Friday, September 21, 2012

The Sun Also Rises: Man, He Feels Like a Man!

Many things have been said over the years about The Sun Also Rises. Many High School and College students have written reams and reams of essays on this book. Teachers and professors have discussed it ad nauseum.

But the one thing no one has ever said about this book is that it is so dull that the Today's Parent magazine from 1998 in the dentist's waiting room looks like an exciting read in comparison.

That said, I can see why men love it. Because Hemingway writes like a man. He doesn't write about sissy things like emotions or feelings. He describes sunsets and scenery in stark, plain language, without telling you about any unwanted tingly feelings Jake, his protagonist, may have had as a result.

Jake observes the scenery. The sun is in the sky. It shines on the houses below. There are trees. There is grass. There are peasants. 

How does all this make Jake feel? Who the fuck knows! And who the fuck cares! Jake is a man and he doesn't feel. He observes and drinks and fishes and watches bullfights! He has no use for feelings!

You see, Jake, is a man. Even though he is impotent, he is more of a man than any of his fey companions. His companions sicken at the sight of the bullfights -- they are not real aficionados. He is a real aficionado. Jake fishes fish, guts them, and cooks them. His companions, though, blow off fishing to spend time with lady friends in hotels the next town over. Jake drinks but doesn't get drunk. His companions, though, can't hold their liquor.

And at least one of his companions doesn't like to box. The nerve!

But Jake's companions -- these fey men who prefer to fuck the ladies rather than kill the fishies -- are fucking Jake's special lady friend, Brett.

Brett, you see, is not like other ladies. She bangs the men. She flirts. She fucks matadors. She drinks. She has a man's name. She gets along with Jake like a house on fire because she also has no use for emotions or sentimentality or softness. She is, basically, Jake in a skirt. 

Jake and Brett, meanwhile, can't stand Robert Cohn, the guy who doesn't like to box and who thinks the bullfights will make him sick. He's not a real man by any stretch of the imagination, and plus he's Jewish. This is pointed out prettymuch every second page.

Now, let me just pause for a moment from the plot to say that I really wish my ancient Scribner edition from 1954 had been annotated because I'm pretty sure I'm missing context. The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926 when the lingo and mores were different. For example, Robert Cohn keeps being referred to as "the Jew" or "that Jew". I don't know how to interpret this. Why is the fact that he's Jewish important to the plot? Is the assumption that Jewish men aren't real men? Is it just that that's how people talked? I don't know. Some context would have been nice.

Similarly, all the characters occasionally say that they're doing things because "they're tight". I have no idea what that means. At first I thought it meant that they had no cash. Then I thought it meant they were drunk. I thought the drunk interpretation (which is the Internet's favourite interpretation) was the correct one until I met some passage where it didn't seem to make sense.

Back to the actual story. From what I can tell the entire book is about what makes a man a man. A man is a guy who, if he feels an emotion, won't let on that he has. A man is a guy who can catch his own food, clean it and cook it; he is self-sufficient in the Wilds. A man is a guy who likes danger and likes to conquer danger, even if that means taunting a bull and killing it. And a man is a guy who digs watching some other guy taunt a bull and then kill it for no particularly good reason. 

And dammit, a real man doesn't tell you how he feels about the bullfights or the fishing!

Jake, our narrator and hero, being a real man, doesn't give you any insight into his or anyone else's state of mind, personality, or emotions. He just states the facts that he observes. While I understand that this is A Thing (the Iceberg Style of writing...where everything is under the surface), I don't have to like it. In fact, I hate it. Aside from making the prose choppy and -- let me be blunt here -- boring, it caused me to feel absolutely nothing for any of the characters. In fact, I felt more investment in the peasants in the bus with Jake than I did for any of the main characters. I honestly couldn't have cared less about these characters.

So in the end what I got from the book is that Spanish peasants in the 1920s were nice, generous, sharing, fun people who liked to drink wine out of leather pouches.

Oh, and that the one thing that doesn't make a man is a penis, working or otherwise. 


  1. I am a man. I like Hemingway. I like this book. I have a house. I am a Jew. I will knock your block off. I have a penis.

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