Happy Birthday, Ernest Hemingway.
Six years ago, in the middle of my first winter in New England (a true system shock), it was offered to me that The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway was a book for men about what it is like to be a man in the modern world. Being cartoonishly ill-equipped at the time to even begin to articulate what I thought that all meant, I distinctly recall purposefuly marching out from my tiny apartment in Boston, in a snowstorm, to a nearly-closing bookstore where I could pick up this suddenly-fabled rosetta stone of masculinity, that I might have it’s secrets bestowed upon me.
(Quick disclaimer: I am not that Hemingway guy you’ve doubtlessly met in every one of your creative writing classes, ever. You can remember him: overly serious, preposterously concerned with grammar, regards Hemingway with staccato whisper-prayers whenever his hallowed name is invoked. Not me — Hemingway was one of my favorite writers up until the point in which I realized I was more in love with the overinflated literary symbol the man became later in life than with his actual work.)
As I read it in full over the course of the next 36 hours, I was shocked to learn that The Sun Also Rises is not the totem of bull-fighting, romance, and boozey machismo that I had though it would be when I began turning its pages. Indeed, those elements are present and well-wrought in the novel and you’re welcome to stop and concentrate on them for as long as you’d like. Ultimately, however, the book is far more about impotence than anything. That’s the heavy, impactful theme that has stuck with me in the years since. It is a story about impotent rage, impotent/untended love, actual impotence — quite simply, it is a narrative swelling (Christ, no pun intended there, I’m so sorry) with a vulnerability that is just lacking in the man’s later works. Rather than blind confidence, The Sun Also Rises is concerned with what happens when a man predicates his every motion upon petty, selfish, violently masculine impulses.
Which is why I absolutely think it is a book every man should read — preferably sometime around their 18th birthday.
It is, before anything, a story concerning fundamentally broken people. Each character feels that they are owed something more than what they have. Jake Barnes, an early Hemingway avatar, makes his way through the novel obsessing over a woman he can’t have, very probably because he can’t have her, having been emasculated to some significant degree in the war (at the very least, we know that he is impotent). Lady Brett Ashley is built up in his own mind as this paragon of femininity and, just as readily, torn down into some thing worthy only of his contempt when the pieces don’t fit together as he feels they ought to. I doubt it was his intention (there is nary a narrative sideways glance at the overtly racist, sexist, and/or homophobic synapses firing out of Jake Barnes, which are absoutely not exclusivley offensive today with the benefit of hindsight but are instead eternally cruel and off-putting) but Hemingway still creates a character who, effectively, embodies nearly all of the pitfalls of masculinity. Barnes takes stunted, ill-informed steps forward into the future, bemoaning all that he’s lost while carrying a willingness (and even, at times, a desire) for violence. Jake is deeply flawed, being principally held together with mistakes, alcohol, and scar tissue. When he throws a punch at the-friend-he-despises Robert Cohn towards the end of the novel’s second act, it is nothing triumphant. The motion looks familiar and in another context might even seem heroic, but in The Sun Also Rises, the swing is absolutely drenched with something pitiful and desperate — as is Jake’s nearly every action.
Unchecked, I feel that a lot of us blokes would wind up something like Jake Barnes sometime in our mid twenties. Spiteful. Broken. Prematurely bitter. Consumed with the idea of masculinity and with schemes of living up to it (bull-fighting, aggressive drinking, and womanizing, for example). I know I’ve personally come close to slipping off into that well-charted territory. More than once, on a self-destructive, Poor Poor Pitiful Me tear, I’ve thought about The Sun Also Rises and take steps towards healing (or, at the very least, I make a mental note to, at some point down the road, start taking such measures into consideration).
Reading up on it tonight after having realized at some point online today that it was his birthday, I discovered that it was on this day in 1925, that Hemingway began writing The Sun Also Rises. He was twenty-six. And it is, truly, a hell of a book. One about men, men and women, masculinity, and all the misshapen and ill-advised forms it might take.
As much as I can’t stand any one character longer than a little bit, it is one of the most important things I’ve ever read and has an ending that, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, has truly haunted me in the time since I first brought the scene together in my head.
Happy Birthday, Ernest Hemingway.