Monday, August 18, 2014

Re-reading Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises."

(I have written this essay to mark the recent publication by Scribner of the Hemingway Library Edition of The Sun Also Rises, supplemented with early drafts and deleted chapters.)

            “I guess it isn’t any use,” he said. “I guess it isn’t any damn use.”
                                    --Robert Cohn to Jake Barnes
                                      The Sun Also Rises.              

 I first read The Sun Also Rises at the beginning of my sophomore year in college.  In high school I read The Old Man and the Sea shortly after it was published and wrote a review for the school literary magazine.  For freshman English in college we read “My Old Man,” “In Another Country,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” from Robert Gorham Davis’s Modern Masters.  I remember being electrified by the stories, which were among the first I read that made me want to become a writer.  I still have the text book, and when I take it down from the shelf I find that I had annotated the stories heavily, returning to them time and again throughout my undergraduate years.

            But my experience of The Sun Also Rises was different, both in terms of the space in which I first encountered the novel and its resonance for me beyond the simple reading of the stories in class, followed by discussion conducted by our instructor, novelist Stephen Minot, who would become my most influential writing teacher.  Beginning in my second year in college, I formed the habit of returning to Brunswick, Maine a week or more before classes began.  I was prompted to return early, not only because I wanted to separate myself from family after the kind of supervised summer I had thought to have freed myself from in college, but also because I wanted time alone before classes began.  I knew that although the dormitories were open the campus would not yet be crowded and I would have some quiet days in which to read and write, and also for meditative evening walks on the tree-lined streets that abutted the campus and down along Mere Point Road toward the ocean, walks which had become vital to me during the previous year.  In a word, I wanted solitude, and the only way I could achieve it was to arrive early at college.

            Of primary importance during that first week, and those I demanded for myself in subsequent years, were the books I’d chosen to read, mostly novels that would not have been assigned for class.  During my summers of work, first in my father’s luncheonette on Rocky Neck, and later at the local newspaper office, or on the Gloucester waterfront, I usually decided which books I would read on my own.  Often I would acquire them at local bookshops—Brown’s department store in downtown Gloucester, or the Mariner’s Bookstall in Rockport, a seaside town north of Gloucester, that featured a line of paperback books just beginning to become popular, including Doubleday Anchor Books, which reprinted classics like The Aeneid  in the lovely, fluent translation I still own by Cecil Day-Lewis.  It was in such a shop that I found the Scribners 1954 paperback reprint of The Sun Also Rises, returning to college with it.

Apart from what we had read and discussed in class with Steve Minot, I knew little about Hemingway.  My first year in college, like that of so many young writers in the 1940s and 50s, was the year of reading Thomas Wolfe (I’d already read a lot of Steinbeck and Saroyan in high school), whose torrents of lyrical prose transported me, until my classmate Mark Power, already a fine writer and soon to become an equally accomplished photographer, took me aside one day. 

            “Peter,” he warned, “if you want to write seriously you can’t let yourself be influenced by Wolfe.”
  A Southerner himself, Mark handed me Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which set me off in an entirely different direction from Wolfe, one that helped me to understand that American writing could be both complex and absorbing, while also dealing with native themes.

So it was with The Sun Also Rises in hand that I returned to college.  I was prepared to share a suite in Winthrop Hall (Hawthorne’s former residence) with two friends, who had yet to arrive.  For a precious few days I had our rooms to myself.  Settling into a comfortable chair next to a window that looked out toward the College’s iconic polar bear sculpture, I began to read and I hardly stopped until I had finished the novel I have since revisited at least once every decade.

Reading The Sun Also Rises changed me.  I began to become the person I am today, more introspective, if not somewhat melancholic under the influence of Hemingway’s wounded characters, who helped me better to understand my own sense of not fitting in as a small town boy in a college largely attended by private school graduates.   It also transformed my writing from prose that my teacher Steve had noted was becoming “a tinge too poetic” under Wolfe’s influence to a new astringency after reading Hemingway.   I also began to think about what it might be like to live away from America, like Jakes Barnes and Hemingway’s other characters had been doing, perhaps in a magical city like Paris.

Working in a newspaper office during the summer before I began reading the novel, editing the paper’s weekend edition and filling in for the police and waterfront reporters while they were on vacation, I was beginning an apprenticeship in journalism, much like Hemingway’s in Kansas City.  In fact, it could be said that although I was taught in college how to write an acceptable critical paper, I learned in the newsroom of the Gloucester Daily Times how to write on demand, one moment being assigned to describe a fire that ravaged the city’s docks, the next covering divorce and custody hearings in the district court, and—this was the most poignant—being sent to report the death of a little girl, who had been run over by a truck while playing in the street of one of the city’s populous neighborhoods.  During each of these assignments, and the many others I would be given that summer and the following one, there was no time to reflect on what I was going to write or how I would write it.  I simply sat down at one of the paper’s old Royal manual typewriters and began my article—the questions, “who, what, when, where, why?” always at the back of my mind, while the editors waited for my copy with grease pencils poised.

It was an education that few writers are able to claim today; not to speak of having been given the responsibility of editing my own summer supplement, which included assigning stories, editing them, writing headlines, and laying out the pages to be sent to the composing room, and then reading final proof.

Which I suppose had not only been part of Hemingway’s training as a reporter, but also that of Jake Barnes; and I long identified with Jake’s acerbity even if I did not quite understand what had happened to him in the war to make it impossible for him and Lady Brett to consummate their obvious love for each other.  That would come later.

I’ve spoken of the “space” in which I first encountered Hemingway’s narrative.  Perhaps I might better describe it as an atmosphere, in which my own sense of freedom from home and from classes, which had not yet begun—the liberation of being eighteen and on my own—allowed me to experience the freedom Hemingway’s characters exuded as they drank and danced in the cafes of Paris or met in Pamplona for the running of the bulls.  Suddenly I felt a sense of possibility as I read about Jake and Bill Gorton fishing for trout in the remote mountain streams above Burguete, or especially Hemingway’s description of the bus ride to the town itself during which Jake and Bill shared wine with traveling Basques and the countryside opened out around them, a landscape that Hemingway made his own, the kind that I would come to savor in subsequent novels like A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls. And where else in literature would you find a character as complex and alluring as Lady Brett Ashley?

Just as the world of journalists like Jake Barnes was not unknown to me—the reporters I worked with at the Gloucester Times, several of whom went on to write for major newspapers, exhibited some of Jake’s traits, especially the cynicism and deadpan humor of those who had seen a certain amount of life—I was also familiar with the Bohemian world of artists.  Rocky Neck, in East Gloucester, where we lived and my father owned his luncheonette and S. S. Pierce gourmet grocery, is America’s oldest art colony.  It was there that I came of age among artists and writers, whose unconventional manner of dress and uninhibited speech reminded me of Hemingway’s characters.  Though I did not come to my reading without some frame of reference, nothing I had previously seen or experienced prepared me for the impact of Hemingway’s opening chapters or for the narrative as it unfolded relentlessly.

Like many English majors, I had done a certain amount of reading before I opened this novel.   Elsewhere I have written about having been introduced to Dostoevsky by a young artist I met as a teenager on Rocky Neck.  My poet friend Vincent Ferrini opened my eyes to the work of Pound, Williams and Charles Olson, whom I later met and became close to.  We read Anna Karenina and Winesburg, Ohio with Steve Minot in that defining English course, in which we were also introduced to Walden and The Education of Henry Adams, texts that would reverberate throughout my entire life.  Yes, and Sarah Orne Jewett’s magical The Country of the Pointed Firs, another book I have read and re-read since first opening it in September of 1955.

Along with the coinciding atmospheres I’ve described—my own inner sense of newly liberated expectation and the novel’s dramatic tensions, mirrored by the places they were set against in Paris and Spain—what drew me especially to The Sun Also Rises was the very way in which it was written.  Aside from stories like “In Another Country” and “Soldier’s Home,” in which, along with Hemingway’s characteristic laconicism, I also noticed echoes of Sherwood Anderson, I do not believe I had ever encountered a prose like Hemingway’s, especially as it extended itself in the form of a novel.

I recall being particularly taken by the way Hemingway has Jake describe his dissociated state of mind after having been struck and knocked down by Robert Cohn, “former middle weight boxing champion of Princeton,” after Jake refuses to reveal to Cohn the whereabouts of Lady Brett Ashley, with whom Cohn is in love:

It was all different. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town
football game.  I was carrying a suitcase with my football things in it, and I
walked up the street from the station to the town I had lived in all my life and
it was all new.  They were raking the leaves and burning leaves in the road, and
I stopped for a long time and watched.  It was all strange.  Then I went on, and
my feet seemed to be a long way off, and everything seemed to come from a
long way off, and I could hear my feet walking a great distance away.  I had
been kicked in the head early in the game.  It was like that crossing the square.
It was like that going up the stairs in the hotel.  Going up the stairs took a long
time, and I had the feeling I was carrying my suitcase.

On the cusp of nineteen, I cannot claim to have had a great deal of sophistication, especially in the realm of sexual experience, but I was open to Hemingway’s writing as writing in ways I had not previously experienced.  The prose itself spoke to me in a manner I have never forgotten; and perhaps this is one of the reasons I return often to the novel, in order that I may re-experience its primal impact on my youthful consciousness, so that I can live and relive a time in my life that one does not often repeat: that moment—Joyce called it an epiphany—when one sees or feels what one has never seen or felt before, that coalescence of seemingly disparate experiences or perceptions that constitutes the crux of revelation.

A year later I read the novel again, along with A Farewell to Arms, this time in a formal setting, in Faulkner Prize-winning novelist Lawrence Sargent Hall’s course in contemporary literature.   Larry was a brilliant and inspiring teacher.  It also did not hurt that he brought a good deal of insight to our reading of the novels from his own experiences in the war and equally because he himself was a writer of stories, one of which, “The Ledge,” won first place in the O. Henry Prize Collection of 1960.  Reading Hemingway with Larry, who had been trained in the New Criticism at Yale, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Hawthorne, was an extraordinary intellectual adventure.   He helped us not only to see things in the text we’d overlooked, but also to learn methods of close reading that have stood me in good stead ever since.  Under Larry’s scrutiny the novel was not diminished; rather, it was broadened, allowing me to experience Hemingway’s artistry in a way that I found both instructive and exhilarating.  For under those often severe descriptive surfaces or that clipped dialogue there was an untold depth, one that I have continued to attempt to plumb in subsequent readings.

Larry helped us to understand the influence of both Anderson and Gertrude Stein on Hemingway, but more importantly he helped us to grasp Hemingway’s non-literary inspirations.  I will never forgot his unexpected reading to us one morning in class of the complete text of Lillian Ross’s riveting 1950 New Yorker profile of Hemingway, “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen,” in which Hemingway, visiting New York on his way to Europe after completing Across the River and Into the Trees, explains to Ross and his younger son Patrick the importance to him of certain paintings, as they tour the Metropolitan Museum together.  

“This is what we try to do in writing,” Hemingway says, as they look at Cezanne’s Rocks—Forest of Fontainebleau.  “I learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cezanne.”  From that illuminating moment on, I realized that I had been given a crucial key to an appreciation of the visual dimension of Hemingway’s art.

Just as my first year in college had been a year of reading American writers like Wolfe and Faulkner, my second year, starting with The Sun Also Rises, began my discovery of Europe and European writers, especially the French.  I was continuing my study of the language, and with the help of Steve Minot, with whom I was now taking an advanced writing course, I began to read Camus and Sartre and to become deeply immersed in Existentialism.  It was a philosophy that seemed to have been conceived for someone like me, who felt out of place since high school but had no name for the complex of feelings informing that alienation.

Reading Hemingway helped me to find ways of making those feelings concrete, while Sartre, especially in his “Roads to Freedom” series of novels and his explications of his own thought, gave me a vocabulary for beginning to articulate my own sense of how I wanted to live in response to how I felt.   I was finally beginning to understand the importance of the examined life.

It was also at this time that I started fantasizing about actually living in Europe.  I naturally thought first about France after reading Hemingway’s account of Parisian Left Bank life, but when I began reading more of his writings set in Italy, switching from the study of French to Italian, a language that excited me like no other I had previously studied, I knew that I wanted not only to continue my studies in Italy after graduation from college, I also wanted to live there.   I was anxious to re-discover the Italy of Hawthorne and Henry James, of Pound and Hemingway, and I wanted especially to live out my fantasies of the Lost Generation, even if it would not be in Paris, which I later visited with delight.  
Like many first-readers of the novel, I and my friends in college were drawn to Hemingway’s powerful accounts of bullfighting.  There was something both exotic and deeply moving about the passion of the bullring as he describes it—the rituals, the drama, the life-and-death struggles between agile, though still vulnerable man and brute natural force—that appealed to our romantic natures as young writers.  Some of us discovered the reproductions of bullfight posters offered in the Marlboro remaindered book catalogs, ordering and tacking them up on the walls of our rooms.  During our junior year, my friend John Swierzynski, a budding Method actor, and I moved off campus to an attic on Federal Street, which we quickly festooned with fishnets, reproductions of paintings by Van Gogh and Gauguin, and the now obligatory bullfight poster.

But my excitement over that aspect of the novel gave way in subsequent readings to a focus on character.   My girlfriend and I imagined ourselves as Jake and Lady Brett in the worldly way we mimicked their conversation or exchanged letters.  Cynthia, who was studying literature at Boston University, cut a sophisticated figure when she stepped off the train from Boston to join me for house-party weekends in her fur coat, high leather boots and striking long red hair.  And in Larry Hall’s class it was she who answered the questions on Hemingway’s character development so knowingly that I instantly became the envy of my classmates (we also realized how different our educational experience would have been with women in the classroom).

Beyond bullfighting and the repartee between Jack and Brett and among the other characters, there was something else about the novel that haunted me through each successive reading.  There always seemed more to understand about the narrative, about the ways in which Hemingway alternated between descriptions of the natural world and the tensions among the characters, how one was the analog of the other, landscape as much a character as Jake, or Brett, or the young bullfighter Pedro Romero, whom Brett seduces, causes to be severely beaten by Robert Cohn and then abandons, both out of guilt or fear having “ruined” him or because, in the end, she cannot be apart from Jake, although she will marry the drunken, bankrupt Mike Campbell, who, like Jake, stands by impotently while she hurts them both with her compulsive sexual behavior.  But the novel does not end in Spain, with the close of the bullfighting or the dispersal of the Paris companions, as a less complex and demanding narrative might have concluded.

There is a final, excruciating episode that reveals Hemingway’s stunning mastery of his craft, in which Jake, having retreated to San Sebastian from Pamplona to swim and read Turgenev in peace (“The country became very clear and the feeling of pressure in my head seemed to loosen”), and also to try to recapture the rhythm of his life before Brett re-entered it in Paris and Pamplona, is torn from his refuge by a telegram from Brett, who is in trouble again.  She has abandoned her young bullfighter and begs Jake to meet her in Madrid: “COULD YOU COME HOTEL MONTANA IN MADRID AM RATHER IN TROUBLE BRETT.”

Jake dutifully boards the next train.  When they meet, Brett is penniless and drinking.  “I’m going back to Mike,” she tells Jake revealingly, even as he holds her close. “He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful.  He’s my sort of thing”

They eat, they drink, as they have done throughout the novel, enjoying a final lunch of roast young suckling pig and rioja alta “upstairs at Botin’ of the best restaurants in the world.”   Jakes continues drinking, though Brett, clearly understanding the reason why, begs him: “Don’t get drunk, Jake.  You don’t have to.”   When Jakes replies, “How do you know?”, “Don’t,” she insists knowingly, “You’ll be alright.”  Somehow we and Brett know that he will recover his stoic acceptance of the reality of their situation; but when they leave the restaurant, the tension between them having mounted in a series of exchanges that create a progression d'effet worthy of Flaubert, Jake breaks the suspense by asking Brett if she wants to go for a ride:

“I haven’t seen Madrid,” Brett responds, instantly picking up on Jakes cue to drop the subject.  “I should see Madrid.”

            They take a taxi, and in perhaps the novel’s most affecting scene, in which they are sitting close together, Jake’s arm around Brett, Brett suddenly exclaims: “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.”  But when the cab slows down, suddenly pressing Brett even closer to Jake, he responds with one of the great climactic remarks in literature, a sentence as powerful in its understatement as it is in the revelation of the tragic impossibility of their relationship, Jake’s enduring despair, and the illusions he, Brett and the other expatriate characters have lived under.
            “Yes,” I said.  “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

It would take me some time and more maturity before I could grasp the full meaning of this final encounter between the frustrated lovers, or the sexual politics of the novel and the counter-culture itself Hemingway was describing.  But even as I eventually came to terms with this important dimension of the novel, I continued to feel that its deepest meanings were eluding me.   That is, until I traveled to Italy in 1959, first to study Medieval literature at the University in Florence and then to teach at the International Academy.  It was in Italy that I began to meet survivors of the war that had devastated large parts of the country, destroying cultural monuments and killing innocent civilians as the Allies progressed from Sicily up the boot, clashing with retreating Germans, who left unspeakable wreckage in their wake.  Much of this was described to me by those who had suffered the effects of conflict directly, widows from whom I rented rooms, or veterans, including former partisans, I would encounter, most of whom had no compunction about sharing their stories with Americans.  Among many of the veterans I met, some of them writers and artists, I experienced the same anomie that Hemingway’s characters exhibited, a sense of having been wounded in ways far deeper than the purely physical, leaving them with a sense of life’s incertitude, if not its meaninglessness, just as Sartre’s generation had felt after the war and the crimes of the Nazi occupation of France, the deportation of much of the country’s Jewish population to the camps and certain death.  

Hemingway’s alienated characters are scarred or wounded by a war that should never have been fought, a war of hitherto unexperienced violence, a conflict that proved nothing, that destroyed an entire way of life in Europe, and paved the way for an even more horrific war whose impact was still being felt in Italy.   Jake’s physical wound that left him with sexual feelings he could not act upon, Brett’s experience as a nurse among the mutilated; indeed, the loss of her true love in war; Mike’s battle traumas evaded through alcohol—all of this left the characters with a feeling of detachment, a sense that life as they had once known it was no longer of any value: Cohn’s “It isn’t any damn use,” describing how they all felt, while Cohn’s own isolation was even more pronounced because he was a Jew and looked down upon as such, a persistent attitude toward Jews that would prefigure the looming Holocaust.

The novel continues to resonate for me, not only because of my lifelong sense of being an outsider, but also because I have lived through four wars of untold violence: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq; wars whose consequences Americans have yet to confront or even to understand.  And all around us returning veterans suffering from PTSD, mental illness and physical disabilities, clearly an aspect of what Hemingway’s war-ravaged characters were experiencing, while others among us seek refuge in escapism from a life that seems increasingly random and unpredictable, not unlike that of expatriates in Paris of the 1920s, except in even more violently destructive ways than running with bulls or getting drunk.

Yet, stepping back from what I have suggested about the novel’s contemporary relevance, there is the text itself, immaculate in the near perfection of Hemingway’s style, a style that transformed the way we look at prose, at what prose can achieve in opening up a world we may live in but not completely apprehend.  That drive to apprehension is one of the many gifts of fiction, one that Hemingway worked at all his life with a dedication that remains heroic, a dedication that we can still return to with a sense of awe.

(August 18, 2014)

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