The Good Life and The War

To be honest I didn't like The Sun Also Rises at first: it was a bore. The part about Paris was a bore. It was all about the hullaballoo of Parisian expat life, with Jake Barnes in the middle of it all. I noticed that  in this book Hemingway is indulgent in his writing. I've never seen his writing as indulgent and as drunk: it's all about dinner, apertifs, fines and wines, and then there's Lady Brett Ashley and the friends Jake has--characters which didn't really stick much, both in the narrative (they all come and go) and in the characterization as well.

At some point I tried not to mind about the names, since maybe it was not about their names, or their professions, or the character in general. I tried not knowing if it's Mike or Harris or Bill. I began to read it as an exercise Hemingway wanted to do, writing about his interests, from bull-fighting to drinking to fishing. He wanted to write it as simple as possible, without much poignant details, adverbs or colorful turn-of-phrases. The sentences are flat, unadorned, but nevertheless effective.

When he writes about his interests, that's where the prose glimmers: they have the best and the most incisive details, and they are almost unforgettable. During the excursion to Pamplona for the Festival of San Fermin, the book becomes magnetic. The scenes become festive and rowdy despite the rather sparing sentences. Squabbles began, and the bull-fighting began. Dialogues were better.

As one of his earlier novels, Hemingway has already mastered writing his sentences here. He has already developed the skill on how to handle their weight, impact and finality. Knowing that his reader expects something at the end of a chapter, he manipulates the dialogue and tries to make it abrupt.

In one of the earlier scenes in Pamplona during the fiesta, Mike had been drinking too much after his lover, Brett, went away with this 19-year old matador, Romero. To put it simply, she was fascinated with Romero's passion for bullfighting.[1] Bill and Jake have just left Mike's room, and is overhearing Mike's orders to the chambermaid.

He rang the bell and the chambermaid came and knocked at the door.
"Bring up half a dozen bottles of beer and bottle of Fundador," Mike told her.
"Si, senorito."
"I'm going to bed," Bill said. "Poor old Mike. I had a hell of a row about him last night."
"Where? At that Milano place?"
"Yes. There was a fellow there that had helped pay Brett and Mike out of Cannes, once. He was damned nasty."
"I know the story."
"I didn't. Nobody ought to have a right to say things about Mike."
"That's what makes it bad."
"They oughtn't to have any right. I wish to hell they didn't have any right. I'm going to bed."
"Was anybody killed in the ring?"
"I don't think so. Just badly hurt."
"A man was killed outside in the runway."
"Was there?" said Bill. [p. 208]
There's the wonderful realization-cum-interruption in Paris, when Cohn was with his wife.

"Yes, about my going to England. Oh, Jake! I forgot to tell you. I'm going to England."
"Isn't that fine!"
"Yes, that's the way it's done in the very best families Robert's sending me. He's going to give me two hundred pounds and then I'm going to visit friends. Won't it be lovely? The friends don't know about it, yet."
She turned to Cohn and smiled at him. He was not smiling now.
"You were only going to give me a hundred pounds, weren't you, Robert? But I made him give me two hundred. He's really very generous. Aren't you, Robert?"
I do not know how people could say such terrible things to Robert Cohn. There are people to whom you could not say insulting things. They give you a feeling that the world would be destroyed, would actually be destroyed before your eyes, if you said certain things. But here was Cohn taking it all. Here it was, all going on right before me, and I did not ever feel an impulse to try and stop it." [pp. 55-56]
The interruption on the dialogue between Cohn and his wife makes me think that this is one of Hemingway's truest voice, to the point that I've already intuited that this is a roman a clef. For its conviction it's natural to confuse the voice of Jake Barnes with Hemingway's, not only because of this authorial intervention, but because Jake, the narrator, and Hemingway, thinks the same thought at the same time. It's rational and very detached ("and I did not ever feel an impulse to try and stop it"), and it was refreshing to read from his usual stories.

This interruption signaled a great barrage of confrontations Frances made that day towards Cohn, almost all of them cloaked in sarcasm. ("Well, I suppose that we that live by the sword shall perish by the sword. Isn't that literary, though? You want to remember that for your next book, Robert." [p. 57])

In this list of scathing reviews from book reviewers in Amazon, the review for this book rings somehow rings true, but it disregards the context. Note that this is written in the 1920s and that Hemingway had just come out of the First World War, and it's a time of much needed realization on what to do next. It may be a stretch to say that the context can clearly be something of a post-traumatic disorder (rendering Jake "impotent" throughout the book, for example) after being in the front lines of war, but somehow, the plot being secure and happy-go-lucky life drives these characters nuts, I think it's a good assertion. It's not a downright disturbing book, but with each character's loss of direction comes the realization that maybe something beyond the text--something left unsaid, something within the bigger context of things--should have disturbed them.

[1] Somewhere in those chapters set in Pamplona, there's a lengthy and very passionate explanation on Romero's exceptional handling and skill, which reads like a criticism coming from an enthusiast like Hemingway.