Friday, January 22, 2016

Classic Fiction: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I had never read anything by Ernest Hemingway, and I figured that The Sun Also Rises was as good a place to start as any. I had long heard of his tendency to write in short but powerful statements, and also his ability to write dialogue as a former journalist who had closely observed the way people talk. It was time I experienced his writing for myself and see if his work would be something I would want to start seeking out. 

The Situation: Jake Barnes currently resides in Paris as part of the expatriate community of the 1920s. As our narrator, Jake first gives us a brief history on Robert Cohn, a Jewish boxer and writer. First he was somewhat decent at boxing, and then he became somewhat decent at writing, and ended up finding moderate success after his first publication. Now Cohn and Jake are both in Paris, which leads to the former being introduced by the latter to the beautiful and incredibly charming Lady Brett Ashley. And although Brett is engaged to Mike Campbell, that does not stop Cohn from falling for her, and her letting him. Soon the entire group, along with Bill Gorton, go down to Pamplona for the annual San Fermin Festival.

The Problem: While Cohn has fallen for Brett, Brett hasn't necessarily fallen for him, and she has no intention of ever leaving Mike. Everyone else seems to understand this, but Cohn can't quite get the message, nor can he seem to stop getting on everyone's nerves. And it doesn't help that Jake himself has long been in love with Brett and seemingly will be forever. Together the group will drink, eat, drink, get into fights, drink, watch the bulls, drink, fight each other, get thrown out of places, and then drink some more. Cohn only gets more annoying, Mike only gets more annoyed with Cohn, Jake becomes even more hapless, and Brett eventually eyes her next target and conquers him, an event that may bring everything to a head and ruin the entire trip.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the post-World War I 1920s. Much like Hemingway himself, Jake Barnes has settled in Europe after serving in the war as part of what has come to be known as the Lost Generation. It is a common story of a group of people trying to find their purpose through self-medicating and partying. And while it may seem that Mike has been the one to win Lady Brett, he hasn't really as she continues to have affairs on the side even though she is engaged. And even though it is painfully obvious Jake is still in love with her, he is never one of the affairs. She also seems to know exactly what she is doing, knowing it causes nothing but pain and destruction, but she isn't happy with herself until she does it. And Mike appears to be fine with it, until he gets drunk and shows that he actually isn't okay with it at all. It is a story that could easily have been written today, but there is now way it would be told in same straight-forward, yet still compelling and dramatic way that Hemingway manages to tell it. There are short, declarative sentences, as well as limited descriptions. And yet, the settings are more than adequate and the limited and repetitive dialogue tells us everything we need to know. Also, the descriptions involving the bull-fighting are brutal without being full of gore. For writers, Hemingway is the perfect example of how to show and not tell.

My Verdict: While The Sun Also Rises follows what I call the Frankenstein effect - a short book that takes an incredible amount of time to read because of the density of the material - it is certainly worth the struggle. Hemingway's prose and the rhythm of his writing may take some getting used to, especially for a first timer, but once you're in it you kind of wish more books were written this way. Even the painful scenes become fun, and the annoying characters become a joy to listen to. And while reading about fishing and bull-fighting is something I never imagined would be enjoyable, Hemingway manages to make it be exactly that, allowing the reader to get caught up in the most mundane of the activities. And Lady Brett is certainly a character I would never enjoy in any other book as she is a person who is only seems to be happy if she is the prettiest woman in the room taking all of the attention, and doesn't much care how upset she makes people as long as she gets what she wants. But I found myself even looking past her many faults if it meant I got to read more sparse descriptions and dialogue. I will certainly be seeking out more writing by this classic author.

Favorite Moment: While it was disappointing to see Lady Brett get her way with yet another man, it was brilliant the way Hemingway wrote it.

Favorite Character: Bill Gorton is a true friend, and while he drinks just as much as the rest of them, he seems to be the only one not head over heels in love with Brett.

Recommended Reading: Hemingway is certainly a hard act to follow. So I will recommend Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, which follows another woman who is used to getting what she wants. 

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