Hemingway, and books about nothing
Any contemporary writer wanting to write a novel about the meaningless of modern life, the routine of hanging out in cafes, the sensation of having just enough money to never need to work that hard, the feeling that time is passing worthlessly—and the loss of moral sense this kind of lifestyle implies—faces a big problem: back when his or her grandparents were young, Ernest Hemingway had already written The Sun Also Rises.
The Sun Also Rises is a fantastic novel as a reading experience, as a study in sentence technique, and as a guide to writing in 2010. The plot is painfully simple: Jake, an American journalist in Paris, loves Brett Ashley, a beautiful English pseudo-aristocrat, and she loves him, only a wound he received during WWI means that he can never consummate their relationship, and so they drift between friends and (her) lovers, moving from Paris to Pamplona, carrying other broken ex-pats along with them.
The great power of The Sun Also Rises is that Hemingway had access to the kind of nihilistic, sad existence that many contemporary writers seem to feel they live in, but he was not content to write a book that simply depicts this existence: by creating Jake and his wound, Hemingway goes deeper than simply depicting how life is crap: he creates a symbol that embodies, and hints at what lies beneath, this type of existence. Now, Hemingway, like many writers, did not enjoy being called a symbolist, but whether he was or not one is irrelevant. Once we have Jake, Brett, and Jake’s damaged bits, this nexus around which the situations of France and Spain in the 20s circle, then out of nothingness comes a story, and out of the story comes hints, suggestions, symbols, of what the wider problem is with ex-pats in the 20s, and, by extension, what the problem is with us today.
For some time in the novel, for instance, Jake goes to fish, with his friend Bill, in a Spanish village. Nothing dramatic happens to them other than the occasional arrival of telegrams. This beautiful sequence, however, doesn’t feel “plotless,” because both he and the reader knows that Brett is due to arrive, with her fiancee and additional admirer, and sooner or later this idyll is going to be ruined. “Plot” can be as simple as, “I want to find out what happens when Brett gets to Spain.” That question is enough to add tension to scenes of otherwise simple description and action.
From the fishing part of the book:
Beyond the fields we crossed another faster-flowing stream. A sandy road led down to the ford and beyond into the woods. The path crossed the stream on another foot-log below the ford, and joined the road, and went into the woods.
It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth green, very green and fresh, and the big grey trees well spaced as though it were a park.
“This is country,” Bill said.
The road went up a hill and we got into thick woods, and the road kept on climbing. Sometimes it dipped down but rose again steeply. All the time we heard the cattle in the woods. Finally, the road came out on the top of the hills. We were on the top of the height of land that was the highest part of the range of wooded hills we had seen from Burguete. There were wild strawberries growing on the sunny side of the ridge in a little clearing in the trees.
Bill was down below watching the stream.
“Say,” he called up against the noise of the dam. “How about putting the wine in that spring up the road?”
“All right,” I shouted. Bill waved his hand and started down the stream. I found the two wine-bottles in the pack, and carried them up the road to where the water of a spring flowed out of an iron pipe. There was a board over the spring and I lifted it and, knocking the corks firmly into the bottles, lowered them down into the water. It was so cold my hand and wrist felt numbed. I put back the slab of wood, and hoped nobody would find the wine.
I got my rod that was leaning against the tree, took the bait-can and landing-net, and walked out onto the dam. It was built to provide a head of water for driving logs. The gate was up, and I sat on one of the squared timbers and watched the smooth apron of water before the river tumbled into the falls. In the white water at the foot of the dam it was deep. As I baited up, a trout shot up out of the white water into the falls and was carried down. Before I could finish baiting, another trout jumped the falls, making the same lovely arc and disappeared into the water that was thundering down. I put on a good-sized sinker and dropped into the white water close to the edge of the timbers of the dam.
This great symbol of the “Lost Generation” allows Hemingway the opportunity to layer on comparisons and mirrors to Jake. Mike, Brett’s fiancee, who is not physically emasculated, is nevertheless bankrupt and an alcoholic, and also has no choice but watch Brett take up with other men. Robert Cohn swims in bitterness.
The horrible irony of the novel is that although Jake is irreparably damaged by the war, when he is more or less alone in France or Spain, he is fine. He likes and appreciates the countries he is in, and only when Brett and her entourage arrive does he return to despair. He is not whole, but he only truly feels it around her; the sun also rises for him, if only he can get away from the other Anglophones intent on destroying themselves.