Smile Politely

I ♥ Jack Daniels and Jim Beam and Jose Cuervo

In recent years, more and more Americans have moved overseas because of the souring economy, but they are only the latest in a long tradition of expatriates. In the 19th century, students traveled to Paris to study the great masters of painting or to England for an Oxford degree. After World War I, a group of American writers and artists took up residence in Europe, preferring the bohemian streets of Paris and London to the small-minded cities back home. This group of expatriates and those like them who came of age just in time to experience the horrors of a world war came to be known as the Lost Generation.

Ernest Hemingway was one of the most notable of the Lost Generation artists. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is supposed to epitomize the zeitgeist of these strangers in a strange land: drinking Pernod at a café, wine with dinner, cognac, brandy, scotch, Veuve Cliquot, sherry and Fundador. Nights were punctuated by fights, professional and amateur, physical and emotional; days were spent writing or painting and smoking one filter-less cigarette after another.

The novel’s main character, Jacob Barnes, is a journalist in Paris. He was wounded in Italy, during the Great War, as they called it then. The nature of the wound is left a mystery, but it rendered Barnes impotent. His major life crisis seems to be his relationship with divorcée Lady Brett Ashley. She’s a new woman of the roaring 20s: drinking, smoking and sleeping around. She and Barnes love each other, but because of his condition, they cannot consummate, so he suffers through her multiple liaisons silently, as a friend.

We’re first introduced to Brett as she walks into a dance-club with a group of homosexuals, men with “white hands, wavy hair, white faces.” Jacobs hates them. He might as well be one of them.

“I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure.”

Barnes is probably lucky that he can’t get it up for Brett. She would have made his life miserable. Her first husband died in the war; the second sounds like a lunatic. She emasculates her newest fiancé, Mike Campbell, whenever possible by cheating on him with every man who shows an interest. One of these unfortunates is another writer named Robert Cohn, who spends most of the book following Brett around like a poor, lovelorn bastard.

The novel does not have a traditional, structured plot. Events unfold while the characters travel from Paris to Burguete, Spain for trout fishing in the Irati River then onto Pamplona for the Fiesta of San Fermín and the running of the bulls. One of Hemingway’s literary penchants was for letting the plot evolve through character interaction, almost as if they were ultimately in charge of their fate.

Since The Sun Also Rises was written and set just after World War I, Hemingway’s characters are distrustful of Germans; they bandy about slurs for Jews and anyone with a skin tone darker than ecru. His famous writing style included sharp, concise prose devoid of long descriptive passages, but when he described the outdoors, traveling by bus on roads leading into the mountains, we see examples of polysyndeton – the use of several conjunctions in close succession. This form of run-on sentence gives one a sense of breathless anticipation or wonder at the new surroundings, like the eyes are trying to take in all the sights at once.

“Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches.”

While stopped for a few days in Burguete, Barnes enjoys deviling Cohn after he learns that Brett had an affair with him in San Sebastian. Cohn leaves to meet Brett’s train, flustered, newly shaven and nervous. Barnes accompanies him, knowing that Brett and her fiancé will not be on the train, but hoping. He can’t wait to see the look on Cohn’s face when he sees Mike possessive and fawning over Brett.

“Why I felt that impulse to devil him I do not know. Of course I do know. I was blind, unforgivingly jealous of what had happened to him. The fact that I took it as a matter of course did not alter that any. I certainly did hate him.”

After a few friendly fistfights, Cohn finally realizes the futility of his attentions. Brett will never care for him. Across Europe, from France to Spain and beyond, she runs through men like glasses of scotch. As soon as the liquor’s gone, the empty glass is forgotten on the table. She leaves her fiancé in Pamplona for a bull-fighter named Pedro Romero. Finally stranded in Madrid, Brett sends for Jacob; always back to Jacob, safe and unsexed. As long as she keeps coming back, he will always want her, because they can’t have each other in the ways they want.

His first novel brought him fortune and fame, but Hemingway transcended the label of the Lost Generation to have a long, lustrous writing career influencing nearly every writer that thought to pick up a pen. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his most popular work, “The Old Man and the Sea,” and the Nobel Prize a year later. For Whom the Bell Tolls is considered by many critics to be his masterpiece.

While his novels are wonderful, I think Hemingway’s shorter works are his best and more easily digested. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories is a collection of shorts that includes “The Killers” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” two of his more well-known and referenced works. Read those and “The Old Man and the Sea.” If you like them, try a novel, just don’t get discouraged by the length.

Rating: 3 of 5

And yes, I used the word zeitgeist.


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