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the sun also rises

5 october 2018

I first read The Sun Also Rises in 1972. That was 46 years ago, and it was 46 years after Hemingway published the novel. As an adolescent, I loved The Sun Also Rises. It was very grown up, but at the same time, thanks to its narrator's unfortunate exile from sexuality, it had a curiously Young Adult feel to it. In fact, in 1972, near the dawn of Young Adult literature as a purpose-written genre, books like The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby constituted our young adult literature. I had read The Catcher in the Rye as a pre-teen, but by the time I was his age, I didn't want to read about a kid like Holden Caulfield anymore. Holden read Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I wanted to read them, too.

It's easy to see why The Great Gatsby is an American classic. It is melodramatic and given to Big Ideas about America. It is harder to see how The Sun Also Rises reached co-equal status. It's asymmetrical, oblique, only lightly-plotted, and doesn't give much of a hoot about the United States. It falls into two halves. In the first, characters behave drunkenly and badly in Paris. In the second, they get much drunker and behave much worse in Spain, though without serious consequences except for a number of bulls.

There are no sympathetic characters in The Sun Also Rises – which is not at all a bar to its being a great novel. But there are also no characters who take life very seriously, or face serious problems in the moment of the story. They're unlikeable without even tragic flaws or villainous gravitas; they're merely annoying.

Of course, The Sun Also Rises is frequently, and perhaps best, read as a novel exemplifying Hemingway's "iceberg" theory, the idea that a fiction writer can suggest depths unseen as clearly to the reader as if he'd mapped them, and all the more effectively for not mapping them. The drunken misbehavior in the novel is the tip of the iceberg. The "lost generation" (Gertrude Stein's phrase, but best-known from the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises) is what lies below.

For me, the most moving scene in The Sun Also Rises is one almost completely extraneous to the plot. Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton are in Spain, and they are fishing. The fishing is good and there are good fish; it's really written like that, and after a while you can write it yourself. The two drunken Americans collect a temporary fishing companion, the not-entirely-sober Englishman, Harris. Harris only appears for a few pages. He wants to be in the novel for longer, but Bill and Jake have to get to back to Pamplona for the bullfights and to resume the main plot. Harris cajoles them a little, expresses his appreciation for the time they were able to spend with him, and gives them a parting gift of hand-tied trout flies. Harris explains,

Really you don't know how much it means. I've not had much fun since the war. (129)
And there's the iceberg, rolling for a moment to suggest its underside. Harris' nervousness, his eager bonhomie, his unexpected sentimental gestures, his drinking, his melancholy – they're character notes, but they're also metonymic for the "lost generation"'s experience of the aftermath of the First World War. And so we realize that Jake and Bill, and Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell and even Lady Brett Ashley, no matter what their role in the conflict had or hadn't been, behave as they do because of the global effects of a trauma so huge it's rarely mentioned.

The central flaw in The Sun Also Rises, as many readers have noticed, is the relationship between Jake and Brett. This is the romantic regret at the heart of the book, persisting till we take leave of the characters: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" when that thought is futile (247). Jake and Brett are "in love" – though what that could possibly mean to Brett is an open question – but Jake's emasculation in combat prevents them from consummating that love (at least via the conventional techniques that are apparently all that count as sexuality to Hemingway). This doomed relationship is one of the novel's most famous elements, but I've found it less and less compelling each time through the novel since I was 13 years old. Jake is clearly upset that he can't have Brett – who wouldn't be, under the circumstances – but her own attraction to Jake seems completely unconvincing. Part of this is that she's impulsively promiscuous, and also too drunk to know what she wants. The warrant seems to be that if only Jake were intact, his virile charms would fasten Brett into monogamy and sobriety. But Brett is such a stick-figure character that Hemingway can't create a convincing romance involving her. For once, there seems nothing beneath the tip of the iceberg.

The Sun Also Rises is often seen as one of the masterpieces of modern prose. It does have a distinct and impressive style, love it or hate it (and I think even devoted Hemingway fans love and hate the style by turns). For me, much depends on what Hemingway turns his style toward. There are passages that provoke impatience, with all the name-dropping of French and Spanish locations, the maundering about bullfights and afición, the liquor and the fish and the guidebook details:

The Boulevard Raspail always made dull riding. … There are other streets in Paris as ugly as the Boulevard Raspail. It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it. (41-42)
As Gertrude Stein also once said, "Hemingway, remarks are not literature."

But at times, Hemingway can turn those remarks to the service of a wry anti-guidebook attitude:

We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte's restaurant … It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Some one had put it on the American Women's Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans, so we had to wait forty-five minutes for a table. (76)
Just as you are about to write him off as an insufferable gasbag, Ernest Hemingway can suddenly redeem himself.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. 1926. New York: Scribner, reprint, n.d.