The Sun Also Rises--Ernest Hemingway

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Other than to acknowledge that I have read the book, it seems presumptuous on my part to make any attempt to add to the already voluminous and sometimes vitriolic field of Hemingway studies. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to record a few prejudices and impressions and let it go with that. And perhaps I should record my strongest impression up front--upon closing the covers of the book after the last page, I had the impulse to open it again and begin leafing through and rereading in whole or in part. I longed to find my old college copy so that I could mark it up in arcane ways that are not possible with a library copy.

I have never been fond of Hemingway's style nor, for the most part, of his subject matter. I don't know that much has changed in that respect. I have more patience now than I once did with the ultra-minimalism that seems at times to make the symbols stand out like boils. If one were to take this simplistically, one could read the novel as a series of parables with meaning explicated within the text (take my example of the gored steer). However, even though it is very clear when Hemingway is using an object as a symbol, and even though that symbol is often explicitly linked to a meaning, the meaning suggested in the text is not the only meaning, and there is a depth beyond the surface of a parable. It's a subtle and interesting effect.

I don't much care about the subject matter--bull-fighting and promiscuity among a set of young expatriate Americans. Oh, and let's not forget unrequited love--or requited but unconsummated and unconsummatable love. But again, what Hemingway manages in this slight novel is to give us a sense of where it began to go wrong and how. It being civilization and we being the offspring of The Lost Generation, we might refer to it as the Lost Civilization. And it comes as a somewhat gratifying surprise (or not depending on your historical perspective) that it was not the 1960s that gave it to us.

But I think the most important thing to disclose is that I enjoyed the book. Very much. Despite all of the individual things that are not to my taste--spending the time to read it carefully and properly, gave me insight into the operation of literature, and perhaps even a little insight into people.

Fiction is, to paraphrase Picasso, "the lie that tells the truth." In a way that nonfiction cannot, fiction tells the truth about eternal things. Reading great literature, real art, gives insight into that truth--a deeper insight than is possible knowing the facts about a matter. And I think that this is sometimes the most frightening and off-putting of the features and shape of fiction.

In a deep paradox one may find that one can learn more by reading the great writers of fiction (about the things that really matter) than by reading the entire psychology and sociology sections of a library. And fiction carries this advantage--it doesn't pretend to tell you how to fix things, because wise fiction knows that any fix to a situation will only bollix it up in a new way. You don't read fiction looking for solutions--if you're a student of human nature you read it to come to an understanding of what the core problem is.

And perhaps that is where Hemingway is most successful. Because so much is stripped down and laid bare, it is relatively easy to see where the problem lies. To quote another wise man, "The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves." And the problem is that it isn't a "tragic" flaw of enormous proportions--overweening pride, lust, avarice. No, for most of us, as demonstrated in Hemingway's book, the fault is in the single choices made one by one that lead us away from the center. Most of us never leap into full-fledged rebellion, rather we find ourselves outside the gates by inches--by single choices, single bad choices, made over time--one-by-one. Choices of which we choose to be unaware, but if we were to take the bearings of them, we would find send us subtly off-course. And choices that always seem at the time innocuous or even good. This is the Devil's most successful work--to transform us into martyrs of the moment and allow us to think that the errors we commit are noble sacrifices.

Interestingly, and perhaps most appealingly, it seems that most of the characters in Hemingway's book do not manage to convince themselves of their own innocence. They look at their choices and say they have no choice (a different form of deception), but they don't lie to themselves and say that the choice was good.

So, as you see, not an analysis of Hemingway, but just a note to say that I enjoyed the book despite myself, found much more in it than I could ever have done as a college student, and I recommend it to the attention of all. It is not a struggle to read and it has moments of insight that are startling--particularly when you never expected to see yourself in a book by Hemingway.

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Hi - thanks for this great and very interesting review. Just to let you know, I have linked to it in my latest post - a review of the same book. happy reading


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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 24, 2009 6:32 AM.

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