erik lundegaard

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The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

This is my first reading of The Sun Also Rises since I graduated from the University of Minnesota more than ten years ago. Not much stuck with me back then. The main character, Jake Barnes, I remembered had been shot during the war and left impotent, and I knew the novel was about rich and aimless expatriates in France and Spain, and there was some kind of camping trip — a walk through the woods to go fishing — and I remembered the novel's last line and the juxtaposition of the epigraphs, but that's about it. Even the walk through the woods I got wrong. I thought someone who wasn't properly masculine was tagging along, someone who was making too much noise. Instead it's just Jake and Bill who both know what they're doing. Maybe the tagger-alonger was me.

Here's what I love about Hemingway ten years after college: the way the mood of his dialogues is revealed intrinsically within the dialogue. He doesn't resort to adjectives and adverbs the way other writers do. Anyone who writes knows how rare this is. Perhaps modern writers are so adverb-happy because they have less confidence in themselves or their audience. Sometimes, most of the time, Hemingway doesn't even give us who said what.

I love the reserved tone of the prose, which seems to stand back from events and allows the reader to cast what judgements they may. In the beginning of the novel I was proud of Jake Barnes. The scene where he leaves a fifty-franc note for his date, the French barfly, only if she asks for him is one of the classier acts I've read. Yet by the end of the book he disappointed me greatly. Robert Cohn is a pejorative character, at least through the eyes of the other expatriates, and yet the way he condemns Jake for arranging the meeting between Brett and the bullfighter — calling him a pimp — is the exact word that came to my mind. Jake loves Brett but cannot love her because of his injury. So how does he show his love? By pimping for her. Is anything sadder than this? Plus the fact that by arranging the get-together Jake loses the respect of Montoya, the proprietor of the hotel they're staying at. Montoya is his fellow bull-fighting aficionado, and though he doesn't say so, one gets the feeling this relationship means a lot to Jake. What else does Jake have? He has his work and he has his play: fishing, watching bullfights. There may be other things. But he cannot hope for a long-lasting relationship; he cannot hope for marriage. Life is an attempt to maintain his equilibrium — such as the scene, after the bullfights, when he returns to San Sebastian and swims in the ocean and sleeps and reads, and tries to restore some aspect of himself that was lost in the fiestas.

How sad when Montoya first shows his disapproval! How cutting when Montoya ignores Jake altogether. Can Jake ever return to his hotel? It seems unlikely. And does Brett realize this? Does she realize what Jake has sacrificed for her?

Of all the expatriates with all their faults she comes off worst. Mike is a drunk who has never worked a day in his life and leaves a trail of debts wherever he goes. Bill is the tough, ironic clown, a little obtuse, and a whole lot anti-Semitic. All of them are anti-Semitic — condemning Cohn for his Jewish superiority. Was Hemingway himself an anti-Semite, a homophobe and a racist? The only term he uses for black people is nigger. The word jumps out at you. "The nigger drummer waved at Brett... He was all teeth and lips." The fact that the usage is casual makes it seem all the more troublesome. One gets a good sense of the ethnic hatreds of the upper-classes in 1920s Europe; one senses future Fascism here, and why the rest of the world was so shocked by what the Germans did during World War II. The Holocaust wasn't divorced from the rest of us; it was merely our own ethnic hatreds taken to the extreme. We saw ourselves in the Nazis.

Yet of all these characters Brett still comes off worst. She is engaged to one man (Mike) but professes love for another (Jake). She then sleeps with a third (Cohn). When all four plus Bill head down to Spain, she becomes enamored of a 19 year-old bullfighter and abandons her men to sleep with him. He cuts off the ear of a bull and gives it to her, but she leaves it, wrapped in Jake's handkerchief, in a hotel drawer. She is careless and sloppy. As events unfold one wonders how Mike or Jake can stand it and eventually one realizes they can't. They drink all the time for a reason. Still Hemingway manages to convey why we might fall in love with Brett, too. He doesn't describe her physically — beyond the short hair — so one conjures her up oneself. I love this small scene: "Brett wanted to dance but they did not want her to. They wanted her as an image to dance around." This is part of the reason we fall in love with her.

Where does Hemingway fail? In moving from place to place he can be dull. But who cares in a book this good.

—February 27, 1999

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard