Hemmingway is one of those people that you hear about constantly in literature, and soon enough he becomes so buried in our memories that it’s like we have already read each and every single one of his works, even though more often than not, I met English students who can tell me all the reasons WHY he is known as one of the greatest American authors of all time, but they haven’t read a lick of his work.
I wish I could be like that. I mean, isn’t that what people want? To be the anonymous legend? Like all the masked heroes, we would much prefer to keep our secret lives and identities hidden while we can bask in the comfort of our own fame. I mean, that’s what makes shows everywhere from Hannah Montana to Dexter so popular; we get to see the hidden lives of the famous. Everyone wants to be remembered for being the greatest of something, and that no one will dig out the dirty laundry and the many skeletons we keep in the closet.
That’s what makes the internet so fascinating, isn’t it? That we can participate and hold our own opinions, while remaining hidden away from any possible consequences and repercussions. Like the hero Vincent in Choke, (go read my review!), there’s something so fascinating about not only the anonymous nature of the internet, but even more, the exposure of people on the internet without shame or embarrassment. If you don’t believe me, just spend ten minutes on YouTube watching people do stupid shit and getting hurt. More than just the pity and incredulity that keeps us coming back for more, it’s the barefaced honesty.
As an aspiring author, I do what I can to put my name out there as much as possible. It leaves me vulnerable to all my own skeletons and buried enemies to come back and haunt me, to criticize me, to watch my every move just waiting to see if I fail. It’s a horrible juxtaposition. I just hope that I can make it to the point of being famous and awesome, and everyone will leave it at that without trying to poke into my background. Hannah Montana, it’s moments like these when I envy you. And you too Hemingway, dammit.
Anyhow, I’m here to review a book, aren’t I? Ah yes. I’m in the middle of embarrassingly admitting that I am a stranger to Hemingway. It’s shameful, really. You get to a point in your reading career that everyone assumes you’ve read so and so, and of course, this and that must be your favorite books, and so forth, until you’re almost scared to read the greats. It’s like the fluttering nervousness in our stomachs as the lights went down in the movie theater for the last Harry Potter movie; we’ve built up so much anticipation, is it really going to be worth everything we’ve waited for? (thank god it was). But it was well-rewarded in this case.
The Sun Also Rises traces a group of Americans as they frolic and party their way through Europe, and in particular spend a lot of time watching bull fights in Spain. In particular, we have the protagonist, Jake, tracing his several weeks long vacation, and his secret love story with the beautiful and modern Brett. As a whole however, this isn’t particularly a love story as it is one of self-identity and coming of age. Hemingway so beautiful was able to define the aching questions and lack of purpose (so called) that defined the “lost generation”; young people who had lived through World War I, and as a result, felt listless and lost as to how to carry on with their lives. The novel is full of wonderful little proverbs as to the simple rules that Jake and his friends have for understanding how life is to be lived, and reveal the reaction and coping mechanisms of those who grew up in a time of war. For example, in one of the earlier bar scenes as they are joking and laughing about, Brett’s date for the night says, “it’s because I have lived very much that now I can enjoy everything so well… I am always in love.” We have a sense, then, as an audience of that very Dumas-like paradox in The Count of Monte Cristo, when, in the end of the book the Count tells the young lovers that it is because they have experienced ultimate grief that they now have the capacity to experience ultimate joy: “There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness.” Thus we have the mixed themes in The Sun Also Rises of delirious gratitude and careless indifference after the war has ended; creating a mix of people who feel unable to understand the world without war, and are understandably seen as “lost.”
Perhaps this is why Hemingway and others like him, (including his protagonist Jake) feel such a draw to the bullfights in Spain. While those of us who have never experienced trauma or bloodshed may see this as a cruel and barbaric practice, to Jake and so many others of his generation it’s an outlet for their unexpressed feelings. As Jake thinks to himself, “nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.” He admires them not only for their grace and style in the ring, but for their ability to truly master a bull, and put themselves in close proximity to grave danger for the benefit of a watching audience. This sort of false bravado and play serves as a front to please an audience, but internally it is a deadly and dangerous game. In a way, it’s a fitting metaphor for Jake and his band; they are lost/confused, and prefer to bandy with death than face their own misgivings and misunderstandings about life. The war injury that has left him impotent and thus unable to win over the beautiful Brett is a physical sign of their psychological inability to cope. I mean, what are they to do with their lives now that the war is over? How can they move on? What does this mean to their newfound senses of freedom and independence?
We can see this obviously come to a head over and over again through the troubled relationship of Brett and Jake. While they both very obviously love each other and care deeply about one another, because of his physical disability Jake is prevented from satisfying Brett sexually, and because Brett, as a feminist who enjoys her sexual freedoms thoroughly cannot see herself settling down with a man who cannot satisfy her. How does this relate, you ask? Because of the scars of the war, while they both enjoy their new liberties, they are not at liberty to satisfy their true wishes. They are occupied with only the artificial, and are unable to probe more deeply. Thus, while they are waving the red flag and pleasing the crowd by stepping in front of the so called bull, they know that they are truly not risking anything of lasting importance and depth, which is why they envy the truly brave matador so much.
He who will not swim in deep waters will never enjoy the discovery of a pearl in an oyster’s mouth. Oh, how sad to be the lost generation; to see what the world has to offer, and to be able to only grasp a small part of it.