Throughout the course of reading Book I in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I kept asking the question, “Why is this damn book considered to be an American masterpiece?”
The whole beginning starts out so dully… He barely works. He eats. He drinks. He socializes. We learn about a few characters. In particular Lady Brett and Robert Cohn. He talks about how he loves Brett and so does Cohn. He complains about this and that. Then he loses his temper… professionally. Then he eats. Then he drinks.
“Okay Hemingway get on with it,” I kept saying. The only aspect of the story that really stands out is his attention to detail and precision of memory.
But still it remained dull. I kept yelling at Hemingway, “You’re in Europe! Write with some passion, you bastard!”
In Book II he and his friends take a trip to Pamplona for a weeklong fiesta. He and his friend Bill Gorton spend some time fishing in the Basque region. He describes their bus trip out there. All the men pass around wineskins and drink and talk. They make a few stops and drink more wine before arriving at their hotel. I remember thinking, “My my Hemingway, you sure do drink a lot.”
Then, being the brilliant writer that he is, he airs out all my qualms in a single conversation between he and Bill:
“… You’re an expatriate. One of the worst type. Haven’t you heard that? Nobody that ever left their own country ever wrote anything worth printing. Not even in the newspapers.”
He drank the coffee.
“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”
“It sounds like a swell life,” I said.
How can I have a problem with his story now? In a few lines he commented on all the details I found so boring.
From there, like a bull, Hemingway sticks it to me even further. He describes how he and his friends meet up in Pamplona at a hotel where the aficionados stay:
Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights… Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. When they saw that I had aficion… there was this same embarrassed putting the hand on the shoulder… It seemed as though they wanted to touch you to make it certain.
Son-of-a-bitch, Hemingway! I thought you had no passion and then you go ahead and define it for me. Unbelievable.
From here on I can do nothing but appreciate his simple and original lyricism. In its simplicity it becomes layered.
His description of Romero the matador seems to reflect his own writing style in comparison to other writers:
Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like corkscrews… to give a faked look… Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line…
But the true beauty of his writing is not in his simple straightforwardness. It is in the way he builds his story: slow and dull at first, some complaints about people and life, then as he leaves France, he gradually enters another mindset and begins to enjoy himself with fishing and drinking. By the time he arrives in Pamplona we see the normal day-to-day humdrum of life finally wear away:
The peasants were in the outlying wine-shops. There they were drinking, getting ready for the fiesta… It was necessary that they make their shifting in values gradually. They could not start in paying café prices. They got their money’s worth in the wine-shops. Money still had a definite value in hours worked and bushels of grain sold. Late in the fiesta it would not matter what they paid, nor where they bought.
And further along:
It kept up night and day for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta. All during the fiesta you had the feeling, even when it was quiet, that you had to shout any remark to make it heard. It was the same feeling about any action.
As the fiesta winds down, we witness multiple actions of rowdiness: Cohn gets into a fight with Hemingway. Cohn gets into a fight with the matador. Then he cries and cries and asks for forgiveness from those he punched and pummeled… No one cares for Cohn, so he runs off. Lady Brett runs off with the matador. The remaining characters are left to their lonesome. Hemingway brings the fiesta to a close by writing: “The three of us sat at the table, and it seemed as though six of us were missing.”
The day after the fiesta is over, the remaining three characters go their own separate ways. Hemingway takes some time to unwind back in France, but receives a message from Brett in Spain. He goes to her. When he arrives, they talk about this and that and how they love one another.
The story ends with Lady Brett saying, “…we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Hemingway answers, “Yes… Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Although the beginning and the end of the story have these blah, bleh, blasé ways about them, I have to agree, it is pretty to think of the time they could have spent together. But that’s not the point, now is it?