Year of Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises

My second book from Ernest Hemingway this year was "The Sun Also Rises" and it surprised me quite a bit as I was coming from "A Moveable Feast" and didn't realize how potently and clearly is the prose is going to move toward generally depressing themes. However, that is overly simplistic. It is one of those stories in which people have a lot of fun but it is understood that it is all in vain and that there is no long-term happiness to be had. The euphoria is short-lived. This underlying depressing theme creates this sense of dissonance from the narrative in the foreground. This is of course a very common theme in literature and specially in man-boy movies so heavily popular in Hollywood these days.

So here is the thing - you have a bunch of young, good-looking American guys with no jobs or responsibilities, who mostly just sit around in cafes in the most beautiful city in the world, Paris, drinking, joking, fighting and generally having a very good time. They seem to have enough money for alcohol and prostitutes somehow. No one seems to have any sort of attachment to anyone or anything. It is a perfect stage of bliss. A teenage sensibility at its best.

Jake Barnes, the hero, is one such man. He is a journalist and does seem to have an actual job but it rarely comes in the way. Brett Ashley is a beautiful young, fashionable woman who hangs out with these guys. She is a modern, promiscuous woman. She is engaged to one of them, was married  to another, will sleep with really anyone but is in love only with Jake. Jake is also in love with her. So far so good.

But Jake is impotent.

Now that's the central cruel joke of the book that really stands for everything else. A classic To Have and Have Not.

If that were not enough -- the book is a blatant celebration of masculinity -- the guys fighting with each other often over women, copious drinking, the hang-outs, the prostitution and then the eventual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain at the great bullfighting festival.

A masculine novel with an impotent hero. And people are still surprised that Hemingway killed himself.

If the general sense of celebration in Paris were not enough, the expats go to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona to watch bullfighting.

Jake Barnes seems to be the only character in the novel with any real sense of honor. He understands the visceral beauty and discipline of bullfighting. He understands what makes a great matador. He understands what the real pleasure of bullfighting is. So what does he do? He corrupts the most masculine character, the young Bullfighter Romero, by taking Brett to him. Why he does this is complex and can go in as many directions as you want.

So there you have it. The young and the unambitious. Suddenly left with a void after the first great war, these men, heavily fractured by the war, find themselves left with no real purpose to leave meaningful regular lives. The war has brought disillusionment. They don't believe anything will last. They've lost the will to try.

A theme that is very popular in the western world. Every generation seems to be in some post-war period and the lack of purpose it seems to bring with it.

The Sun Also Rises is an incredibly compelling story of youth and masculinity that needs to be read by anyone interested in discovering lasting themes in modern story-telling. Written about 85 years ago, it still is thoroughly modern and would rarely be spotted as throwback if published today.