Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

My History with Hemingway

* I read A Farewell to Arms in 1995 when I was 16.  It was assigned reading in 11th grade English.  I didn't hate it, but I didn't particularly love it either.  (In retrospect, I think I was too young to appreciate Hemingway. Hemingway is best read by 20-30 year old men who are obsessed with masculinity and alcohol).
Because 1995 was long before my blogging days, I have no review of A Farewell to Arms on this blog.  But I do have preserved (on one of my other blogs) an assignment I did for that class which was to re-write a classic fairy tale in Hemingway's style: A Farewell to Pork.
I also reviewed the movie of A Farewell to Arms here.

* In 2006, I read Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" and found that I actually really enjoyed it.
* And so, inspired by that positive experience, that same year I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and also really enjoyed it.  (And have subsequently even used it in my classes).

Why I'm Reading This Book Now
I guess the real question is why I waited 10 years to get back to Hemingway, since I so much enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I don't know.  I got distracted by other things I guess.

But The Sun Also Rises is one of those books I've always been meaning to get around to.  It's one of those classic books that every well read person is supposed to have read, and, even though I've got a couple Hemingway books under my belt already, this is one of Hemingway's most iconic books.

But more than that, in the past few years I've been hearing a lot of high praise for this book--from various sources (conversations at bars, mentions on the Internet, etc)--that has caused me to want to check out this book even more.

I mentioned it a couple times to my book club.  It was part of this (admittedly pretty long) list here.  And Whisky Prajer, after criticizing some of my more exorbitant choices, commented that The Sun Also Rises was one of the books on my list that was well-worth reading.
The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway's best, IMO. Punchy, nuanced, problematic because of its antisemitism and doubly so because it can't make its point without it.
At the last book club meeting, my friend Tom mentioned that a lot of people had been highly recommending The Sun Also Rises to him as well.   So we both agreed to tackle it for our next book club.
And here I am with the review.

The Review
So, this is one of those books where, if the literati crowd are to be believed, there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
Apparently there's a lot of symbolism going on in this book.

I didn't catch it myself.  I just read through the book on the surface level, and thought it was a story about a bunch of expats who get drunk all the time in Paris and Spain.

It wasn't until I finished the book, and started reading some of the criticism of it online, that I realized this book was (apparently) much deeper than I had realized.

But I'll leave the deeper stuff for the deeper thinkers to sort out.  (There would be no point in me parroting other people's analysis anyways.  If you want to read about all the symbolism that other, smarter, people have discovered in this novel, all of that is easily available on Google).
I'll just write about my own reaction/feeling to this novel.

On the plus side, the novel is very readable.
There's not much of a plot, especially in the first half of the novel.  It's mostly just a group of expats hanging around at bars in Paris, and drinking way too much.
But Hemingway's famous lean sentences and clipped dialogue keep the prose moving.  And at least the characters in the book keep moving too (going from bar to bar to bar as they find lots of new places to drink).  So even though there wasn't much of a recognizable plot, I was still happily turning the pages.

Hemingway's sparse style was all the more appreciated since our book club had just come off from two authors who favored long boring literary descriptions: E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence.  It was interesting to note that all 3 authors were writing in the 1920s, but Hemingway's prose seems much more modern and readable in comparison with the other two.

The Drinking...Oh, the Drinking!

11th grade was a long time ago now, and my memory of A Farewell to Arms is getting pretty faded.  But one thing I do remember is that Hemingway's characters were constantly drinking, and that Hemingway, for some reason, thought it was important to write down all the names of everything they drank.
I remember this because it used to confuse us 11th grade students.  We were constantly asking our teacher, "But why does he write down all the names of the drinks?  Why is this important?"
Our teacher just laughed it off as one of Hemingway's characteristic eccentricities.  Hemingway took his drinking seriously.  It mattered to Hemingway whether his character was drinking a cognac or a vermouth, and so he assumed that the reader had as much interest in these details as he did.

But if this obsession for listing drinks was true of A Farewell to Arms, then man-oh-man is it ever true for The Sun Also Rises.
The whole book is basically just one long chronicle of the drinking exploits of a group of expats.  And Hemingway feels the need to list everything they drank.

Although some allowance should always be made for separating the author from the novel, it's pretty hard to read this book and not get the impression that Hemingway must have been a huge alcoholic.  And sure enough, a quick Google search reveals that he was.  (See from Hemingway drank too much: Our strange, macho romance with Papa’s alcoholism).

That, plus the knowledge that this book is a roman-a-clef memoir of a real trip that Hemingway and his drinking buddies went on (W), and the conclusion I came to was this book was nothing more than an alcoholic writing the story of a drunken trip.  Beautifully written, perhaps, but not of any social value.

(Incidentally, this was also apparently the conclusion Hemingway's mother came to.  According to Wikipedia, Hemingway's mother wrote him:

The critics seem to be full of praise for your style and ability to draw word pictures but the decent ones always regret that you should use such great gifts in perpetuating the lives and habits of so degraded a strata of humanity .... It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year .... What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? .... Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than "damn" and "bitch"—Every page fills me with a sick loathing. )
However, once I started researching what the critics had been saying about this book, I realized there was a lot more going on here.
Some people say Hemingway used the alcohol to convey how his characters were feeling.  Drinking cognac conveyed one type of feeling, whereas drinking wine conveyed another type of feeling (apparently).

But more importantly, according to this lecturer here, Hemingway had a dim outlook on life.  You couldn't expect much out of life, and you couldn't expect much out of your fellow man.  (Everyone is always awful to each other in Hemingway books).  So what was left?  Fill the void with physicality.  But what about the protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, who is impotent because of a war injury?  Fill the void with alcohol.

In that respect, is the alcoholism in this book a symptom of the existential angst the characters feel?

More Thoughts on Drinking

When I read A Farewell to Arms at 16, I had never touched a drop of alcohol in my life.  (I was a good kid).
As with most good kids who are non-drinkers, alcohol had no interest for me, and Hemingway's descriptions of all his alcoholic drinks bored me.

Now, however, I am older, and have more knowledge about alcohol and its effects.  And more knowledge about its potential appeal.

It's hard to read through this long chronicle of a drunken week and not think to yourself: "Boy, I could really go for a beer right now."

On at least one occasion, this book caused me to bring a bottle of wine home.  It seemed appropriate to drink a few glasses of wine while reading about all the wine these guys were drinking in Spain.

Hemingway's characters drink a lot.  Reading this book can be a bit dangerous, because you get to thinking, "Boy, maybe I've been holding back too much.  These guys drank nonstop for weeks on end, and it didn't seem to affect them at all.  Maybe I could go for another glass of wine."

It's also tempting to read this book and think, "Well, I guess that's how people lived back then.  Alcoholism wasn't stigmatized in the old days--massive drinking was just a part of everyday life."

...And then, all of a sudden, you remember that it wasn't.  That actually, in the 1920s, prohibition was happening back in the United States.  (And just in case you forgot, the book reminds you a couple times that prohibition was going on back home.)
Imagine this whole book about drinking was published and sold to a public in 1926 that couldn't legally buy alcohol!  (Although if books like The Great Gatsby are any indication, prohibition didn't slow down the party too much.)

The Antisemitism
As Whisky Prajer noted above, this book is problematic because of its antisemitism.

I don't want to spend too much time talking about this.
Since I've started this book review project, I've lost track of how many times I've had to condemn an old book for being racist.  And I've begun to get bored by the exercise.
I'll just say that Hemingway was antisemitic, and it was unfortunate, and leave it at that.

...actually just a couple more notes.

1). I don't want to let Hemingway off the hook too easily by implying that since this book is old, he gets a free pass.  Not everyone in the 1920s was racist.  For comparison's sake, E.M. Forster was ridiculing racial prejudices in A Passage to India at the same time Hemingway was indulging them.  (A Passage to India was published 2 years before The Sun Also Rises).

2). I quoted Whisky Prajer above, but I'll repeat it here:

The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway's best, IMO. Punchy, nuanced, problematic because of its antisemitism and doubly so because it can't make its point without it.
There's no argument on the first point--the antisemitism is problematic.  But I wonder about the second point.  Could the novel actually make it's point without it?
If, for example, someone went through The Sun Also Rises and deleted every reference to Robert Cohn being a Jew, would the book lose anything substantial?  Or is Robert Cohn's character too tied up in being a Jewish stereotype?

3).  I should also note that I don't equate Hemingway's antisemitism with anything like Hitler's antisemitism.   
No one would ever finish The Sun Also Rises and come to the conclusion that all Jews needed to be exterminated.
If anything, I felt sorry for Robert Cohn.  He was socially clueless, sure, but he wasn't an evil person.
What Robert Cohn desperately needed was for someone to sit him down and explain to him what was really going on between him and Brett.  A lot of grief could have been avoided if someone had just done that.
Instead, everyone chose to just make snide comments behind his back.
I felt for Robert Cohn, and wished he had had a better group of friends.
In my book club, however, Tom said he really hated Robert Cohn, and found the character really annoying.
I'm not sure what Hemingway's intended reaction was.  Definitely Hemingway himself had been annoyed by Harold Loeb (the basis for Robert Cohn), and yet I felt that Robert Cohn still got a sympathetic write-up in the book.  Or at least it evoked sympathy from me.

The Lost Generation
So, apparently this is the book that popularized the term "The Lost Generation".  

But I wondered as I read this book what exactly was so lost about "The Lost Generation".  It sounds like they spent their 20s drinking and being irresponsible, but then isn't that true of every generation?

And then after the 1920s, whatever happened to "The Lost Generation".  You never really hear about them again, do you?  They just went on to become normal adults, just like every other generation.  

While there's no denying that World War I did traumatize this generation, I wonder if a lot of what we associate with "The Lost Generation" was just the kind of thing every generation does when they're in their 20s.

...On a somewhat related note:
I got the impression from this book that all the characters were in their mid-30s.  (Robert Cohn was 34, and it's implied that Jake was about the same age).   Since this book was a roman-a-clef memoir, I assumed that must have meant that Hemingway was writing about his own mid-30s.  But then I went back to Wikipedia, and double checked the dates, and Hemingway was born in 1899.  Which meant he was still in his 20s when he published this book.  Although Harold Loeb (the basis for Robert Cohn) was actually 8 years older than Hemingway.

Other Notes
* I realize that I've gotten to the end of this book review, and I've not really tackled the main themes of this book, or talked about what this book really means.
And that's largely because I don't know.
I got the impression that it meant something.  Something about characters who wanted more out of life than they were getting, and so they took their frustrations out on alcohol and sex, and quarreling with each other.
Any more than that, and I'll have to leave it to other, smarter, people to analyze.

* Every critic talks about how great Hemingway is at describing scenes.  And I'm going to talk about it too.
It's amazing how much description Hemingway can do with so few sentences.
And it's something I didn't really even appreciate while I was reading the book.
It was only after having read the book, that I reflected on how vivid the scenes had seemed to me.  I realized that I had been picturing in my mind perfectly the little town in Spain, or the lake in the mountains, or 1920s Paris.
And Hemingway had managed to put all these pictures in my mind without getting bogged down in any long boring descriptions.  He uses just a few sentences, but he uses these few sentences very economically.

* Related to the above point: to the extent that all books act like little time capsules from the year in which they were written, this book is a wonderful literary portrait of what life was like in Spain and France in the 1920s.
Hemingway's Spain seems so peaceful and relaxed.  You can hardly believe that in just a few short years it will be ripped about by a vicious, brutal civil war.

* There's some wonderful Hemingway dialogue in this book.
It's on display throughout the whole book, really, but if I had to chose my favorite scenes, in particular I liked Bill Gorton's description of his drunken week in Vienna in chapter 8, and I thought Brett and Jake's conversation in chapter 19 was beautifully done.

* And related to the above point: the last line of this novel is pure genius.

More Whisky
Whisky Prajer comments on this book here, here and here.  (Did I miss anything?)
And, if I could be forgiven for stealing his analysis, I thought this quote was good:

I still love Hemingway — there are at least two-dozen short stories I’m very fond of (including “Homage”) and even a novel (The Sun Also Rises). I’m also familiar with Hemingway-induced dis-ease, particularly when it comes to The Sun Also Rises. The patent anti-Semitism cannot be overlooked; it’s a rotten impulse, to say the least, but Hemingway indulges it to deliberately position the Abrahamic religious-moral code as obsolete and vexatious. It’s the same code, of course, that provides the framework for Christianity and Islam, but it was the current norm to pick on the Jews — an easy and “acceptable” target. Hemingway sometimes had trouble resisting the easy target.
So, yes: loving Hemingway does take effort.

Book Club Notes

For whatever they may or may not be worth, here's some of the chatter from our book club Facebook page.  (Some of these posts cover ground that I've already covered in the main review above.  But for the sake of completeness, I'm going to include everything here.)

July 4, 2017--I Posted
The next book is The Sun Also Rises.
We're picking up the pace on this one slightly to accommodate people's schedules, so aim to have it finish on the 25th. (So 3 weeks instead of the usual 4). Fortunately it's on the short side. Only about 250 pages in the normal paperback edition. Thomas has agreed to try to find an electronic copy, and I'll aim to make print copies on Friday. Let me know who wants a copy.

July 13, 2017--I Posted
I'm following my usual practice of using the audio book to review the parts I've already read.
I'm finding this particularly useful for the famous Hemingway dialogue. It's interesting that the tone and intonation that the voice actor chose on the audio book is different than what I had imagined in my head.
Of course, part of the fun of Hemingway is trying to figure out what the rhythm of the dialogue is by yourself. So I wouldn't recommend the audio book for the first time through. But it's useful for reviewing the sections you've already read, and comparing what you imagined to how the voice actor interprets it.

Tom Commented:

Personally, I find these freely available audio books to always be off-puttingly read. The William Hurt version sounds good, as do most of the books he narrates.
I will see if I can upload such files to this page.

July 19, 2017--Tom Posted (Apparently quoting from something he read online)

"The Sun Also Rises sold well, and young women began to emulate Brett..."

What rot. Don't let's emulate Brett.

I Commented:

Oh be a chap, let's. Next meeting we'll all talk like Brett the whole bloody time.

July 19, 2017--I posted

by the way, for whatever it may be worth (or not be worth) here's something I wrote back in 11th grade for high school English. The assignment was to re-write a fairy tale in Hemingway's style:

A Farewell to Pork
I stood at the entrance to the three pig's house. "Little pig, won't you let me in?"
"You can't come in."
"Let me in. I'll be good."
"You can't. We won't let you in."
"Please let me in. It'll be grand."
"Won't you have some wine? Wine really is grand."
"I shall not have any until you let me in."
"We can not let you in. Let's not talk about that."
"I shall blow down the house. I really shall."
"You still can't come in. Not yet."
I took a deep breath and blew out and out and out. My breath went out swiftly, all of it. Then I breathed and it was back. Again I blew out. Then I was exhausted, and I started to cough.
From inside I heard the laughter of the pigs, and it angered me. I went to the roof to drop down the chimney, but the pigs had set a pot below me and filled it with Kummel, Cognac, and Vermouth, then set it on fire. I landed in the pot, but jumped out and fled. I felt no guilt about abandoning my supper. Although I still have several friends who eat pork, and I wish them the best of luck, it is not my show anymore.

July 19, 2017--I Posted

From Wikipedia. It turns out Hemingway's mother hated this book. Wikipedia excerpts a letter she sent to her son telling him how much his book sucked:
The critics seem to be full of praise for your style and ability to draw word pictures but the decent ones always regret that you should use such great gifts in perpetuating the lives and habits of so degraded a strata of humanity .... It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year .... What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? .... Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than "damn" and "bitch"—Every page fills me with a sick loathing.

Tom Commented:

She certainly isn't wrong in her description of his characters. At the same time, did she even know her son? Dude and his friends weren't exactly a good representation of decorum in life, so why would they be in writing?

July 19, 2017--I Posted

I didn't agree with everything here, but a very intelligent discussion of the book. They picked up on a lot of the subtleties that I had missed out on myself. 

Tom Commented:

Wait, according to Mr. Rightside we can call Vietnamese people foreigners because from our perspective they are foreign?
I Replied:

Some people do this. The Japanese, for example, will always refer to all non-Japanese people as "outside person" even when they themselves are in a foreign country. 
July 21, 2017--I Posted

food for thought:
In Lady Chatterley's Lover, the sexual act is given as the primary reason for being alive. So what to do with someone like Jake, who can no longer have sex? ...and that's why he substitutes alcohol for sex. At least that's what's hinted at in this video:

Tom Commented:

"None of us think walking on the sidewalk is a confrontation with death."
Lol, come to Saigon, buddy.

I replied:

Yeah, that part jumped out at me as well.

July 25, 2017--I posted

One last post on the previous book before we move on... this video is really fascinating:

Video Review
Video review here and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Interview | on CIA Surveillance, Vietnam, Drone Strikes, Edward Snowden, NSA 2017


Whisky Prajer said...

Great review! Funny (troubling?) how the drinking doesn't register quite as boldly with me, but I like how you frame it. Prohibition is indeed happening back home, a movement his scold of a mother is probably keen to endorse. So itemizing the drinks is a thumb in the eye for readers keen to keep up with things, but who might register on the more conservative end of the scale. (Side thought: younger gals currently taking a stab at the Great American Novel tend to make a show of being blasé about sexual experience, particularly bisexual experience. Is bisexuality this gen's alcohol?)

And as usual you've turned up some interesting videos. I'm particularly fascinated by Everybody Behaves Badly -- haven't the time to watch it in its entirety, but will definitely make a point of doing so.

Joel Swagman said...

That Everybody Behaves Badly video is long, but really interesting. Before I watched that video, I thought the events in The Sun Also Rises were loosely inspired by real life, but largely fictional. After watching that video, I'm now under the impression that The Sun Also Rises is almost entirely directly lifted from real life.

The drinking:
I got the impression that Hemingway and his friends lived in a normalized drinking culture inspite of prohibition.
But your theory is that he writes so much about drinking as a response to prohibition. I didn't think of it that way initially, but you've got me thinking now.

What do you think about The Great Gatsby? That novel was published during prohibition as well, and had a lot of booze in it? Same theory?

I used to have the impression from books like "The Great Gatsby" that most people largely ignored prohibition and went on drinking anyway. But I was researching this just now and Wikipedia says differently.

Although popular opinion believes that Prohibition failed, it succeeded in cutting overall alcohol consumption in half during the 1920s, and consumption remained below pre-Prohibition levels until the 1940s, suggesting that Prohibition did socialize a significant proportion of the population in temperate habits, at least temporarily

So this would support the idea that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were the outliers

Whisky Prajer said...

Scott probably wasn't quite as bent on thumbing his nose at Mother as Ernest was, but what do I know? I think with these guys, as with most ambitious young literary sorts, the aim was to go out to the edges and stake a claim -- "Terrible honesty" being the rallying cry for the Lost Gen.