Monday, November 20, 2017


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961); The Sun Also Rises, 1926

Hemingway began his career as a writer in a newspaper office in Kansas City at the age of seventeen. After the United States entered the First World War, he joined a volunteer ambulance unit in the Italian army served at the front and was wounded and spent considerable time in hospitals. After his return to the United States, he became a reporter for The Toronto Star, which sent him back to Europe to cover such events as the Greek Revolution. He used Paris as his base.

The Sun Also Rises is about a group of American and British expatriates who leave Paris, where they are enjoying the City of Light in the Post World War I world, to experience the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. For the last 91 years, it has always been in print. It’s a great piece of writing, though it sometimes uses old-fashioned words like "swell."

The setting was unique and memorable, showing seedy café life in Paris, the excitement of the Pamplona festival, and descriptions of fishing trip in the Basque region of the Pyrenees.

Hemingway's writing is sparse, as is his use of descriptions. Here's an example:
We would probably have gone on and discussed the war and agreed that it was in reality a calamity for civilization, and perhaps would have been better avoided. I was bored enough. Just then from the other room some one Called: "Barnes! I say, Barnes! Jacob Barnes.
"It's a friend calling me," I explained, and went out. 
The result is that most of the action is behind the scene. To fully understand the book, the reader has to work fairly hard -- for example, when a conversation among three or four individuals takes place, and it isn't clear who is saying what.

The characters are based on real people of Hemingway's circle, and the action on real events. In the novel, Hemingway presents his notion that the "Lost Generation", considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong. Additionally, Hemingway investigates the themes of love, death, renewal in nature, and the nature of masculinity.

The book reflects the times, and this is not always a good thing. What really grates in my mind is its latent anti-Semitism. One of the characters is Robert Cohn, who is typically just referred to as Cohn. At the beginning, Hemingway describes him as having spent a great deal of time training as a boxer, yet later shows him as using his skills as a boxer to hide emotional weakness.

This occurs when there is a dust-up over Lady Brett, the beautiful British woman on the trip, who frequently changes bed mates. That would not be shocking in modern novels, though it probably was when this book came out. When she goes to bed with Cohn, she arouses his jealousy against other members of the expedition, and he uses his fists to take revenge. Then he goes weepy with remorse.

From the beginning, there are close bonds between Brett and Hemingway. However, the book suggests that the story-teller can’t go to bed with her because of war wounds. Hemingway was later married three times, and with one of his wives had children. It’s interesting to speculate on what wounds he had. Could it have been shell shock – what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

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