I like a glass of wine with dinner, often two. At dinner parties I’ve often somehow managed to drink a bottle of the stuff. But heading into the booze-fuelled world of France and Spain in 1926 leaves me reeling at Ernest Hemingway’s characters: it seems that none of them is ever truly sober. With prohibition in full force in the USA, Hemingway gives his characters ready access to wine and spirits, and boy, do they lap it up.
I’ll backtrack here and admit I haven’t read any Hemingway since high school, when The Old Man and The Sea was on the reading list for year 9 or 10. I enjoyed the book; I liked his easy style of writing which while economical still managed to paint memorable pictures. A sentence beautifully crafted, emotive, expressive and descriptive, would jump off the page at me and I’d sigh in admiration. Why didn’t I read any Hemingway after that? I suspect I wasn’t interested in golden age fiction at the time.
Fast forward to now and I picked up The Sun Also Rises with mixed feelings. I knew there would be bull fighting in the book and that concept makes me, an animal lover, rather edgy if not squeamish.
But from page one I was hooked. Here were wealthy expats from the US and UK, drinking their way across Europe with even more vigour than my fellow travellers on a Contiki 18-35s bus tour of the continent in 1985 (and that’s saying something). Hedonistic, uncaring of their impact on the locals, they are rude to the point of being obnoxious. You want to hate them but you find yourself intrigued by them, being drawn to them instead.
What a splash this book made when it was originally published! It polarised critics and readers. Having finally read it, and imagining the staid middle-class readers who might buy it or get it from their library in 1926, I can understand why it had the impact it did.
It’s not just the constant drinking and freedom these idle young rich people enjoy (or even disdain). Brett’s actions in particular must have horrified the matronly. Brett, Lady Ashley, is divorced and engaged, but not above having affairs with other men: Robert Kohn, whose heart she breaks, and Pedro Romero, a young bullfighter – a ravishingly pretty boy, barely twenty – with whom she runs away.
Central character Jake is also in love with Brett but wisely hides it better than Kohn or Brett’s fiancé Mike.
Hemingway’s writing is brilliant. His Paris is so real you can hear and smell it, likewise his Pamplona with the fiesta in full swing is a hymn to Spain – in fact it’s more like a love letter. The car journey across the Basque country into Spain, the bus journeys within Spain itself, you can almost smell the dust – er, and the peasants. There’s a peaceful time in the middle of the frenetic journeying, drinking and arguing when Jake and his friend Bill head off trout fishing, and the sense of serenity is palpable in contrast.
The characters converse in a languid style which was probably fairly typical of their class at the time. Jake notes that the upper class British seem to have a limited vocabulary!
There’s freedom in this book. Brett lets lust rule her, the boys drink until they are senseless, Mike, estranged from Brett at the end of the book, bankrupt and penniless, assures Jake optimistically he’ll wander across the south of France and find some credit. (Actually Mike is a bit of a sad bastard… I think Brett could do better.)
I have no doubt professional critics will find a lot more in the book than I did; symbolism and themes and so on. I read for pleasure; I either like a book or I don’t. I don’t read to find hidden meanings nor do I belong to a book club where books and their characters are dissected into minute particles. For me The Sun Also Rises was about free spirits (no, not the kind in a glass, the characters paid for those), and it details beautifully an exciting time in exciting places. It is so engagingly written that I didn’t skip the bull fights but admired Hemingway’s choreographical descriptions of them.
While it’s very much a product of its time in terms of attitude and language (the word n*gg*r is used but not as an insult, as an everyday noun) this book is a worthy time capsule and very much worth reading, for Hemingway’s prose as much as the tale itself.