Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December 2016's Book: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Literature (1926 - 130 pp.)

The Sun Also Rises continues my trend of appreciating America's great interwar writers.* The Sound and the Fury also came out in the 1920s; Tender Is the Night is also set among American expats in Paris in the 1920s. It is exactly a year since I reviewed Tender Is the Night. January 4th is Parisian, apparently.

The book stars narrator Jake Barnes, an American living in Paris. He, along with his erstwhile girlfriend Brett Ashley, Princeton graduate Robert Cohn, adventurer Bill Gorton, and Brett's other boyfriend Michael, travel from Paris to Spain. First Jake and Bill go fishing in Burguete, and then the whole crew watches a bullfight in Pamplona. For those in the mood to re-enact this plot, Pamplona still hosts bullfights.

The most striking aspect of The Sun Also Rises is how unbelievably modern it is. The only notably absent technology is smartphones, meaning The Sun Also Rises could realistically have taken place in the 1990s. (The telegrams could be voicemails.) As someone who did not live in a home with a computer until 1996, and who did not carry a cellphone with any regularity until 2006, I felt as though I could have lived my childhood in Hemingway's world. Aside from that, much of 1920s slang persists (see the note below), and the characters act the way 20-somethings apparently still do.

A highlight is Hemingway's descriptions of the characters' more physical moments. An early encounter between Jake and Brett uses the image of a dark gate as possible foreshadowing of a conflict-filled trip, but more importantly, opens up an opportunity for Brett to show her affection: "We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries. She cuddled against me and I put my arm around her. She looked up to be kissed. She touched me with one hand and I put her hand away." (8) The reader sees how the characters' relationships build through their actions, which delivers more excitement when they finally do get what they want.** The fight between Jake and Robert is a less happy, but equally riveting, moment. (100) It is the only truly sad part of the book, as Robert soon reflects that Jake is his "only friend". (102)

The dialogue is short, fast, clipped and snappy, with very few tags. A lack of dialogue tags increases the book's pace, making it feel more lifelike in a conversational setting, at the occasional expense of knowing who is talking if there are more than two characters present. Hemingway's dialogue (see extended passages on pages 64, 77 and 96, for example) is one of The Sun Also Rises's best features. It rivals William Faulkner's, and the general style is a huge influence on my own novel about 20-somethings.

Hemingway frequently violates the usually-but-not-always-true maxim of "show, don't tell". Robert Sawyer explains why he prefers showing to telling here:
Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like "vivid," "evocative," or "cinematic" to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.
Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary's age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively. [emphasis mine]
Hemingway writes such non-vivid statements as "But the effort of talking American seemed to have tired him" (57) and "Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep" (17). The reader never sees the man's eyes droop or hears the screech of wheels on tracks, but that is no problem. Hemingway shows when it makes the setting come alive and tells when it is perfectly fine to trust Jake's admittedly usually drunk judgment. There are many more of Jake's offhand observations throughout the book, even during longer paragraphs, few of which create the evocatic imagery of the settings. Ironically, Hemingway's later essay Death in the Afternoon, which also discusses bullfighting in Spain, is largely seen as one of the greatest examples of "show, don't tell" of all time.

NOTE: As can be expected of a book released in 1926, The Sun Also Rises contains some 1920s slang. Many of these have caught on in the North American slang canon, such as drawing out the word "ab-so-lute-ly". Among the key terms in The Sun Also Rises is one I never hear anymore: "tight", meaning drunk. "Tight" appears 32 times in the book, albeit not all in that context, and "drunk" appears another 59 times. At the 130-page figure my ebook has, that is almost 0.7 instances per page. Ah, to be an American in Paris in the 1920s...

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

*As with many of these frequently reviewed books, I discuss my experience reading it, as well as any point that discusses how the book displays the craft of writing. In many cases, all the literary criticism has already been said, such as a teacher assigning parts of three Hemingway novels, including The Sun Also Rises, in the eighth grade.

**Brett gets her wish on page 14: "Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her." Again, the contrast between the white flares and the dark street is what makes this scene magical.

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