SUNLIT INTERLUDE Hemingway’s descriptions of Parisian cafe society and Spain in summertime are compelling enough to briefly whisk us away.

Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

FEW NOVELS evoke our current mix of frustrated wanderlust and existential crisis quite like those of Ernest Hemingway. He chronicled the “lost generation” that had come of age against the chaotic backdrop of the first World War, capturing their restlessness and malaise. His masterpiece might be 1926’s “The Sun Also Rises,” whose action moves between the cafe terraces and smoky nightclubs of Paris and the swarming Spanish summers at the bullfights, or corrida. The story of alcoholic American expat Jake Barnes, whose war wounds have left him impotent, and his failed love affair with the independent, brash Lady Brett Ashley, the novel won’t satisfy everyone’s definition of comforting. But it’s the ideal companion for troubled times: equal parts Continental escape and serious grappling with the question of what it means to be, and feel, lost.

Jake and Brett’s on-again-off-again relationship takes them across the Europe of the 1920s, a place of both unbridled hedonism and deep cynicism, lasting scars of the war. Other dissolute expatriates—most of whom also carry a flame for Brett—people the novel, from the romantically tormented writer Robert Cohn to the dubious Greek count Mippipopolous to the young, pure-hearted bullfighter Romero.

Hemingway’s detailed descriptions of Parisian cafe society and the running of the bulls at Pamplona are sufficiently compelling to whisk us away, at least briefly, from our cloistered homes. But the far darker themes he touches on—how to make sense of a time in crisis, how to find authenticity and meaning out of upheaval—are as pertinent as they’ve ever been. At its core, the book is about confusion: young people asking the question what now. As we make sense of our own loss, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” reminds us that so many have felt this before.


A bottomless bottle

Illustration: Matthew Cook

Hemingway does his fair share of food writing in “The Sun Also Rises.” He recounts the staggering amounts of grub served in Spanish inns and gives the workingmen’s lunches at the bull run their due (“bowl of tuna fish, chopped onions and vinegar. They were all drinking wine and mopping up the oil and vinegar with pieces of bread.“) But it’s the refreshments that Hemingway finds most riveting. The Lost Generation are boozers. Sometimes, they drink “not good” beer and “worse cognac,” and sometimes they squeeze wine out of Basque leather bags (shown). They slurp “amazing” Champagne and expensive wine that’s “too good” for toasting. It’s clear drink also fuels the characters’ efforts to numb themselves to pain. In one of Brett’s final exchanges with Jake, she begs him not to get drunk.


A sensibly adventurous flapper

Illustration: Matthew Cook

It’s 1926, and all across Europe, the liberated flapper look is coming into fashion. Lady Brett Ashley, with her close-cut bobbed hair, her masculine aesthetic and her comfortable fashion choices (all the better to go adventuring) embodies the ultimate New Woman. She’s sexually free, unrestricted by society and her outfit choices showcase it. Hemingway introduces her with his typical flair: “She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.” Meanwhile, we learn that Robert Cohn’s fashion sense skews utterly ordinary, which Hemingway uses to convey his personality. “He had a funny sort of undergraduate quality about him. If he were in a crowd nothing he said stood out. He wore what used to be called polo shirts at school, and may be called that still, but he was not professionally youthful.”


A boxer at a bullfight

Illustration: Matthew Cook

Different forms of sport—and masculine sport at that—suffuse the novel. Through physical action, men find various ways to prove their strength, both inner and outer. Robert Cohn, a “middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” doesn’t like boxing, but “learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.” Meanwhile, the bullfight, with its displays of grace and force, is one of the novel’s most abiding motifs. Of the bullfighter Romero, for example, we learn that he “never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line.” For Jake, this purity makes the death of the bull “beautiful” rather than “ridiculous.”


Continental comforts

Illustration: Matthew Cook

In Paris, the novel favors interiors of nightclubs and cafes where Jake and his friends eat and (mostly) drink at marble tables or zinc bars. In Spain, Jake is moved by the beauty of churches and the bullfight alike. Of one Spanish church, he says, “It was dim and dark and the pillars went high up…and there were some wonderful big windows. I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of.” But it’s the bullfighters’ afición—passion—that affects Jake most. The interiors of one Pamplona hotel are most lovingly rendered: “The photographs of bull-fighters Montoya had really believed in were framed. Photographs of bull-fighters who had been without afición Montoya kept in a drawer of his desk… One day Montoya took them all out and dropped them in the waste-basket.”


Basking in the Basque Country

Illustration: Matthew Cook

Paris, usually seen by night, is seedy and dark. (All the better for our protagonists to pursue secret assignations). In one scene, Brett and Jake kiss in a taxi traveling through the bohemian Latin Quarter. The interplay of light and dark as the car rolls past open bars and streetlights adds a frisson to their sexual tension.

Summertime Spain, meanwhile, is bathed in light: a place where our characters explore their various passions against the backdrop of the corrida. It’s a place of natural beauty and buzzing life: “The fields were rolling and grassy and the grass was short from the sheep grazing.” While the streets of Paris often feel deserted, or at least a bit illicit, energy fills Spain’s Basque region: “You could not move in the crowd,” we learn. “The fiesta was going on. The drums pounded and the pipe music was shrill, and everywhere the flow of the crowd was broken by patches of dancers…”

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