I have mixed feelings about Ernest Hemingway. I loved Farewell to Arms but struggled through To Have and Have Not. And Hemingway himself was the kind of man I despise: a shooting, hunting, fishing type who loved bull fighting and drank too much and equated all these nonsensical pursuits with masculinity. So, mixed feelings.
The Sun Also Rises was Hemingway’s first full length novel. Finished in 1926 and told in the first person, the book is loosely based on a trip that Hemingway made to Spain with a group of friends to see the bullfighting during the Pamplona Fiesta. It was published in England under the title Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, a better name in my opinion.
Hemingway’s sparse prose and his use of short, punchy dialogue were startling at the time. Some people claim this is his best novel, although I still prefer Farewell to Arms.
What I liked
The descriptions of the countryside are vivid and achieved by stringing together the simplest of words. Here is an example taken during a car journey into Spain:
After a while we came out of the mountains, and there were trees along both sides of the road, and a stream and ripe fields of grain, and the road went on, very white and straight ahead, and then lifted to a little rise, and off on the left was a hill with an old castle, with buildings close around it and a field of grain going right up the walls and shifting in the wind.
Now, none of the vocabulary in that sentence would daunt a primary school child, and yet the whole thing is strung together in a fashion that both managed to imitate the soporific movement of a long car journey and gives an authentic vision of the scenery through which they are passing. And notice how he is not scared of repetition; e.g. “fields of grain” is repeated later in the same sentence with only the slightest modification “field of grain”.
The dialogue breaks all the rules. It took me some time, but eventually I got the gist of the patterns of speech that Hemingway uses. He breaks the rules of writing by giving his characters dialogue that often seems entirely meaningless and repetitive. It is all about what is not said. For example, here is the narrator, Jake, being told by his friend Mike that Brett, the woman they both love, has run off with a young bullfighter.
“Brett, you know. She’s gone off with the bull-fighter chap.”
“Yes. She looked for you to say good-bye. They went on the seven o’clock train.”
“Bad thing to do,” Mike said. “She shouldn’t have done it.”
“Have a drink? Wait while I ring for some beer.”
“I’m drunk,” I said. “I’m going to lie down.”
“Are you blind? I was blind myself.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m blind.”
“Well, bung-o,” Mike said. “Get some sleep, old Jake.”
I went out the door and into my own room and lay on the bed…
What I didn’t like
Despite his detailed descriptions of the countryside, Hemingway is Spartan in his descriptions of people. We get a better idea of what Georgette, a casual street pick-up girl, looks like than we do of the main romantic interest in the story, a woman called Brett. For example, we only learn that Brett is aged 34 and has short hair in the final few pages of the book. I would have liked a little more and earlier.
In some places Hemingway gives a tortuous account of exactly what happened to get the protagonists from point A and point B, e.g. precisely what time they went to one café and what they drank and then how they moved on to another bar and the details of what drinks they ordered there. It almost reads as a diary or a modern-day travel blog. I don’t know how much of this was done deliberately by Hemingway and how much was accidental, but difficulty in making elegant time/space transitions is often a problem with first-time novelists.
What I learned as a writer
- Simple words, used elegantly in simple sentences, can be simply beautiful.
- Not to be so worried about repeating words and phrases in close proximity, if done deliberately.
- I must practice the art of writing unspoken dialogue.
- Don’t forget to add descriptions of important characters, even if these are kept very brief.