All you need to know about the books you meant to read
THE SUN ALSO RISES (1926) by Ernest Hemingway
Saturday 02 March 1996
Plot: Jake Barnes, an American journalist, has been emasculated by a mysterious injury sustained in the First World War. In tones of savage stoicism, he narrates details of his life in the Twenties amid an idle group of sybaritic expatriates who swan about the cafes and bars of Paris. They chatter, drink too much and brawl.
Jake's frustration centres on his love for Lady Brett Ashley. She returns his affection but seeks sexual gratification elsewhere. For fun and money, she decides to marry the bullish Mike upsetting yet another suitor, Robert Cohn, who is both aggressive and wheedling by turns. This discordant quartet becomes increasingly raucous until they drift to Spain for a holiday.
Jake evades the wasteland of his personal existence by mixing with peasants and fishing for trout. He is also an aficionado of bull fighting, the unsporting ritual which comes to represent Man under pressure, pushed to the limits of concentration and courage.
Meanwhile, Brett is after Pedro the matador. But before she can nail his cojones to the bedpost, Pedro makes a tactical (if tactless) exit. Cohn turns violent, Jake runs away to the seaside...
Bereft, Brett contacts Jake and they meet in Madrid. She believes that only Jake's little physical problem prevents their love from flowering. The novel closes with Jake's dry response: "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
Theme: An attempt to find value and meaning in a post-war cosmopolitan world of slippery self-indulgence. Like Jake (the castrated he-man), all the characters have been damaged by the war. Even Brett was a nurse and witnessed unmentionable suffering. The natural life of the Spanish peasantry provides an example of true experience but this route to salvation is closed to the lost generation.
Style: Hemingway's plain declarative sentences are shorn of adverbs and polysyllabic adjectives. The spare prose has a tensile muscularity that invests the physical world with brilliant immediacy.
Chief strengths: Although the characters are squalid and inconsequential, they are viewed with sympathy. The "pointless" dialogue illuminates their inability to communicate and the obsessive triviality/ pathos of their desires. Even Brett maintains a frail dignity amid the waves of pleasure seeking.
Chief weakness: Jake's racist, sexist and political prejudices seem to be endorsed by the author: they are certainly not subject to any blasts of irony. The macho stuff with bullfighters is sprayed with excessive glamour.
What they thought of it then: Hemingway's stock has fallen because a) his view of life is unfashionable b) his biographers tend to forget the young hard-working Joycean aesthete, in lieu of the older drunken braggart.
Responsible for: Turning journalism into art and killing off the Victorian sentence. Writing is for toughies rather than wimps; the stylistic influence extends from Mickey Spillane to Anthony Powell.
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