Inside River Run
Did he himself even know what the point of the book was? Do, reliably, any of his readers? Does it, or any book, even have to have a point?
The short stories are first rate. You might even say “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is the summit of the form. And certainly Ernest Hemingway deserves credit for moving decisively, if not spectacularly, away from the kind of stuffy, pretentious, and often outworn blather of his predecessors.
Then there's The Sun Also Rises. It's the same minimalist approach but after 200-some pages of Dick-and-Jane sentences and fifth-grade vocabulary, the effect is not the same. Hemingway crowed he was doing with words what Cézanne had done with paint. Really? Look one millimeter below the surface of that facile generalization, and it doesn’t make sense. Stripped-down descriptions are similar to stripped-down painted images. So what? It makes more sense to say that what Hemingway was actually doing was making his novel accessible to readers of the lowest-common denominator while at the same time convincing critics and reviewers that his book was a Picasso of literature. Which is a pretty neat trick. Let’s give him a lot of credit. Not many writers have pulled it off.
And he did it because, very likely, he had no choice. Lacking the four years of college required to pollute one’s natural-born aesthetic, he knew only one way to write and that was the way journalists wrote. So he became a journalist, though in his heart what he really wanted to be was a great novelist, a literary icon. Journalists tell real stories, novelists tell made-up stories. Why should they be told any differently? As it happened, when he went to Paris to troll for connections, he ended up sitting at the feet of mentors who reinforced his natural inclinations to write simply and directly. Strip out clauses and adjectives, they advised, and people will call the result “agile” and “muscular.” Then if you’re lucky, and you happen to be personally charismatic and an indefatigable self-promoter, and you hit the zeitgeist at just the right moment, you’ll emerge as the wonder of an age.
Hemingway labored tirelessly to cut everything to the bone, and then went after the bones as well, later offering the theory that most of a story, like an iceberg, should be left unsaid. As with his idea that he should write like Cézanne painted, this notion, another facile generalization, also doesn’t make much sense. Less information on the page is less food for your neurons. Do it with enough ruthless ambition, and what you get instead of a majestic iceberg is thin soup—radically different, it’s true, from what Hemingway’s competitors were serving up at the time, but not especially hearty.
This is Hemingway’s first novel, and it looks it. The nub of it is a salacious anecdote of what happens when a horny, rather dim woman named Brett takes on several callow, twenty-something lovers at once, and then one day in Spain they all find out about it. Cue the fireworks. Hemingway came up with the story and all the characters in it—not by inventing it, but by actually experiencing it first-hand. As others have noted, the book to a remarkable degree is more journalism than fiction.
In terms of composition, the novel seems loosely assembled—a kind of literary scrapbook. Set in Paris, the long expository opening section consists entirely of drinking, eating, walking, sobering up, and more drinking, all attended by trivial conversation, as if the narrator, Jake Barnes, were getting it all down in his diary (which was, in fact, exactly the way Hemingway did it). This is followed by the details of a trout fishing expedition to Spain—a narrative side trip from the plot, and beloved by fly fishermen everywhere. Finally, in the third section, all the characters meet in Pamplona to watch bull fights and participate in the bacchanalia of the San Fermin festival. It’s there that, as the saying goes, the shit finally hits the fan. Brett is shamed, Brett’s lovers pick fights with each other, a primo lark turns into a major funk.
The individual chapters continue the theme of “loosely assembled” while also adding, “poorly written.” They often begin and end abruptly—like cables the author is sending to himself—or simply peter out, ending on a note of triviality, as here at the end of Chapter VII:
She turned quickly and went into the hotel. The chauffeur drove me around to my flat. I gave him twenty francs and he touched his cap and said, “Good night, sir,” and drove off. I rang the bell. The door opened and I went to upstairs and went to bed.
No wonder the book has been endlessly parodied. There is a sense, overall, that too much of the book is made up of this kind of bland “filler.”
By the time they’re done with the hijinks of Pamplona, readers have often asked themselves what Hemingway seems to have against women, who appear to be in the same category as bulls and trout: things that males use to measure their manhood. Jake, who is a stand-in for Hemingway himself, but safely impotent, expresses his deep love for Brett, despite her self-destructive ways, a fatal weakness for booze and panting men, and no evidence there is much of interest going on inside her head. In the final scene, Brett and Jake are in Madrid sitting in the back of a cab, snuggling next to each other and commiserating over the tragic hopelessness of their doomed romance. Given the ending of the book, it may come as a surprise to learn that Hemingway, not entirely pleased with having adequately conveyed the depth of Brett’s degradation, departed from the real-life facts of the story and has Brett top off her Pamplona exploits by seducing a handsome young matador. Apparently she just can’t help herself. So sad.
And it’s here readers should seriously begin to wonder what the hell all this has been about.
What it clearly is not about is the so-called “Lost Generation” romanticism implied by the first epigraph, nor does it have anything to do with the cliché tricked out in the biblical prose of Ecclesiastes quoted in the second epigraph. Readers looking to closely identify with Jake or Brett (and they are legion), find what they are looking for—romance, tragedy, pathos—not to mention, love and loss amid the roaring-twenties charm of post-war Paris and pre-Franco Spain. No less a dedicated camp follower than Carlos Baker has decreed that Hemingway’s idea of the “Lost Generation,” far from being decadent and dissolute, was in fact resilient and strong.
Really? Not in the book I read.
I suspect Hemingway likely had something else in mind. The fact that he had been working on an especially stinging, book-length satire of Sherwood Anderson at the same time that he was trying to write The Sun Also Rises, should tell us something about Hemingway’s jaundiced eye and how deeply steeped in satire the novel might be—not just here and there, but everywhere. First, virtually no character escapes a withering portrayal, including the narrator. Second, the seemingly unending tedium and triviality of the characters’ lives, faithfully reported in prose like the passage quoted above, is a perfect sardonic counterpart to the tawdry romanticism those characters aspire to. We might even argue that what appears to be authorial ineptness is not the writer’s fault but his narrator’s.
But what did Hemingway himself think? In 1926, he wrote this to Maxwell Perkins, his editor:
The point of the book to me was that the earth abideth forever . . . I didn’t mean the book to be a hollow or bitter satire but a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero.
Without invoking the intentional fallacy, should we take this rather fatuous and silly comment (if anyone else had said it, Hemingway would have called it bullshit) at face value, or ascribe it to Hemingway’s strenuous desire to be the kind of serious novelist who is duty bound to traffic in big ideas and consoling uplift? Did he himself even know what the point of the book was? Do, reliably, any of his readers? Does it, or any book, even have to have a point?
All of this raises a difficult question given the received opinion that the novel is both a major commentary on the state of western civilization and a major innovation in the genre of the novel. Is it a satire or isn’t it? Can such a book be both good and bad at the same time? Or is it a case of a twenty-something writer struggling mightily to cobble together his first novel and being ill-equipped to come up with an answer—or even to pose such questions? In Hemingway’s mind, his raw satiric instincts might have comfortably co-existed beside his intellectual desire, egged on by Parisian literati, to do something grand and spectacularly new.
The novel went through many revisions, including major ones right up to publication. The pressure was on. People were waiting. Time was running out. What counted in the end, I would guess, was what irremediably there on the page, the ambivalence of the man reflected in the ambivalence of the text.
It was, after all, Hemingway’s pal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And not just function, but produce a one-of-a-kind work of art that defies definition, shape-shifting in the mind, whether the work of genius or happenstance, but becoming one of the foundational documents of a new century, relentlessly modern, but destined to remain skeptical of both the past and the future—and ultimately itself.