bill called over and started to work on Mike.

“This is the eleventh time my boots have been polished,” Mike said. “I say, Bill is an ass.”

The bootblacks had evidently spread the report. Another came in. “Limpia botas?” he said to Bill.

“No,” said Bill. “For this Señor.”

There’s also a memorable line when he talks with Mike about his bankruptcy:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Jake, Robert, and Mike are all in love (or lust) with Brett, with the predictable results. I love how Hemingway describes her so succinctly here:

She had just been brushing her hair and held the brush in her hand. The room was in that disorder produced only by those who have always had servants.

Lesley Blume writes that F. Scott Fitzgerald was the last writer of the 19th century, the last Romantic, a Strauss. Hemingway, on the other hand was the first truly modern writer who ushered in the 20th century – a Stravinsky. I think it is hard for us in the 21st century to realize how revolutionary his writing style was in 1926, because we are so accustomed to it now. I suppose literature would still be written in the style of Henry James if not for Hemingway, and for that alone I am eternally grateful.

The Sun Also Rises is a moving depiction of a generation that was ruined by The Great War. Prewar European civilization and culture was the highest expression of humanity in history, and in a few years it was irrevocably shattered. There was no returning to innocence after the horrific slaughter of the war. As Brett and Jake discuss in one of their last conversations,

You know I feel rather damned good, Jake.”

“You should.”

“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”

“Yes.”

“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”

“Some people have God,” I said. “Quite a lot.”

“He never worked very well with me.”

“Should we have another Martini?”

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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    • #1
  2. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    It was a pleasure to read this lovely, skillful essay about a writer who might well have enjoyed your take on his debut.

    • #2
  3. Fractad Coolidge
    Fractad
    @TWert

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    It was a pleasure to read this lovely, skillful essay about a writer who might well have enjoyed your take on his debut.

    Thank you! I’m trying to write a brief review of every book I read this year. At my age, I read a book, enjoy it very much, then promptly forget what it was about!

    • #3
  4. Painter Jean Moderator
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Who is Brett? He appears without explanation.

    Ah, never mind – I see that it’s the first part of the woman’s hyphenated surname.

    • #4
  5. Fractad Coolidge
    Fractad
    @TWert

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Who is Brett? He appears without explanation.

    Ah, never mind – I see that it’s the first part of the woman’s hyphenated surname.

    Lady Brett Ashley is the character that was based on the real person of Lady Duff Twysden.

    • #5
  6. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Fractad: I think it is hard for us in the 21st century to realize how revolutionary his writing style was in 1926, because we are so accustomed to it now. I suppose literature would still be written in the style of Henry James if not for Hemingway, and for that alone I am eternally grateful.

    Very interesting!  I appreciate how literature has evolved as an art form. Modern writing is a mixed blessing, for sure, but so many good contributions have come of it, both classic and popular. 

    • #6
  7. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    Back in the 1980s I had a friend who was writing his Phd thesis about Hemmingway. I don’t remember the theme, but I did read a few articles he had published on his work, notably one on A Farewell to Arms.  That article intriqued me, and I ended up reading the book, perhaps, a couple of dozen times. His contention was that it was a perfect book, not one word more or less than was needed to complete it. I have to admit that I had to agree. I loved the book, the images in the opening pages of soldiers marching to battle with panchos over their ammunition packs looking like pregnant women, pregnant with death, as Catherine Barkley ultimately would be. It was a masterpiece, written and rewritten many times to achieve the exact goal of perfection. 

    Later, as I read Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemmingway and his Writer as Artist and then read all of Hemmingway’s short stories, I saw the story’s evolution from inception, Hemmingway’s wounding, through the various attempts he made to romanticize his fantasy of a nurse who had cared for him in the Italian hospital. His wounding reappeared in Jake Barnes in The Sun also Rises
    Hemmingway was a true romantic, and having been called “The Arch Romantic” by a close friend, I understood his drive to somehow workout the unresolved romance of that hospital stay.  I even tried to master his style of writing simple sentences with few descriptives. I simply lacked his discipline to rewrite. 

    Hemmingway created three wonderful novels, A Farewell to ArmsThe Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Though good, the rest of his stuff didn’t quite make it to be truly great. I do find myself coming back and rereading Islands in the Stream, at least part one which I find irresistible. Other than that I do also reread A Moveable Feast. These last two were published after his death, as I understand it, both were compiled and edited by his last wife. 

    The only other book that I have read as often as A Farewell to Arms is The Great Gatsby which is probably equal to it in terms of nearly perfect writing. 

    • #7
  8. Fractad Coolidge
    Fractad
    @TWert

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):

    Hemmingway created three wonderful novels, A Farewell to ArmsThe Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Though good, the rest of his stuff didn’t quite make it to be truly great. I do find myself coming back and rereading Islands in the Stream, at least part one which I find irresistible. Other than that I do also reread A Moveable Feast. These last two were published after his death, as I understand it, both were compiled and edited by his last wife. 

    The only other book that I have read as often as A Farewell to Arms is The Great Gatsby which is probably equal to it in terms of nearly perfect writing. 

    Eugene, thank you for this comment. As I mentioned, I read A Farewell To Arms in high school, but I was too young to appreciate it. It’s on my list now.

    I agree with you about Gatsby, and I think the Redford/Farrow movie version is about as perfect an adaptation of a novel I’ve ever seen.

    • #8
  9. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    Fractad (View Comment):

    I agree with you about Gatsby, and I think the Redford/Farrow movie version is about as perfect an adaptation of a novel I’ve ever seen.

    I have that one on my list to watch. Frankly, I found earlier ones to be less than satisfying. There are a number of books that I read about once a year and have for many years. Gatsby and Moby Dick are most prominent in that list. Reading them is like coming home to old friends. I would like it very much if they produced a Gatsby that conformed to what I see in my mind’s eye when I am reading it. They always seem to want to make it grander, more elaborate.

    • #9
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