For a novel considered to be Hemingway’s finest, The Sun Also Rises leaves a lot to be desired.
Let me begin by disclosing that The Sun Also Rises is the third Hemingway I have read and I am not a fan. Why would I read another one? I was fooled by a misunderstanding of my own creation. I knew the novel was a roman à clef, based on Hemingway’s experiences in Europe after WWI. I assumed the characters in the novel were reflections of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, maybe even Picasso or Joyce. I did not bother to discover if this was in fact the case. My concern was that even a little research before reading would detract from my enjoyment of the book. In this case, a bit of research may have saved me the trouble.
The historical personages of these characters were nobodies and no-ones to anyone who did not know them personally. But that is a minor detail. The novel begins nowhere and ends no-place else. With no idea how it got there.
It reads like a bunch of stuff that happened to some guy on a holiday. It may only be of interest to him. For such a mechanistic style, there is no mechanism to drive the reader forward and turn the pages. There was no secret to discover. No obstacle to surmount. The characters are not compelling. The events are not interesting. Regardless of the innovation of his craft or the effect of his technique he fails in the most basic regard – to tell a good story well.
It is hard to see how the novel ever hoped to be more than a failed experiment. Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory’ should be called the ‘skirt theory’. He believed a writer could omit even important parts of the story and the reader will still ‘feel’ those parts from what is left. If done correctly this will only amplify what is absent. It will be transmitted to the reader via the ether.
His style is no easy achievement. It takes skill and ability. But it’s effect is over-rated. It works well when setting the scene and creating mood. But the rest leaves you as frustrated and impotent as his protagonist. The story is devoid of depth. You want to know the anger and humiliation of Cohn and Mike. You want to know the frustration and anguish of Jake. You want to love Brett the way they all do. But none of this is possible. The modernists sought to achieve such emotions without sentimentality. Leave it below the surface. Drowning in impotence disguised as innovation. The result is that such connections are not achieved at all.
It is not an iceberg. It is a skirt. It teases. You want to see more. It is disappointing that you do not.
Perhaps it would be kinder to see The Sun Also Rises as a flawed prototype. What annoys me the most about Hemingway is the way he keeps repeating himself and recycling narrative. It is supposed to force certain thoughts and images to resonate with the reader and create an internal monologue, but it is just frustrating to read. Hemingway kept repeating himself and that annoyed me. It seems contrary to the directness and minimalism his style otherwise sought. Each repetition came with a slight variation. He could not say once what he meant and move on. So he said it again. It drove me crazy. Much like this paragraph is now annoying you.
Efficiency without elegance. This is the Hemingway way.
Some of the other aspects of the novel cannot escape mention. The perceived anti-Semitism and homophobia, the love of blood sports. Without being apologist, we must see these as reflecting the period the novel was written in. “Don’t, let’s talk about it”, as Brett might have said. It can be difficult for the reader in the 21st century to look past. Though no fault of the writer, the novel has not endured well.
If we must be apologist about something, perhaps it would be kinder to see The Sun Also Rises as a flawed prototype. Destined to be superseded by another work that fell under it’s influence. It is hard to see how the novel ever hoped to be more than a failed experiment. Hemingway wavered over who the story’s hero should be. At the last minute he asked his publisher to cut the opening 30 pages entirely. This for a novel considered to be his finest!
For an inspired but superior model, look no further than JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. While not strictly ‘modernist’, it also creates an internal monologue, partly by being disjointed, but without slipping into stream-of-consciousness. It also destroys convention and is not traditionally coherent. Yet it also creates empathy without sentimentality. It also concerns a non-hero, uncertainly navigating his way in a hypocritical, amoral, insincere world while seeking purpose and integrity. In this sense it also succeeds as a ‘morality tale’ while the The Sun Also Rises is ineffective in this regard. The comparison is not coincidental. Salinger began corresponding with Hemingway during WWII and the respect for each other’s ability and what they were trying to achieve was mutual.
The greatest failure of The Sun Also Rises is that it does not achieve what it sets out to. Hemingway sought to tell us of the ‘lost generation’, to show that they were not in fact lost, as evidenced by the book’s two epigraphs. He fails in this goal in many respects. The characters are dysfunctional, misdirected and miserable. None apart from Jake even has an occupation. They are bored, living lives of recreation with the income of others. They are unwilling, unable or ignorant of how to pursue their own happiness. The protagonist seems resigned to suffer and voluntarily subverts his own happiness to the needs of the lost around him. In doing so, he is lost himself. He is not alone. It is the novel, which begins nowhere and goes nowhere, that is lost. It has certainly lost this reader.