Book Review – Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century and yet it seems to me that his books are no longer as widely available as they once were. He has fallen out of fashion in a way that Joyce apparently never will. And yet his presence in the history of literature is immense. Regarding Hemingway, people generally want to talk about his style of writing, and so shall I.
Fiesta, or The Sun Also Rises (a better but only obliquely relevant title), is my first Hemingway novel, and for the most part it reads well in spite of its vintage (1927). It is easy to say that the best writing never ages, but of course this is not so: all writing ages, but not at the same speed. For the most part I found Fiesta easy to read, fairly enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying.
The first section, in which we are introduced to a small cast of characters who will stay with us throughout the novel, is set in Paris in the mid-twenties. I am reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby in the way that this opening section plays out, and a little of Henry Miller and William Burroughs in the way that Paris is used as the set for numerous drunken roamings and ramblings. This is Paris between the wars, and for the expatriate Americans and English, it is a fine life indeed. In fact, I found myself wanting to travel back in time to 1927, to experience these ‘Roaring Twenties’ for myself. Fine dining, heavy drinking and jaunting around Europe sounds ‘jolly good’ to me, and yet Hemingway would caution us as to the dangers of leading a life such as this.
Our narrator is called Jake Barnes, and he is a newspaperman and veteran of the First World War. Although it is never addressed directly, we come to realise by degrees that Jake is sexually impotent due to some form of war injury. This does not seem to bother Jake unduly, although we do begin to wonder whether he is lying to himself in this regard. Jake is stable, sane, and something of a doormat for another character who will be discussed shortly.
Robert Cohn is a Jewish writer and amateur boxer, and we are positioned to dislike him intensely. In fact, much of the novel consists of Cohn’s childish behaviour and the various rebukes he endures. Cohn has fallen for Lady Ashely, a.ka. Brett (a rather confusing name for a woman, I thought), and he spends the novel chasing her around and hanging around like a lost puppy dog. It’s all rather nauseating. One might say that Hemingway’s characterisation of Cohn shows signs of anti-Semitism, and while this is probably true, I found it to be far milder than in some of Hemingway’s contemporaries. My example here is Graham Greene, a writer I admire greatly. Greene’s early novels of the twenties offer far cruder Jewish stereotypes. But I digress.
Brett is the focus of the novel. She is an English aristocrat, loved by all and touched by some. She and Jake are in love, but it is a peculiar love owing to Jake’s impotence. As a result, Brett is all over the place, to-ing and fro-ing in various debauched ways (most notably with a nineteen year old Spanish matador). She is unhappy for the most part, happy at times, and usually drunk. This is a good time to mention that a vast quantity of liquor is consumed over the course of Fiesta, much of it very expensive. There’s even some Absinthe. It’s enough to give one a liver hemorrhage.
Mike is Brett’s soon-to-be-husband, and yet their relationship is a bizarre one. Mike, a Scot, doesn’t seem to mind that Brett is sleeping with all and sundry and conducting herself in an unseemly manner. As we discover, MIke is the biggest drunk of them all, and quite a bore too. There’s a rather poignant scene toward the end of the book in which Mike is so drunk and tired that he can’t talk properly. It’s clear that Mike uses alcohol to obliterate his problems. He’s also bankrupt.
Then there is a Bill, a rather affable fellow whom I can’t remember a great deal about, and a host of minor characters. It’s a reasonably good cast, but not as memorable as those in The Great Gatsby, I don’t think. But Fitzgerald’s novel is probably an appropriate frame of reference for this one. As I said, the first part is set in Paris, and it’s all rather aimless. We get to know the main characters on their drunken adventures, and soak in the scenery. It’s pleasant reading, but not especially memorable reading, at least not to my mind.
About style. Hemingway’s prose is very distinctive with its clipped sentence structure and declarative manner. Things are described in simple and straightforward fashion. This is a strength and a weakness, and to illustrate my point I will use a couple of examples. At its best, this is powerful writing with a kind of self-evident clarity: “Then I thought of her walking up the street and stepping into the car, as I had last seen her, and of course in a little while I felt like hell again. It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.” (p 43) At its worst, this seems like prose written by someone who was dropped on their head as a baby: “The cab stopped in front of the hotel and we all got out and went in. It was a nice hotel, and the people at the desk were very cheerful, and we each had a good small room.” (p 103) And so Hemingway is Hemingway: in some ways searingly powerful and clear, and in other ways disappointingly bland and stripped of emotion.
The best part of the novel, for me, was the middle third, in which the main characters make the trip from France to Spain for the Fiesta season. Before the season begins, there is time for a fishing trip in a remote town. This is where I felt Hemingway’s talents were best deployed: in accurately describing visually detailed settings and complex events, such as precisely how to catch a fish. Here I saw Hemingway the master. Elsewhere, I felt that the novel fell a little flat.
After the fishing is finished (I am skipping over a hell of a lot of plot here) it is time for the Fiesta, which is when the bullfighting and general merrymaking occurs. Hemingway seems to be very interested in bull-fighting, but I found that his enthusiasm did not enliven the topic for me. A matter of taste perhaps. All the while we are getting bits and pieces of conversation and often argument centering around wayward Brett, pathetic Cohn and boorish Mike. There’s a great deal of inconsequential conversation in this book, but perhaps it can be said that it has a cumulative effect on the reader.
Increasingly, I found that I was interested to read about the way the toxic relationships would unfold, and disinterested by the descriptions of bullfighting. It all ends rather badly for all concerned. Nothing really decisive happens (well, Cohn the Jewish boxer does beat up all three of his rivals for Brett’s affection, not that it helps) and yet there is a sense of resolution. Something in these people is badly broken. This is decadence. I noticed that Jake alone seemed to have found some meaning in life in the form of his Catholicism, and yet it doesn’t seem to stop him from carrying on almost as badly as the other characters found here. This is a bleak novel in the final analysis, and one that doesn’t seem to offer much hope for the future.
I’m not totally sold on Hemingway, but at least I can say I’ve read one of his novels now. I have Farewell to Arms here to read too, but I think I’ll give Papa Hemingway a rest for a little while now. I would be interested to hear any comments on the above, especially as I don’t consider myself an expert on this author by any stretch of the imagination. Recommendations as to his best work would be appreciated also.