Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Sun Also Rises (1926)

What I remember best about reading Ernest Hemingway "way back when" was that most of my reading friends disliked him to varying degrees of intensity, and thus he became something of a guilty pleasure for me, whose novels and stories I consumed in great chunks. But since then I have not returned to him much, at least until recently, for various reasons, not least that there was no longer any peer pressure mitigating against liking him. I noticed there were some changes to the blurbs on his books: he now has done "more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century" and is charged with paving the way for Raymond Carver. Thus encouraged, I embarked on his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which I read first—again, in one great gulp—in 1975 or so, and went through again in the '80s. Even back then I was troubled by the appearance of the word "nigger," and even more, on that score, by the black jazz drummer whose dialogue is reported as "......" Fine—whatever. Allowances need to be made for historical context. Yet it still seemed offensive, because so gratuitous. But fine—leave that alone. I was more than horrified, this time, to find the style of writing dreadfully opaque—straightforward nouns and verbs, yes, but always concerned with superfluities, banal description alternating with banal dialogue. And then the premise. What hokum. I mean, I can handle the heavy-handed symbolism of castration by war. But making the eunuch the narrator? And, worse, the stoic sufferer? Too much. Almost laughable. Then there's the problem of the Lady Brett Ashley, who is thoroughly unlikable. She and the eunuch deserve one another, but it's fairly evident we're intended to find the two of them noble and heroic, or at least indulge their drunkenness as understandable. All right, but I'd preferred they remained passed out for the duration. I understand this novel is considered significant perhaps more for its stylistic, formalistic qualities than as a war novel or any other kind of novel (profligate youth, post-WWI manners, "lost generation," Roaring '20s, whatever). And, right, you can't miss the sizzle and electricity of the language, and I appreciate the connection to Carver. But this is such a simple-minded exercise of unexamined privilege that it mostly trumps all for me now. Enough with the silent heroics. Whine a little, why don't you. You were grievously wounded. For all the acclaimed pellucid qualities of the language it is remarkably ponderous, inflating itself to comical proportions. "......" indeed.

In case it's not at the library.

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