Saturday, January 21, 2012

No. 45 - The Sun Also Rises

So I'm going to be reading the Modern Library's 100 best novels. First up? Number 45, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.

Let me get this out there at the beginning: I HATE Ernest Hemingway, I always have. His 'iceberg theory' (which I have to be completely honest, it could be something that a teacher/professor attributed to him, I've never read anything by him describing it, but it sounds right, so I'm going with it)of storytelling is pretentious and his storytelling style has become sort of a shorthand for 'underdeveloped.' My experiences with Big Papa were previously confined to some short stories and two novels I had all read in high school: The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms.

So the question is out there, why would I pick a book by Hemingway first to read off of the list? I don't know. I do not have a good reason other than it looked good and short (which is a good enough reason to me). For whatever reason, I picked up The Sun Also Rises Thursday afternoon and found it compelling enough to finish yesterday. I have to be honest, I really enjoyed the book. It finally gave me some understanding about several things concerning Hemingway.

First, it is the only work of Hemingway's that I have read where it didn't feel like he was trying too hard to be 'literary' or important. That was always my beef with his work, they have always felt too labored and stiff. I liked the main character, Jacob 'Jake' Barnes. Jake was maimed in the war and as a result he was impotent. This fact come up very obliquely several times as a reason why Jake has difficulty committing to relationships, but it becomes obvious that even if Jake were whole physically, he'd be just as incapable of finding happiness and contentment. Jake's interactions with his friends and acquaintances was enjoyable and Hemingway does really make post-war Paris and Spain feel alive. The dusty, underdeveloped backwaters of Spain and the bright fanfare and non-stop Bacchanalia of the Festival of San Fermin are a great complement to the disintegration of the relationships that are happening in the novel. Hemingway has always somehow been linked to the running of the bulls in Pamplona and now I finally know why.

This is not to say that this novel is perfect, far from it. The rampant anti-Semitism in the novel is off-putting. Robert Cohn is ostracized and belittled for being Jewish, he's the outsider of the group, whose personality falls into stereotype on more than one occasion. There are plenty of reasons to hate Cohn's character, Hemingway didn't need to keep hitting that chord. In fact, there are several instances of some fairly nasty racial epithets in the novel. In 1926 these terms were less shocking I'm sure, but to today's reader they are unsettling.

The idea of how this novel would be written in today's world is an interesting one. Sure, we'd probably get a more sanitized world-view, but I'm positive that the content today would be much more explicit sexually and linguistically. Neither of which would improve the book. The general tone of these characters looking, searching for something to give their lives some sort of meaning would be cheapened by the tawdriness of it.

They say that this is Hemingway's ode to the Lost Generation, that this was his way of expressing the ennui and discontent that afflicted this post-WWI group of writers and expatriates. I don't know about all of that, what I do know is that it gave more credence to the idea that people have never changed. When Jake and his companions continue searching for something to fill the void within themselves, whether it is religion, alcohol, or sex, they were mirroring the world that Hemingway lived in, but they could just as easily be writing about people today. The quote at the beginning was Jake's response to Robert Cohn's complaint that he isn't living his life to its fullest capacity, that he wasn't living his life all the way up. I had always believed that to be a 60's or 70's gripe.

So, now that I have finished the first book of this challenge, do I still HATE Ernest Hemingway? Nah,that's way too strong. I don't know that I'll read any of his other works, but this book worked for me. Maybe relying on opinions created by a teen-aged version of me isn't the best idea... Something to think about I guess.

P.S. The Iceberg Theory really was Hemingway's. I still think it's garbage...

1 comment:

Renee said...

This is one of my favorite books. I read it in high school, and thereafter could never understand why people scoffed at Hemingway (you aren't the only one). But then I finally read The Old Man and the Sea and saw what they meant. It's like two different authors. He kind of sucks in every other book but this one.

I think what works in this book vs. his others is that he understood these characters. He got why they were a sad sack of losers, and he showed them doing realistic things a sad sack of losers would do, WITHOUT making you hate them for it. They're just human. Jake hates them, but they are his friends, and when you're young, that makes a lot of sense. I don't think it's the kind of book that makes you a better person, but it is the kind of book that gives you a piece of the world you'd probably never have access to, in a way that makes you feel like a part of it.

I think Eric hated it.

P.S. From now on, I think you need to ask me if I already have the book before you go out and buy it. I checked the list and I have a lot of them.