It’s odd how my memory works, or rather, doesn't work. I first read this novel in about 1976. The only thing I remembered about that first reading was that I didn’t like the book very much. I assumed that a rereading, albeit many years later, would trigger some memory of what I’d read before. But no, that file had been completely deleted from my memory bank.
A second reading was prompted by my fascination with the life and times of the Lost Generation. This, Hemingway’s first novel, is iconic of that period, focusing on the lives of American expatriates in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. The work prompted Lost Generation tourism, as young Americans flocked to the bars and restaurants in Paris frequented by Hemingway, his friends and the characters in his novel. The novel also romanticised the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona and Spanish bullfighting generally. The Sun also Rises
is in part a roman à clef
, with the characters based on real people and the events in the novel based on what happened during a trip to Pamplona in 1925. In the central character, Jake Barnes, Hemingway portrayed himself, albeit with a quite different war injury. Robert Cohn is the fictional equivalent of writer Harold Loeb, whose affair with Lady Duff Twysden – the novel’s Lady Brett Ashley - enraged Hemingway, who fancied her himself. Hemingway set out to humiliate Loeb when the group was in Pamplona. In the manner in which Hemingway portrayed Robert Cohn in the novel, he humiliated Loeb all over again. According to Hemingway’s biographer Kenneth S Lynn, this affected Loeb for the rest of his life.
Ernest Hemingway (left), with Harold Loeb, Lady Duff Twysden (in hat), Hadley Hemingway, Donald Ogden Stewart (obscured), and Pat Guthrie (far right - Lady Duff Twysden's lover, who is Mike Campbell in the novel) at a café in Pamplona in July 1925.
I find the autobiographical aspects of the novel particularly interesting, although they don’t show Hemingway the man in a good light. Hemingway the writer is much more impressive. I love the fragmented cubist narrative style of the work. As with a cubist painting, the novel’s themes and meaning emerge through the putting together of its individual pieces. Each of the characters is in effect dealing with the horrors of World War I, although this is not overtly what the novel is about. In describing the post-war generation, Hemingway explores issues of sexual identity, masculinity, communication and authenticity. The complex simplicity of the prose is also astounding: the short, simple sentences and the repeated words and phrases give it a musical, poetic quality. I also love the interlude in the mountains between the Paris and the Pamplona scenes. This part of the novel demonstrates Hemingway’s ability to describe landscape in a way which makes a reader feel and not just see the scenes he paints. And I love Hemingway’s ability to evoke the Paris I know and the Pamplona I don’t know with such precision and economy.
On a second reading there are still things I don’t like about the novel. A significant proportion of it consists of somewhat tedious action and conversations, both of which follow a particular pattern. The characters drink a lot, then they bicker, then they’re hung over. Afterwards they talk about how much they drank, what they bickered about and how bad their hangovers are. Repeat ad infinitum. The anti-Semitic comments about Robert Cohn and the anti-homosexual comments are annoying, although they reflect common attitudes in the 1920s. What I dislike most about the novel is the bull fighting. I know that Hemingway was passionate about bull fighting, I understand that in the novel bull fighting operates as a symbol of authenticity and nobility and reflects and anticipates some of the actions of the characters. However, I can’t get past the fact that bull fighting is about killing animals for entertainment. Maybe I would react differently if I were Spanish, but I’m not Spanish and Hemingway’s glorification of the activity repels me.
I listened to an audiobook edition of the novel narrated by William Hurt. In general terms I like Hurt as an actor. His performance narrating this novel is good in parts. He is great with the male American characters, particularly Jake Barnes. In edition, Hurt clearly speaks good French and his pronunciation of French words and phrases is excellent. Otherwise, accents are not Hurt’s strong suit. His English accent for Brett Ashley is awful, his Scottish accent for Mike Campbell is all over the place and his Greek, German and Spanish accents all sound pretty much the same. Although I’m glad that I listened to an audiobook – listening rather than re-reading often makes me like books I haven’t liked first time around – I can only recommend this particular audiobook to very tolerant listeners.
It’s hard for me to rate this novel. Hemingway’s prose and the innovative narrative style impress me and the autobiographical aspects of the novel interest me. Other aspects of the novel I find significantly less compelling. In addition, while I was intellectually engaged by Hemingway’s writing, I was not particularly moved by it. As important as the novel is as an example of modernist literature, I would’ve liked it better if I’d been able to respond to it on an emotional basis. Consequently, the rating fits in at somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. My lovely friend Jemidar read this novel as I listened to it and I am, as always, glad to have shared the experience with her.