Either you love him or you hate him. But there’s no denying that Ernest Hemingway pioneered the most revolutionary changes in 20th-century English prose. Discarding needless adjectives, echoing the cadences of hard-boiled journalism, leaving out as much from his narratives as he left in, he created a lean, muscular, declarative voice, which reached its peak early, in 1926, with the publication of his masterpiece, “The Sun Also Rises.”
Determined to write one true sentence after another, Hemingway trimmed away the fat of 19th-century fiction, honing in on action and dialogue, the force of the present moment, the unspoken undercurrents of his characters’ psyches, their sodden sadness as members of the Lost Generation, wandering aimlessly – but freely – in the shadows of World War I.
He expended no superfluous word in his storytelling, insinuating more meanings than he expressed. His trademark tension between the surface play of language and its undetected depths (especially where his beloved Spain, “the last good country,” was concerned) spawned a stylistic energy that never faltered – sparse and compelling, incisive and intense.
Most readers by now are familiar with the main themes of “The Sun Also Rises.” The novel follows a group of American and British expatriates who play out a modern tragedy in three acts: the cafe society of 1920s Paris, a fishing trip on the Irati River in northern Spain and the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, famous for its running of the bulls and its endless rounds of bullfighting.
Through the exploits and self-indulgences of this unlikely cast of characters, Hemingway shapes an ecstatic, Dionysian drama of impotence and death. Of innocence and seduction. Of artifice and nature. Of love lost and authenticity forever out of reach.
Now, nearly 90 years after the book’s publication, Scribner has produced a handsome, authoritative version of the novel with a foreword by Hemingway’s son, Patrick, and an introduction by his grandson, Sean, along with appendices of early drafts, deleted chapters and other supplementary material from the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library – all of which shows Hemingway’s obsessive, sometimes feverish rewriting in search of le mot juste .
He started the novel, his first, on his birthday in 1925 and finished it two months later, filling notebook after notebook at a furious pace. Published in October 1926, the book has never been out of print and has been hailed by critics as his finest work.
Ostensibly a love story between the narrator, Jake Barnes, an American newspaper correspondent in Paris rendered impotent by a wound from World War I, and Lady Brett Ashley, a stylish, twice-divorced femme fatale, the novel explores the inevitable emptiness of their loneliness together. Their love proves hopeless, of course, symbolic of the alienation and angst of the Lost Generation, its horizon of faith shrunken, its moral compass shattered.
The problem is that Lady Ashley attracts all manner of men, including an unwitting 19-year-old matador who falls for her charms, only to be severely beaten by another suitor. Throughout, Barnes tries to stay afloat in drink – as do most of the members of the rich, “rotten” circle from which he remains the hard-working outsider.
His coolly objective point of view propels the story’s action. And at the center of it stands the ritual of the bullfight, of which he is an aficionado. He tries to introduce the others to the primal thrill of the fight (something that subsequent generations have condemned). But little do they know that the heart of the corrida holds the hidden dynamic of their existence: warding off the nada of death (in drink, deception, jealousy and rage) to triumph, all too briefly, as a master of fate.
Perhaps only Barnes comes closest to understanding this dynamic, but his final scene with Lady Ashley (who has ruined his reputation with his Spanish aficionados) sounds as cynical as it is wise.
They could have been good together, she tells him. And as the taxi they’re riding in slows down, pressing her against him, he answers, “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
What isn’t pretty is the unrelenting pressure of the age, its disillusion and dissolution, its desperate quest for the courage to be. One respite from it comes in the form of the fishing trip in the Spanish Pyrenees, what critic Harold Bloom called an oasis of the novel. For Hemingway, nature held out the promise of healing and redemption, as he so brilliantly depicted in his classic short story “Big Two-Hearted River.”
Free from the gossipy artifice of cafe life in Montparnasse, in touch with the guileless world of the Spanish peasant, Barnes and his friend Bill Gorton drink deeply from the Irati River’s currents of solitude and solace.
As a counterpoint to the boozy, carefree atmosphere of Europe’s greatest city, the fishing trip sets the stage for the exhilaration and revelry of the festival in Pamplona, its dark celebrations, its intricate dance of death.
How much does the supplemental material enhance this sensibility? I think primarily by showing how right Hemingway’s final decisions were. Concentrated and highly charged, held in check by the artistic ethos he described in detail in “A Moveable Feast,” the novel strikes not a single false note. It has endured for almost a century because of Hemingway’s success in conveying the pursuit of a culture of deep experience, of the fiesta sense of life, however fleeting and evanescent it may be.
Love him or hate him, Hemingway has earned his place in the pantheon, as Bloom put it. And if he is to be remembered for only one novel, let it be this one, the masterwork of a 26-year-old writer in full command of his gift.