"The Sun Also Rises"

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A couple of books ago I read a memoir that felt like fiction; this is fiction that feels like a memoir.It is written in the first person, a man named Jake Barnes, and I kept wondering why others referred to him as Jake when his name is Ernest. Then for the hundredth time I'd remember it's a novel.

Jake is in love with a woman named Brett, who loves him too, but is engaged to another man and has affairs with two more during the story. We are told that Jake and Brett cannot be together because of injuries Jake sustained during the war. This isn't dwelt on at all, just mentioned, but the sadness of it permeates the entire book.

The characters all carry some kind of personal pain, and as Jake puts it "It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing." They suffer, behave badly, and suffer some more. Their pain stays with you when you close the cover.

I can't figure out why I like Hemingway. I didn't like any of the characters in this book very much. There was a fair amount of bullfighting in it and I don't like that either. Some of the dialogue was stilted and goofy (will I get struck by lightning for saying that?). There is no real plot, just an assortment of aimless people frittering away their time getting drunk and doing nothing. Doesn't that sound like a terrible book? If it was by anybody else I'd never have read it. So why does Hemingway hold such appeal for me?

For some reason I feel comfortable inside a Hemingway book. I feel like I can breathe in there, even when the atmosphere he's created is crowded, jaded and smoky. It frees me in some way. Is it the short sentences? The lack of adjectives? Maybe. There's no pretense, no contrivance (in the writing that is; there's lots of contrivance on the part of the characters). I forget that I'm reading a book and just listen to this man tell me about his life.

Some of the expressions used in dialogue were probably popular at the time the time was written but they don't make much sense now. Usually it's possible to get the general meaning of a word or phrase from the context, but Hemingway's writing is so spare, there's very little context to suggest a meaning. Hence the resulting goofiness mentioned earlier.

There are a few racist words used here and there, also common to that time I suppose, but offensive now. It's hard to get by them; they glare at you from the page and make you angry.

At times the dialogue deteriorates into pointless drivel (still no lightning?), although I do see it was meant to make the broader suggestion of the pointlessness of their lives. That's what the book is about really: the lack of purpose felt by people living in the years following the first World War. Not having lived then, it's too easy for me to pass judgment, and I so wanted to yell at somebody: "Find SOMETHING useful to do and go do it!"

I was left with one big, admittedly irrelevant, question. How in the name of time could anybody drink that much alcohol every day? They all drank from the time they got up to the time they fell into bed again. At one meal Jake Barnes drank 3 bottles of wine. And he drank other things before and after that. I understand why he drinks, but how was he not falling down drunk or passed out? How could he even carry on conversations?

It seems I don't have much good to say about "The Sun Also Rises", although it's mostly the dialogue I found disappointing. The rest of the writing is classic, breathable Hemingway.

I wouldn't recommend this book to many people; I know a lot who wouldn't like it. But if Hemingway gets under your skin and you haven't read it, by all means do. I loved it and at the same time I didn't like it much. That couldn't sound any weirder, but there you have it.


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