CBR15 BINGO: Sex, because people are having casual sex in this book, except for Jake because. . .ya know. It has been banned and challenged because of its focus on sex (in addition to general debauchery).
“You’re an expatriate, you’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”
That sums up The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s 1926 roman à clef, so well that I’m honestly not sure what to add to that quote. The characters are all disillusioned, disaffected, and disenchanted (lots of dissing going on). They talk, they hang out in cafés, they have sex, they talk about having sex, but mostly they drink, and I mean a lot. In one scene, three characters consume three bottles of champagne before heading out to a bar to really tie one on. The amount of liquor they consume would kill a bull (more on bull killing in a bit).
The story is narrated by Jake Barnes, a journalist living in Paris. He spends his time with fellow American Robert Cohn, whom nobody likes all that much and not just because he is Jewish (though that does seem to be a factor), buddy Bill Gorton, and British socialite Lady Brett Ashley. The scenes between Jake and Brett are en fuego, but their lust remains unconsummated due to a wound Jake sustained in the war that left him impotent. Brett doesn’t let that stop her from having dalliances with Cohn, her fiancé Mike, and a young, studly bullfighter named Pedro Romero; yet, she’s always drawn back to Jake. (“I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have,” Jake reminisces.)
This novel is a study of dissatisfied characters wandering through life looking for something that will make them temporarily happy, or at least numb the pain. (“Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy.”) At one point, Jake and Bill go fishing in Bayonne, France, to kill time before meeting up with the rest of their friends in Pamplona. Those days in Bayonne represent the most peaceful, closest-thing-to-happy these characters experience, before plunging into the decadence that Pamplona offers. One wishes they could be satisfied enough to stay there and forgo the bullfighting adventure.
Speaking of which, damn Hemingway to hell for making bullfighting sound romantic. I’m disgusted by the practice but can see how, under the influence of his words, it can be interpreted as noble. I hold Hemingway personally responsible for every middle-aged man who goes through a mid-life crisis and decides that running with the bulls in Pamplona is the key to securing his virility. While I’m at it, I should probably mention that this novel includes some pretty blatant anti-semitism, an occasional dip into racism, and a dash of homophobia as well.
Gertrude Stein coined the term “Lost Generation” to describe the disaffected souls who fought in World War I, survived the Spanish flu, and responded by living it up in the Roaring Twenties, but Hemingway became the spokesperson. He was considered the voice of a generation back when that kind of title held some gravitas.
I went into this novel a little uncertain because, when it comes to the Lost Generation, I’ve always been more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan. Perhaps the passage of years has attuned me to the subtleties of Hemingway’s writing. As a dramatic realist, he rarely embellishes the prose, allowing the reader, instead, to interpret what’s not said as much as what is. Hemingway’s experience as a journalist is apparent in this novel (ironically, the other characters don’t consider Jake a real writer because he’s just a newspaperman).
I enjoyed this novel of lost souls pondering the life they “might have had.” Hemingway may have been a classic toxic male, but damn if he didn’t know how to write. Maybe in an alternate timeline he’s a sensitive guy who can still tell a story. Isn’t it pretty to think so?