#12: The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway

“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.

the-sun-also-rises

I didn’t like The Sun Also Rises.

I thought I would, but I didn’t. At 250 pages, I figured I’d breeze right through it, but in fact I found it a slog.

I don’t think it’s “poorly written” or “overrated” or unworthy of the critical anointing it’s received. Quite the contrary, I greatly admire Hemingway’s pioneering writing style. When you in your everyday to and fro are forced to endure an onslaught of run-on sentences and comma splices and all other manner of malformed thoughts spouting forth from the general public, Hemingway’s no-nonsense, muscular prose can be a desperately-needed tonic.

And yet, it just didn’t take.

In trying to figure out why, I go past the particulars of the novel — the loathsome characters, the relentless drinking, the antiquated social mores  — to Hemingway himself, and my own reading preferences. Since this is the only Hemingway book on the list, it seems appropriate to explore it here. In your reading life, you come across authors whose voice for whatever reason clicks with your own (the next author on the list, Philip Roth, does it for me) and some who don’t. Hemingway’s writing voice has to this point left me cold.

Which is a shame, because I’m fully on board with his narrative approach, the famous “iceberg” method explicated here*:

If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg…I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened.

Hemingway was after something wholly commendable: to leave only the bare essentials, removing anything that felt like artifice or authorial intrusion, forcing the reader to stay active and fill in the blanks himself. When it works, the approach can be powerful (see his short story “Hills Like White Elephants”), but at longer length, I feel it keeps his novel tethered to the ground, never truly taking off.

Take the novel’s celebrated final passage:

Downstairs we came out through the first-floor dining-room to the street. A waiter went for a taxi. It was hot and bright. Up the street was a little square with trees and grass where there were taxis parked. A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. I was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, ” we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t is pretty to think so?”

This is major-league writing. Besides the hauntingly beautiful dialogue, there’s a lot happening, and in true iceberg fashion, much of it is below surface level.  Only an active reader could follow the subtext (and the possible symbolism of the raised baton), and that’s a result of Hemingway’s scrupulous discipline.

But it does nothing for me.

That first paragraph is a series of short, plodding declarative sentences that would be right at home in a newspaper article (and yes, I’m aware that Jake Barnes, narrating this book, is a newspaperman). It reads to me more like stage direction than graceful prose. So again I feel myself appreciating the effort while still being kept at arm’s length.

The truth is, we come to fiction in part because we like being told good stories but also because we like who’s telling them.  Richard Price’s crime story is not the same as James Patterson’s crime story. And in that case, I think deep down we like when our favorite authors digress, indulge in some soloing, even if it’s not strictly necessary or feels excessive.  Hemingway’s prose to me in this novel has been polished and labored over to the point of sterility. There are no rough edges. But the rough edges are often where the fun is.**

I am not against austerity in fiction. Cormac McCarthy does it well, even taking the approach of eliminating most punctuation for fear of distraction. The recently-departed Elmore Leonard famously said he leaves out anything that “sounds like writing.” Their work, however, still pulses with life; McCarthy’s books fraught with tension, Leonard’s crackling with good humor.

I realize this piece reads like one long apologia for not “getting” a major American writer. That’s not the case here. I “get” Hemingway. I will eventually read more of his novels, but for now, The Sun Also Rises has to stand as the greatest disappointment on the list so far.

——-

*This is excerpted from George Plimpton’s Paris Review interview of Hemingway, which should really be read in full. It’s full of vintage Papa repartee (Q. How do you name your characters? A. The best I can.) If you, like me, enjoy reading about writing as much you like reading it, the Paris Review series is essential. And it looks great on a bookshelf.

**There is actually one part of the novel where Hemingway changes it up. It occurs on page 103 of the paperback edition, when Jake is in a cathedral and begins praying. After a hundred pages of rigorous discipline, Hemingway unspools a sentence that runs half the page, nearly 200 words. When I first read it, I felt a surge run through me. Re-reading it, though, it’s still comprised of a lot of short clauses that are connected with commas instead of periods. Not quite Coltrane, then, but the best he could do.

——-

Next up: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint!

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