The Sun Also Rises almost lost me a number of times. Its plot consists of drinks and hotels and more drinks and dinner and drinks and then back to the hotel and then to SPAIN where they have drinks at the hotel and then dinner with some more drinks. It’s very repetitive and after a while, the rowdy bar nights and seriously unlikable characters turned into one big intoxicated blur that I knew would give me a terrible hangover.
But it wasn’t until I had reached the final pages that I understood that that was exactly the point.
Brett and Jake both float through Europe, trying to connect with people but always ending up alone and disappointed. It seems that the only people they do like are each other, and yet things never seem to work out for them. They are part of the so-called “lost generation” (a term coined by Gertrude Stein), those who had been physically and emotionally damaged by World War I and now had trouble going back to normal, if there even was such a thing anymore. Jake has been rendered impotent by his war wound and spends much of his time drinking, and twice-divorced Brett embarks on one doomed love affair after another.
After a novel’s worth of parties, affairs, bull and fist fights (all part of their routine), Brett and Jake have lunch together and finally have an actual, genuine conversation. Their friends are gone, the party is over, and all of a sudden Brett puts her hand on Jake’s arm and says: “Don’t get drunk, Jake. You don’t have to.” This little line hit me like a ton of bricks. For the first time, Brett sounds like she actually cares, not just about Jake, but about anything at all. She sighs that she and Jake might have been great together, he replies “isn’t it pretty to think so?”, and suddenly I felt incredibly sad for these characters I hadn’t cared one bit for in the previous 150 pages. It’s exactly like Hemingway himself said: they are battered, but not broken.
I had already made up my mind about this book, but with only a few more paragraphs to go, Hemingway suddenly reached across the table and slapped me in the face, and as I slowly put my hand up to my red hot cheek in shock, he poured himself another glass of rioja alta, looked me straight in the eye, and said: “yeah. Exactly.”
Did I enjoy reading this novel? No. But it’s still a win for Hemingway.
Touché, sir. Touché.