Sunday, March 02, 2008

Book Review: The Sun Also Rises

If you know people who drink a lot, you have some idea of what The Sun Also Rises is about. Of course Ernest Hemingway's first novel is about more than just a group of people who drink a lot. It's got some of EH's other favorite activities, such as writing--more talked about than seen--or wandering around Paris or fishing or watching bullfights in Pamplona, Spain.

I have read this book several times, once as required reading, I think, and the other times to get in a Hemingway mood for one reason or another. Probably when I was in the mood to drink. This is a hard book to read sober because you realize how ugly people can get when they're mean drunks or emotional, or just plain bad. It is rather like a long summer or 1920s road trip gone bad.

EH's cast of characters includes Jake Barnes, an American expatriate who was wounded and made impotent by the First World War, his Jewish tennis partner Robert Cohn, an old romantic acquaintance of Jake's named Lady Brett Ashley, her fiancee Mike, and one of Jake's drinking-and-writing buddies, Bill. Hemingway describes the actions and conversations of these people over the course of a variety of drinking parties in Paris and Pamplona, broken here and there by moments of tourism or fishing through Spain and, again, more drinking. This is life among the "lost generation," as Hemingway saw it. The prose alternates between bald and rambling, as Hemingway sometimes ties long sentences together with "and," but you get through it just fine. We end up seeing a love triangle, a drunken road trip gone bad, and a case of unrequitable love on Barnes' part, given his male infirmity. One can probably look for symbolism if one tries, but I don't think that was what Hemingway was going for, anyway. He seems more interested in portraying a certain mindset through dialogue and occasional long stretches of introspection. You get out of it what you want to. I don't even know if it's a question of liking it anymore. It is what it is.

Another book along these same lines is The Great Gatsby, which is a much better work by Hemingway's contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both stories, we have an "innocent eye" protagonist who shapes our impressions of others by his narration, not by how he interacts with them, which turns out to be a slightly different matter. In both stories, too, we have a middle-class narrator observing the failings of richer people and not finding them any more superior.

Again, I was rereading this book for my European-trip-planning ulterior motive. Not being much on fishing or bullfighting, I can't see this book helps my travel plans. Drinking I can do anywhere, though the book is a healthy reminder of why the hard-working, hard-drinking lifestyle can be a drawback. On the plus side, The Sun Also Rises is blessedly short. One wonders how and why English professors pick books sometimes.

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