I went into this book torn between scepticism and hoping to fall in love. I knew all about Hemingway, from popular culture, lists of the greatest writers and as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War. I had also read A Moveable Feast back when I was a student and it was just the kind of sensory, cafe and liquor heavy prose I enjoyed then. The Sun Also Rises is the first of Hemingway’s novels I have sat down to read and while I didn’t have to force my way through it like another certain Jazz Age work, I wasn’t blown away either.
The book centres around a group of American expatriates after WW1, as they roam from the bars in Paris to the bullfighting rings of Spain, while dealing with their romantic entanglements with each other and disillusionment after the War. The star is Lady Brett Ashley and orbiting around her is the protagonist Jake Barnes. I had heard of these two before I even picked up the book as they are quite iconic.
Hemingway’s writing style is incredibly sparse and yet highly atmospheric. It is also heavy on the dialogue and often quite mundane dialogue at that. It should have been rambling and pointless and yet there is weight behind it. It’s like it all fits into the same dream. The mundane becomes relevant. I’ve seen other contemporary writers do this and found it tedious and pretentious and yet here it works.
“The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright and inclined to blur at the edges.”
Halfway through the book however the novelty had worn off for me. I enjoyed the writing but the characters weren’t interesting enough to me to keep me glued to a book without much of a plot. I didn’t really know much more about Brett or Jake at the end of the book then I did at the beginning despite having watched them drink their way across Europe. I also wasn’t impressed by the casual anti-Semitism thrown around by various characters and the greatest impression of my first reading of a Hemingway novel from this is; disappointment.
It’s not a good sign if you haven’t even read to the end of the first chapter of a book and you’re already thinking “the more time I spend reading this book the faster it will be over.”
This fictionalized account of Fitzgerald’s married life explores the Jazz Age and the decadence and dangers that being born into beauty and money can bring. The message Fitzgerald is painstakingly illustrating is that you need more than money to live a worthwhile life. It’s a good idea and his writing is poetic enough (although it didn’t blow me away) but I didn’t care about the characters and the plot (if you can call it a plot) meanders so drearily that I almost fell asleep reading it.
The protagonist Anthony Patch is too self absorbed to love another person or even make an interesting narrator so I found the whirlwind romance between him and Gloria the most pitiful example of its kind. I can see what affect Fitzgerald was aiming for but the characters are so unlikeable even before their troubles start with their antisemitism, racism against their Japanese butler and utter lack of interest in the world around them that I didn’t really care what happened to them at all. Worse than being dislikeable characters they weren’t interesting ones.
The style is definitely what I found most remarkable about the novel. The poetic interludes, the lines of dialogue and crisp subheadings. I found the way Fitzgerald inserted passages of plain dialogue very odd. It’s not that I didn’t like it. I found the technique appealing. But that attitude I had sums up my feelings for the whole book. Detached, vaguely interested in the technical style but overall emotionally and intellectually unmoved.
The dialogue between Beauty and The Voice is the very thin highlight of the book for me, It wasn’t groundbreaking but it had a lovely archaic poetry to it and joined the few brief moments I respected the authors writing. Also was the smart insight into the Patch’s marriage:
They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretense created the actuality. Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression- yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony. He felt often like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving.
Overall this would have been better as a novella. I became distantly interested near the end when they constantly argued about mundane day to day living in the same way I’d be half heartedly interested in watching an episode of EastEnders. As this is the first Fitzgerald I’ve ever read, however, it doesn’t compel me to read any more.