I have a soft-spot for the Lost Generation, and a sentimental attachment to The Sun Also Rises. While plenty of this novel- and his writing in general- has aged poorly, there is still value to be found. Hemingway was plenty of things as both an author and a man, but here I will choose to focus on the story and the broken people within- and the story of my attachment to this book.
My first read was back in high school; I didn’t remember much- mostly because I did not pay much attention. I read it because I had to, and remembered just enough to write an exam.
My second reading took place a decade ago; it was the summer of 2010 and I was living and working in Athens during the Greek economic crisis. Men with machine guns stood on every corner, Anarchists battled the police every night, and the wine was cold, cheep, and plentiful. I found it romantic as all hell, as I was a 23 year old idiot. I was also engaged in a doomed romance with a Greek man, who was charming and interesting and…loved Hemingway. We traded books on my last night in the country; I gave him my copy of Cat’s Cradle, and he gave me his copy of The Sun Also Rises. He wrote a lovely goodbye on the title page; what I wrote in his was well meaning but certainly ridiculous. I waited until I’d arrived back in Vermont before devouring the book; and I loved it. I read it several times in my first few books left; Brett and Jake’s impossible relationship resonated deeply, and I was smitten with both the story and with him. I saw him a few years later and everything had changed. I read the book again a decade later- now to be specific- and what do you know, THINGS HAVE CHANGED!
In the decade since last picking up this piece I have read almost all of Hemingway’s catalog, as well as countless biographies and slices of life. I’ve read fictionalized accounts of his early days, watched Midnight In Paris the day it came out (Woody Allen is a monster, and I do not engage with any of his work anymore, but Cory Stahl made an excellent Hemingway), and ate up HBO’s mini series about his relationship with Martha Gellhorn (which I also did not re-watch as it was just…not good). I also forgot almost everything about the story, other than Jake, Brett, bullfights, and cooling bottles of wine in a river.
Things were different this time around; first and foremost- I am older! I can’t claim to be wiser, but I can say that I am mighty critical of my own past. I am also now the age of the characters within. What seemed romantic but doomed is now just depressing and tragic. Jake, Brett, and the rest are broken people unaware of how broken they are. Sure, they nurse their physical wounds, but this whole generation- characters and writers together- had no idea how to even label the psychological wounds that would haunt them until the ends of their days. It’s still astonishing that World War I left survivors, and even more astonishing that those survivors re-entered society (some in much better shape than others).
The messy cast of characters here are a sorry lot, mostly unaware of their own abilities to destroy themselves and everyone around them. They are all drunk, callous, careless, and mean. They’re spiteful with each-other, cruel to women, awful to Jews, and terrible to all of the local people that they encounter as they bash their way through Europe. They’re rude, entitled, and utterly unaware of their surroundings. They are also unaware of the effect of trauma on the lives of themselves and others, but that does not excuse their bigotry and moral failures. Being that this piece was written in 1926, there is TONS of content that would not fly today. It is certainly not the only book that is full of language and ideas that did not age well, but I was utterly (but naively) shocked on this go round; I chose to relive it through audio book and I was NOT PREPARED (again, that’s on me) to hear the n-word excitably exclaimed a good dozen times in one conversation. YIKES! It was repeated by a character who is particularly drunk and awful, but still – NOT OK!
Speaking of the audio book, my edition was read by William Hurt, which was a deciding factor in choosing the audio over the written (that and I am happily married now, and do not need to revisit the romantic inscription). His performance added so much to Hemingway’s stark language; his individual characters popped brightly against each other, and even when they were slinging anti-antisemitism and praising violence against animals and other humans, he imbued them with a level of empathy that I did not find on the page. His accent work is…something. Mike’s Scottish drawl was a hoot, Brett’s aristocratic English was droll, and Jake’s All-American growl absolutely shone- but his French was truly bizarre. The accents given to French characters worked, but his-over-the-top French pronunciation in Jake’s mouth was beyond silly. He made some CHOICES with Spanish characters as well, and while everything did not work out entirely, I do appreciate the level of performance Hurt gave to the role. It was clear that he knew the text well, felt for the characters, and challenged himself to outside of his normal comfort zone. Bill, the biggest blowhard of them all, was put into a fine perspective by Hurt; while the character is still a dreadful drunk bigot, Hurt’s performance made him more than just a manic caricature.
There is plenty wrong with this book, but there is still plenty to find moving. I will revisit it again in another decade, and I look forward to new ideas, changed opinions, and the impact of my place in life on the impact on this story once again.
On another note, this marks off two more “Bingos” (Red, How To, UnCannon, The Roaring 20s, Music AND The Roaring 20s, Pandemic, Friendship, Green, and I Wish)