Some things were made for each other. They were just meant to be. Sure, they’re okay on their own, but together, they’re MAGIC. Like lyrics and music; smoked salmon and cream cheese. Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood…
Similarly, there are some books that are just made to be read side by side. Like, for instance, The Great Gatsby and…
The Sun Also Rises
(also known as Fiesta)
by Ernest Hemingway
Published in 1926
Okay, Mr. Hemingway – I have to tell you the honest truth – it took me a while to warm to you. One third of the way into your book, I was wondering why everyone thinks you’re so amazing. But then, I stopped thinking so much, and the story swept me away. By the final act, I was totally, completely mesmerised. Thank you.
I once read that there’s something special about baroque music. You’re meant to listen to it when you’re writing or studying, they say, because there’s something about the tempo that has a kind of hypnotic effect on the human brain.
That’s what Hemingway’s writing is like. At first, it’s like reading someone’s discarded shopping list…
“So we rolled poker dice out of a deep leather dice cup. Bill was out first roll. Mike lost to me and handed the bartender a hundred-franc note. The whiskies were twelve francs apiece. We had another round and Mike lost again. Each time he gave the bartender a good tip. In a room off the bar there was a good jazz band playing. It was a pleasant bar. We had another round. I went out on the first roll with four kings. Bill won the second…”
– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, page 200
See what I mean? So clipped and telegrammatic. It drove me crazy. But then, somewhere towards one third of the book – something changed. I’m not really sure what happened, but all of a sudden, I was hanging on every single word. So entranced was I by the story and the characters that I stopped noticing the style so much. I wasn’t looking at words on a page any more; I was crossing the border into Spain. I was lying under a tree by a river, drifting off to sleep. I was watching fireworks light up the sky over Pamplona. Oh my. It was all so lovely…
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Hemingway’s writing style. Not at all. It just took me a while to get used to it. I’ll come back to that later.
The Sun Also Rises was the book that first marked Ernest Hemingway as a literary star in the making. It’s set in Paris in the Twenties, where a group of American and British expats live the high life, set against a blurry background of booze, money and sex.
Well, sex for everyone apart from Jake, our charming first-person narrator. He’s an honest, thoughtful guy – with two problems. The first is that he’s fallen passionately in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a startlingly beautiful woman with short hair and an irrepressible, untamed soul. She sleeps with men. Lots of men.
And that’s Jake’s other problem. He’s impotent. He received a mysterious injury in the war (Hemingway never elaborates) and can’t make love to Brett. So she concludes that they can never be together. Then, she sleeps with Jake’s friend, Robert Cohn. And a little while after that, Jake learns that Brett is engaged to be married to Michael, a loud, bankrupt American. Awkward much?
It’s about to get worse. The whole group decide to holiday together in Pamplona, Spain – just in time for the Fiesta and bullfights. As the Fiesta begins, tensions between the group of friends begin to rise…
At its heart, The Sun Also Rises is a book about – well, sex. I mean both in the sense of gender – and in the sense of actual sex. Or in Jake’s case, the absence of actual sex. The Sun Also Rises (an ironic title for a book with an impotent narrator, don’t you think?) asks questions about the nature of gender. What does it mean to be a man? Is a man who can’t make love any less of a man? What is a man, anyway? And, for that matter, what is a woman? Should a woman make love to any man she pleases? Is a woman with short hair and a man’s name any less a woman?
Of course, Hemingway’s not going to answer all his own questions. That’s for us, the reader to decide.
In contrast to sex, there’s the violence of the bullfight; the violence of the war hovering in the past like a ghost. The scars of the war are everywhere, but glossed over, ignored; the elephant in the room that everyone so politely refuses to acknowledge.
That’s another thing about Hemingway’s writing – there’s so much he leaves unsaid. He tells us that his characters have consumed a seriously insane amount of alcohol, but doesn’t make them slur their words or stumble over each other. Most of the time, he leaves it up to us to determine when his characters are drunk. Hemingway’s characters don’t talk about their emotions. They cry, they fight – but Hemingway wastes no words telling us about clenched fists and furrowed brows. No – he just shows us the action. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald last week, this is writing at its leanest, most efficient. It’s something completely new to me. I think I’m in love…
The thing is, because Hemingway’s writing is so sparse, the reader has to pay attention. This isn’t quite the effortless read that Gatsby was last week. Hemingway makes his readers work for their story. Skim a paragraph and you could miss something vital. Reading The Sun Also Rises is a lot like reading a play – you have to actually make the effort to imagine Hemingway’s characters strutting on their stage, drinking and fighting and scarred and empty and terrible.
There’s something I found deeply unsettling about The Sun Also Rises. As a portrait of a generation, The Sun Also Rises is bleak, yet not without hope. It might be dark, but at the same time, it’s also amazingly beautiful.
Mr. Hemingway, you were a true master. Why did I ever doubt you?
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Hemingway’s style is a little difficult to get used to…but once you do, it will reel you in. For the brave reader, The Sun Also Rises is like a gorgeous, glittering treasure. But be warned – you’ve got to work to uncover it…
In a word: