Monday, 27 October 2014

The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises (1926)

William Burroughs said of the cut-up technique he introduced to literature - as formalised by himself and Brion Gysin - something along the lines of the novel being some twenty or so years behind painting, the art world having dispensed with the purely representational in the wake of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907, roughly speaking. Artists had begun to screw around with form, to create bold new images beyond that which existed in nature. Burroughs therefore likened his own reorganisation of existing texts to Dadaist collage. All well and good, but the premise of one form necessarily needing to catch up with the other was a bit of a straw man argument, given that both the Dadaists and Futurists had already applied collage technique to the written word and, as I'm beginning to appreciate, for most of the twentieth century literature has remained very much in step with the times as represented by whatever cultural swerves were taken in painting and sculpture. Hemingway is a case in point. The narrative unfolds in a straight line for sure, but the means by which that narrative is communicated is as much stripped down to pure form and rhythm as anything painted in the decades leading up to the big post-war freak out of abstract expressionism.

The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then levelled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, then turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street. We were sitting apart and we jolted close together going down the old street. Brett's hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the lights from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue de Gobelins. The street was torn up and men were working on the car-tracks by the light of acetylene flares. Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her. Our lips were tight together and then she turned away and pressed against the corner of the seat, as far away as she could get. Her head was down.

The rhythm may be erratic, picked out in the division of sentences into component statements and the repetition of certain words, but it is nevertheless as much a rhythm as anything painted by, for one example, Max Weber - whom I name specifically because Hemingway's above quoted opening to chapter four brought Weber's Rush Hour, New York of 1915 immediately to mind.

Anyway, The Sun Also Rises concerns itself with what Gertrude Stein identified as the Lost Generation, those left wandering and lacking purpose in the wake of the first world war, a war which - it might be argued - left existing ideas of morality looking somewhat ineffectual. The roughly autobiographical protagonists of The Sun Also Rises are rich kids who spend a lot of time talking about things of no real consequence, dining, travelling, having unsatisfactory affairs, eventually ending up in a small town in Spain having a bit of a wheeze during all the gore of the bull running. The gang have their emotional ups and downs but appear to remain unaffected by their environment. In chapter thirteen, Mike reduces military medals to a decorative feature of his dress, which may possibly have had more resonance between the wars than it does at present; and then there's the blood and innards all over the streets of Pamplona reduced to spectator sport, and in a way which I'm tempted to suggest may have been intended to echo the class divide painfully emphasised by the war. Carlos Baker as quoted on Wikipedia reckons that in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway presents his notion that the Lost Generation, considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong, but personally I don't really see it. I found them feckless and slightly irritating, and I was reminded of the counterpart bullfight in D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent also published in 1926 which could almost have been a direct response but for the timing. Naturally Lawrence's version entails more heaving and thrusting with brows furrowing darkly left right and centre, which seems to me a more natural response to such gruesome spectacle; and in the same novel we find:

She thought again of going back to Europe. But what was the good? She knew it! It was all politics or jazzing or slushy mysticism or sordid spiritualism. And the magic had gone. The younger generation, so smart and interesting, but so without any mystery, any background. The younger the generation, the flatter and more jazzy, more and more devoid of wonder.

Which quite adequately describes Hemingway's bunch, for my money, regardless of at least one of the two authors under discussion being something of a nutter who may not actually know what he's talking about all of the time.

So in lieu of a coherent summary, the short version of the review is that it was okay, but failed to deliver the life-changing experience I had been promised. I can see why The Sun Also Rises is regarded so highly, and much of it is beautifully put together, but it wasn't quite  my bag.

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