Over 100 years since his birth and 50 years since he was the most visible writer in America, Ernest Hemingway remains a man of many masks. A larger than life figure, Papa (his nickname), meant many different things to different people. There’s Albert Murray’s Hemingway – a high poet of the populace whose language “had a universal essence that was similar to blues and swing.” But then again, there’s Ralph Ellison’s Hemingway, a callow, racially insensitive nihilist “who’s marvelous technical virtuosity was won at the expense of a gross insensitivity to a fraternal values.” There’s Norman Mailer’s Hemingway, the patron saint of all things masculine and macho.
But if those characterizations seem off-base, there is Bellow, Malamud and Roth’s Hemingway, an effete and deluded cocksman whose country club vision of Jews was downright loony. Certainly there’s the Hemingway whose ironclad version of manhood haunted and angered feminist scholars for a half a century. But then what does one make of Joan Didion and Nadine Gordimer’s Hemingway – a flawed but an indispensable artist who admired a woman’s capacity for strength?
Who, out of those writers, is right? All of them are.
Hemingway is the ultimate 20th-century American artist/monster, one of the most schizophrenic of our literary masters. His biases shackle a great deal of his work to his time, but they are part of a total package intractable from the man himself. Every novel that he wrote had holes: A Farewell To Arms is brilliant but relies way too much on a surfeit of detail, To Have And Have Not is misogynistic, self-absorbed and too obsessed with celebrity, For Whom The Bell Tolls is way too long, and by the time he got to Across The River And Through The Trees, liquor and the job of living up to his own image had already took too deep a toll on his talent.
But the reason that Hemingway’s works resonate with the reader is due to their collection of moments, breathtaking moments either in detail, dialogue, action or human empathy. In addition to the novels, this kind of evocation is also reflected in his métier – the short story, where, with his soaring use of plainspoken diction and speech, Hemingway, along with William Faulkner, would kick down the door that Mark Twain opened for the American demotic to come into our literature (although one has to say Faulkner did more of the kicking).
The Sun Also Rises has several of the same problems that plague his long fiction. The novel is a structurally flawed mess, a short novella stretched way beyond it’s elasticity, with a plot that goes nowhere and a tendency to fall back on dialogue and prejudices — some petty, some not so – when he runs out of ideas. But Sun has more brilliant moments in it than almost any random selection of a half a dozen mid-level 20th-century classics. I’m not saying that The Sun Also Rises is a classic, nor am I saying that it’s great or even very good. All that I am saying is that it’s a good novel that shouldn’t be totally thrown away.
The story is told from the perspective of Jake Barnes, an expatriate journalist from Kansas City, who does news-grams from an American station in Paris. He most closely resembles Hemingway’s own voice insomuch that he likes booze, broads, fights, bulls, and all things macho. The book’s first part is comprised of Jake’s observation of his circle of friends. Jake kind of likes Brett Ashley, the verbose, effervescent, sharp-tongued English “dame” whose rapport with Jake makes for some of the liveliest parts of the novel. Jake can’t stand Mike, Brett’s melodramatic boyfriend. He pretends to like Robert Cohn, a Jewish novelist, but actually despises him because of his heritage. Closing the circle is Jake’s friend Bill, a more verbose, more genial, and at times more vulgar version of the narrator.
In addition there are other spicy character dynamics relected in the conflicts and interrelationships between secondary characters. And Jake observes it all, sometimes reacting, sometimes giving out advice, sometimes intervening into their lives and discussions, sometimes doing anything but.
And how well Hemingway writes in those observations! The Hemingway sentence, the particular cultural trademark that established him in the world’s consciousness for so long, is here and it is as advertised. The beauty of Hemingway’s sentences didn’t come in any biblical/Shakespearean prose rhythms (Faulkner) or obsession for perfect lyrical beauty( Fitzgerald, although Hemingway was just as obsessed about writing, maybe more so). No, the poetry in Hemingway’s prose lies in it’s succinctness, it’s clarity, it’s austerity, it’s lack of excess or pretense — and the way he could describe a character, a scene or a setting also contributes to his greatness.
Whether the scenes takes place in Paris cafés, or the beautiful landscapes of Spain, or the bullfight arena at the exact tension-filled moment where the matador and the bull begin combat, one marvels on how he can say so much in such a small space, and do it in such a unique and beautifully American manner. His language in itself makes him indispensable, and its beauty is in abundance here.
When one comes to the question of what that beautiful language is saying, however, tough questions must be asked and brutally honest assertions made. It needs to be said that Jake, and subsequently Hemingway’s vision of Cohn and Jews is utterly rancid. I am no fan of political correctness, but to overlook the slurs and outbursts is an even more insidious form of it. Granted, we’re not talking about controversial poet Amiri Baraka here, as Barnes/Hemingway feigns some feeling from him. But comparing Hemingway’s anti-Semitism and Baraka’s is like comparing a toxic waste barrel to a toxic waste dump. Yes, the dump is obviously larger, but one can also do without the barrel.
That crippling flaw casts a considerable shadow over what’s good about Barnes – and there is a considerable amount. At his best, Barnes is a witty and smart and a confidant to Brett, a loyal friend to Bill, and a character who captures a certain clearheaded and sensible American feeling that is healthy in the right dose. I know that many a male writer has lost his soul gazing too longingly and lovingly into the specter of Jake Barnes (Hellooo, Norman Mailer), but dammit, too many writers haven’t developed one in looking away.
I am tired of whiny, pathetic literary emo boys whose worlds have ended because they got their heart broken in the tenth grade (even though they’re 29), and write like they haven’t read a single damm book other than The Catcher in The Rye. (And I swear to god, if Salinger knew how many bad books were going to be penned in his name, he would have written like Dreiser.) At his best, Barnes’ lust for life, play and friendship, and propensity for courage, self-reflection — Hemingway’s most underrated trait — and self-deprecation is a tonic. Reading Barnes and how Hemingway can create such a high literary figure out of what seems to be an average guy, one can see how he became a beloved figure, especially at the time.
But halfway through, any magic and momentum that Hemingway builds ups starts to run aground with the novel’s structural faltering. The boozy scenes, contrarian dialogue, and witty interpersonal conflicts begin to run together, the cafés become more generic and Hemingway’s Paris begins to lose its luster. The character dynamics are dishy and fun, but when not tied together, they seem episodic. And when Jake and Bill, on a train to Spain after deciding to go on a fishing trip and later to go to a fiesta, turn on their ugly American, the book becomes unbearable for a while. Both men, when left to their own devices, unleash a torrent of prejudices, and the novel briefly degenerates to the level of the worst works of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, two of the few dead white male novelists who, to be brutally honest, should really stay that way.
But just as you gets to the point where you’re ready to throw the novel in the garbage, the action moves to Spain, Papa’s inner noble traveler shows up, his gorgeous eye for detail reappears, and the novel starts to come back to life again. The last third of the book is Hemingway in fine form, describing the fiesta in Pamplona, with its bulls, its breathless country, and the romantic entanglements of his circle of friends coming to a hedge. Mike fights with Cohn because Cohn wants his woman. Brett can’t stand Cohn because Cohn stalks her, and hates Mike more every day. Bill hates Mike for being a broke bastard, and Cohn just gets tired of everybody hating him.
And Hemingway, in the form of Jake, is at his most noble. With the rich, Papa might have been an ugly, self-indulgent American, but in Spain, with it’s beautiful, expansive countryside and it’s peasants with their rituals of high culture and ceremony, he’s good-natured, a good listener and a good, decent and at times humane expatriate. Let me put it in modern terms: he respected and understood the strength of street knowledge.
Hemingway’s appreciation of Spain and the code of ethics of its people is highlighted when Brett falls for Pedro Romero, the biggest, baddest, and hottest bullfighter in all of Spain (the arc of their relationship leads to the end of the novel). Realizing that Romero is someone braver and more noble than he is, Barnes becomes a different being altogether, less a sardonic, disinterested friend, more a participant observer. He talks the bullfighter up to everyone who will listen, gives him advice, compares notes and stories with his manager and the bullfight experts, and explains to Brett the machinations of the bullfighting game while also giving her a play-by-play of what’s happening. He even doesn’t get that pissed off when Brett sleeps with Pedro!
At the end, when Brett and Jake, back at Gay Paree, ride off into the sunset just as unsure of their relationship as they were in the beginning of the book, my mind focused on two things. The first was Joan Didion’s compelling argument for Hemingway as a novelist. In Last Words , her review of his final posthumous novel, the deeply flawed True at First Light, Didion made the case that the sum of those novels can be seen in the accumulation of those breathtaking scenes and how “every word, every sentence mattered.” She’s right, every word and every sentence did matter to Hemingway. As a unified body of a work, however, they didn’t matter as much. A great novel, in my opinion, is like a symphony where every disparate element comes together as a whole. In The Sun Also Rises, there are some of the most beautiful notes in the history of the English language, but without a cohesive structure they languish on the page, in need of a conductor to bring them together.
The second thing I thought of was the character of Brett. Here I have a personal revelation to make: my mom, who’s a second-generation feminist, loves her, and loves Hemingway. Reading this I can see why. Like my mom, Brett is a witty, whip smart, all around tough “dame,” and one can sense that Barnes/Hemingway has a deep affection for her. But one should not look that longingly into the eyes of Brett Ashley either, for it is ludicrous to deny Hemingway had gender issues. His celebration of all things male, masculine and macho came at great expense to the women in his writing and his life. Although he strutted as the supreme cock of the walk while living, the subject of sexuality was something of an underlying terror for him until the day he died.
And while men should examine and explore the concepts of masculinity, Hemingway, along with his literary brethren, kin and wannabe kin (helloooo, Harvey Mansfield), have been so obsessed by what it means to be a man, that they lost track of what it means to be a human, the most important task of any writer or any person, regardless of gender, race, creed, or color.
But if there is much about Hemingway that needs to be cast off into the dustbin of history, there is much too much about him that needs to be kept. He would write better novels: A Farewell to Arms is too mired in romanticism for me, but it gets to where it needs to go better than Sun did, and The Old Man And The Sea is the best novella long prose piece that I have read next to Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad.
The Sun Also Rises doesn’t rise to those levels, but, like Hemingway, it matters. Or at least it, and he, should matter. I will be the first to say that Faulkner mattered more then, matters more now, and will matter more than Hemingway as long as people read books. But if we want to have a full appreciation of our history, he has to matter for something. Because of his flaws, I will not say that it’s a shame that we don’t read him now, but American literature has lost something since he hasn’t mattered any more.