Hemingway is one of those writers I’ve always felt that I ought to have read, but all that I’ve managed are a few short stories. I enjoyed those well enough to think that his novels would be worth a look, but not so much that I felt driven to leap right into one. Finally, I’ve crossed the Hemingway Rubicon and finished The Sun Also Rises, and I’m glad I did.
I chose The Sun Also Rises as my first Hemingway because I knew that it took place in Spain and involved bull-fighting, and it seemed to me even if I ended up not liking reading an entire novel filled with Hemingway’s spare prose, the bull-fighting would add an element of adventure that would make it worthwhile. Well, it turns out that there’s not lots of bull-fighting here, not until the last half of the book anyway, but I found that the action wasn’t necessary. The intricate relationships Hemingway depicts are enough to carry the story along.
The central character, Jake Barnes, is a World War I veteran whose injuries have rendered him impotent. He now living in Paris and is in love with Lady Ashley, also known as Brett, a beautiful woman who seems ready and willing to “hook up” with any man who comes along. And hook up she does, with everyone but Jake. Much of the story focuses on who Brett is with at any given time and how the other men in her circle, including Jake, react.
Brett’s own motives and desires are not always clear. Is she the new 1920s independent woman, taking charge of her sexuality? Or is she seeking solace with whomever is most appealing and available and uncomplicated? Is she in control of her body? Or is she letting the men around her take control? It would be easy, I think, to write Brett off as a male fantasy/nightmare: the oversexed woman who gives a man all he wants only to emasculate him in the end. That’s how I saw her as I was reading, but now that I’ve finished the book, I feel a certain sadness for her, and I think Hemingway intends for readers to feel that sympathy, but to explain why would spoil too much of the plot.
Hemingway’s style is quite spare. The sentences are short, and the words are simple, but he packs a lot into them. I found that if I tried to read quickly, I missed some of the subtle clues into the characters’ moods and even the tone of their conversation. I took me a while to get into Hemingway’s style, and I missed a lot in the early chapters as a result, but once I made myself slow down and savor, to picture the events in my mind, I found the story and the people in it to be compelling. I don’t think I’ll head right to the library for more Hemingway, but I wouldn’t turn up my nose at the possibility either.