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The Sun Also Rises – Andy embraces the Lost Generation

July 19, 2011

Alcoholic literary types. Is there any better company in the known universe? Actually probably yes, there is. But fuck them. Alcoholic literary types with a certain sense of aimlessness, ennui, worldweariness, a deceptively listless wit and banter that enchants and repels in equal measure. You don’t want to get drunk with these people? Seriously?

Actually now I think about it I’m not sure I’d want to get drunk with the characters in The Sun Also Rises. Well no, I would. But I’m not sure I’d enjoy it. These fuckers’d eat me for lunch in the withering conversation stakes. I couldn’t possibly hold my own, even after the exact right amount of Fat Yak. Or absinthe for that matter, which I’ve drunk once or twice and which is, occasionally, the poison of choice for Hemingway’s characters.

I should probably have done some research to figure out exactly who Hemingway’s characters are because almost certainly they are based on real people. Hemingway probably started destroying his liver long before he landed in Paris but by the time he got there he was happily pursuing life-threatening cirrhosis with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, among many others. Gerturde Stein provides the “lost generation” line that opens the novel but I don’t think she’s in the book because she was too busy shagging Alice Toklas, as far as my understanding of the era goes (not very far). That said, lesbians do get a mention in the novel, although interestingly they get a capital L for Lesbians whereas the fags are just garden-variety lower-case fags. Don’t actually think that means anything. Anyway.

The Sun Also Rises doesn’t rise (ho ho) to the heights of For Whom the Bell Tolls. At this stage Hemingway was still perfecting his technique (although it’s pretty much perfect already, I have to say, and there are times, in hindsight, where in Bell his technique nudges towards being too polished). The plot is rather episodic; the varying and developing (and diminishing) love interests are almost enough to pull it all together but not quite. I preferred the drunken, pseudo-intellectual bitchiness of Paris to the sunbaked, bull-slaughtering lechery of Spain, although most of the book is set in Pamplona and I did enjoy those chapters. For me the book’s weakest element is Hemingway’s desperate use of his characters to convince his readers that there is something noble about bull-fighting. Bull-fighting is not noble. There is no aesthetic to bull-fighting. I do not have to attend a bull fight to tell you that bull-fighting is disgusting. It’s not even a fucking fight, for fucksake. It’s a slaughter. The End.

Ahem.

But. And oh, it’s such a big but.

How fucking good is this book, hey? There’s a deceptive emotional detachment to Hemingway’s writing that stems from the stripped-back nature of his prose. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, written years after The Sun Also Rises, he was assisted in that deceptive detachment by employing third person narrative; his earlier novel is written in the first person and while it isn’t as technically accomplished as the later, more substantial work, it is still impressive. It’s interesting too that The Sun Also Rises was published a year after Hemingway’s drinking buddy Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway and Jake Barnes have much in common. I think Gatsby is probably the better book, although I haven’t read it for 20 years; but it’s interesting that while Nick as a character is more detached from the events he describes than Jake is, Jake – central to many of the events he describes – presents his story far more neutrally. It’s interesting too that the last lines of Gatsby, with notorious prophecy, look towards the coming Depression; the last lines of The Sun Also Rises look back to hopes that never really existed in the first place.

I think I just got distracted. Sorry about that.

I love the way Hemingway can have characters have conversations where what is really being communication bears no relationship to the words his characters say. I think he’d nailed this by the time he wrote Bell; here he needs his first-person narrator to hint that what we’re reading is not what’s actually going on. Having seen how he managed to do it later it looks a bit clunky here; if you’d been reading it in 1926 beyond a shadow of a doubt you’d have been blown away. Plenty of writers have done something similar since and done it well; writers were probably doing it, one way or another, before him. When Hemingway does it, though, it’s awesome.

Alcohol, of course, is as much a character in this book as any of the people Hemingway gives names. Most of the people are pissed most of the time. Sometimes they’re having a good time, more often than not they’re obnoxious and unsavoury. It’s kind of bizarre to me that Hemingway – who apparently derided Fitzgerald for worrying about how much he drank, who by the end of his life had a liver so distended by booze it stood out from his stomach – could, in his earlier years, depict drunkenness so negatively. Or perhaps he only depicted certain types of drunk negatively. Most of his characters seem to enjoy being maggoted, although some of them take it a step too far, or can’t handle it in the first place, and Hemingway – or Jake, at least – seems to look down on this. There may be some hypocrisy here, but I’m not sure I care.

It annoys me, in hindsight, that Hemingway wasn’t a writer those fuckspanks who put together the curriculum that governed my teenage reading felt I should read. I should’ve been reading Hemingway in high school and in university. I read The Great Gatsby in year 12 and in third year at uni. I read not a fucking word of Hemingway. Hemingway’s the better writer, though Fitzgerald is truly, gargantuanly talented, in Gatsby at least, and some of his short stories. Hemingway, on my reading thus far, boasts a more uniform brilliance.

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