Novel * Ernest Hemingway * WWI Sure Was A Bummer, Huh? * 1926
You wouldn’t think such a slight, breezy novel could be so exhausting to read, but here we are. That’s Hemingway for you though. Pretty much everything the dude ever wrote is deceptively efficient. I recall an English teacher from long ago who introduced Hemingway as a writer who mastered the simplicity of language. I half-expected to find myself reading some kind of elementary school phonics primer, except with more booze and angst. About halfway through whatever text it was (in all likelihood, it was “Big Two-Hearted River,” a story I remember reading even though I could tell you nothing about the story itself, other than it concerned fishing), I registered a small amount of shock over there being complex sentences. I didn’t come here for commas, buddy. A little while longer and I mastered my disappointment over not getting a super-cinchy story to read. While at the time I was bored out of my face reading Hemingway, I still managed to appreciate his use of language.
Here we are, many years and a couple of degrees later, and that’s still my main takeaway from Hemingway. Understanding the context of his writing helps immensely, but the stories he tells tend to be quite understated. His prose is trim and efficient, but not clipped or fragmented. He only ever says exactly what he means to say. Hemingway’s images are crisp and clear, and the dialogue is brisk and to the point. The thing to remember as a reader is to not be deceived by the overt simplicity of the language. In order to get anything out of these stories, Hemingway expects you to put in your fair share of work. Actually, Hemingway could give a fuck what you do, he wrote a story, take it or leave it, he’s got rum to drink and rhinos to kill. Still, if you’re looking for meaning (or lack thereof), you need to look at the subtext.
The Sun Also Rises is a novel about very little, but which still manages to speak volumes about a certain time and place. Really, not many things happen. It’s about a loose association of friends and acquaintances who drink together in Paris in the mid-1.920’s. All of these people are kind of awful. Not like evil, or anything like that. They’re just drunk, and obnoxious, and flighty. The entire time these people are acting like they’re a bunch of college freshmen, but eventually it becomes clear that they’re all in their early to middle 30’s, which makes it all just so much worse. Anyway, all these expatriate goofs decide that they’re going to take a vacation down to Spain. They fish, and drink, and watch some bullfights, and drink, and drink, and fight, and drink, and then they leave. And drink some more.
The narrator, Jake Barnes, is our window into this scene. It’s not entirely clear how or why any of these people are friends, but they all do share a history. Jake is friends with this dip named Robert Cohn. The contempt Jake has for Cohn is clear pretty much from the very first page, but it only grows over the course of the novel. Jake is very bitter. This stems from a war injury which has left his man-bits inoperable. In every other facet Jake is the picture of health, but he simply cannot perform in the bedroom. This obviously puts a damper on his love life. It doesn’t help that he’s hopelessly in love with the Lady Brett Ashley, the 20’s flapper version of the manic pixie dream girl.
Brett kind of sucks, but then so does everyone else so whatever. She’s drunk most of the time anyway, and is a hopeless hedonist. She flits from party to party, and has the occasional affair with whoever suits her mood at any given time. Everyone in the story is seemingly in and out of love with her at some point. She’s planning on marrying some goof, Mike, who is bankrupt and resoundingly drunk for most of the story. Brett doesn’t have a real reason to marry Mike, and it’s unlikely anything will ever come of that pairing, but that’s who she’s hooking up with in Spain. Of course, she professes love for Jake. And she had that one-off affair with Cohn. Then she hooks up with a bullfighter. The point is she doesn’t know what she wants, none of the idiot dudes in her orbit know what they want, and it’s all kind of a hopeless mess, then it’s over.
With a few exceptions, most Modernist literature is not explicitly about World War I. It’s rarely even mentioned. Yet every single work of art produced during this period was in one way or another affected by it. Some novels, like Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, go to great lengths to talk around it. Others, like Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier come at the conflict from a civilian viewpoint. Because of America’s limited involvement in the war, American authors are even further distanced from the actual violence. Of course a guy like Hemingway found a way to get into the action. For his part, he was an ambulance driver on the Italian front. If the implication isn’t clear, Hemingway saw some rough shit. World War I was the first instance of total, mechanized war. The sheer scale of the violence humans could inflict on each other with the tools of the machine age was unprecedented, and Hemingway saw first-hand what those instruments of destruction could do to the human body. Then, he experienced it himself by being a little too near a mortar blast. It’s fair to say that these experiences were probably on his mind while writing.
The Sun Also Rises is not about World War I. But it also kind of is, because the shadow of that apocalyptic event lurks in the heart of every character here. Jake Barnes is the only person present with a physical affliction, but everyone else clearly bares the psychic scars of either the raw experience of fighting, or the social aftershocks. Brett, obviously, wasn’t in a trench. Yet the conflict rocked the foundations of social conventions and constructs, giving birth to the Roaring Twenties I’m sure you’ve heard so much about. The basic idea is that in the wake of such unprecedented death and destruction, just a vast swath of an entire generation, there was little point in hewing to the old ways. Or put another way, it’s the same social conventions and constructs that led to all the death and destruction in the first place, so to hell with all that noise. Let’s all get drunk, and then everyone gets laid.
That’s the Lost Generation in a nutshell. The young survivors of the war were suddenly cast back out into society and told to fit right in. The sheer, unmitigated trauma experienced by these people was ignored. After all, the war was over, what are you worrying about? Obviously, it doesn’t work like that. Trauma, be it physical, mental, or emotional, and in the case of war all three at once, sticks around. It manifests itself in insidious and long lasting ways. Individuals react differently, of course, but Western society as a whole acted as if it had come down with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The aftermath of the war was an upheaval of values and structure. Many people with direct experience, the soldiers, were as lost as those who died. I mean, look at these people in this story. They’re in their 30’s acting like they just turned 20, with their ridiculous affairs and the copious, obnoxious public intoxication. But man, what else do they have? The war kicked the legs out from under everything, what is in these pages is an extended coping mechanism.
Also, let’s not forget that the complete and total reevaluation of social mores and conventions was not a bad thing. Retuning to Lady Brett Ashely, who is probably the central figure of the story, we get a clear image of how things were changing for the better in many cases. Now, Hemingway is a notorious misogynist. Shortly after he was grievously wounded, he fell in love with a nurse, who later broke his heart. That was one trauma too many, I suppose, because he never quite forgave the entire gender. This is stupid, and makes Hemingway kind of stupid. Knowing this, it would have been all too easy to make Brett an unflattering figure of scorn. She is not. What she is, however, is a representation of the new woman of the age. Let’s get right to it: Brett likes to drink and fuck, in that order. She does both pretty much nonstop throughout the novel, and at no point does anyone shame her for it.
For 1926, the notion that a woman could control her own desires and lead her own life according to her own whims was a radical one. To his credit, Hemingway understood and tacitly approves of this change. If Brett comes off as unpleasant, it’s because of her detachment. Hemingway isn’t here to judge her for enjoying the pleasures of booze and sex. If there’s any judgement to be made, it’s her flightiness and inability to exercise any control over her impulses. Most of the other characters have these same flaws, so she doesn’t exactly stand out in this regard. Her fiancé is a total waste of space, but he’s fun in a lewd, drunk kind of way. Cohn is a complete toolbox, a hopeless romantic who equated sex with love, and can’t comprehend Brett in any meaningful fashion. The only person who comes close to understanding her is Jake, who is obviously frustrated because they love each other but can’t consummate this love. For a lady like Brett, that’s a deal-breaker.
There are a few moments in The Sun Also Rises where the subtext becomes text, where the story of all these drunk nimrods aligns with the traumatic experience of the war. The most glaring example would be Jake’s debilitating war wound, which of course colors Jake’s relationship with Brett. There’s another example, however, from when Jake is getting hammered with his obnoxious friends and makes the following observation:
“It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”
First of all, the elegance of that prose makes me sick. He’s doing nothing fancy at all and still evokes all kinds of things. Bastard. Anyway, this passage accomplishes a few things. First, it creates a direct link in Jake’s mind with the war and its aftermath. Secondly, it establishes that alcohol is a necessary tool to deal with both active and past trauma. Third, once the link between past and present is established, he contrasts these things to simultaneously undermine and elevate the situation. The “ignored tension” of a world war means “we could die tomorrow” whereas the tension at the current dinner party is for lower stakes. Yet for Jake, the frustration at not being able to control either the direction of the war in the past, or the direction of his heart in the present, is pretty much the same. So the answer: booze. After self-medicating, well, even these directionless, obnoxious louts seem like okay folks.
Okay, I could write about this for much, much longer but I’m going to call it here. I thought I might talk about the pastoral fishing scenes as contrasted with all the interpersonal conflict, but maybe another time. I didn’t even mention the bullfighting, which is kind of why everyone is in Spain to begin with. It’s fine. One thing I would like to do, however, is present the last line of the novel, because it is right up there with the all-time greats. For context, at the end of the fiesta, the party breaks up. Brett runs off with a sexy young matador, Jake heads up the coast for some me-time, and everyone else fucks off. I don’t know, they’re not terribly important. Anyway, things go predictably sideways for Brett. This is to say she kicks the matador to the curb because he wanted to be married and for her to grow her hair out and whatever, she was bored with him. So she calls up old, dependable, friend-zoned Jake for help. Which, of course, he does. The book ends with them riding off together, thusly:
“’Oh Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so.’”
That is so understated and perfect I don’t even know what to do. Fuck you, Hemingway, maybe someday I’ll buy you a whisky in hell.