Thursday, March 24, 2011

Desert Island Novel to Read and Read and Read Again # 6: Ernest Hemingway's "Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises"

In honour of Hemingway Week at ye old PBIHT.. 
[Originally published here on August 13, 2010]

For Desert Island book to read and read and read again #5 click Steinbeck's "East of Eden"



Fiesta or The Sun Also Rises is perhaps more heart breaker than soul healer; it's a dark world Hemingway paints, but it's also enormously exciting, adventurous, honest and so beautifully written. Sometimes the most heart breaking of art works heal our soul by the beauty of their construction. The content may be dark, but the architecture is the part that uplifts. When it comes to his fellow man Hemingway was rather the cynic. But in nature or when it came to women, he was a romantic in the extreme. 




No Old Man, Barely any Sea
I was so intimidated by Hemingway's very name, as I think we all are by the big classic names in literature that, as I wrote about in my last Novel to Break Your Heart Even As It Heals Your Soul piece on For Whom the Bell Tolls, that first encounter with the author on my friend's toilet was a genuine relief. That - on my friend's toilet - is where I discovered Fiesta or The Sun Also Rises. It was my first Hemingway and for that I think I'm lucky. Too many were forced, or at least misled to choose, to read The Old Man and the Sea. This is a tragedy cause it would have you believe that Hemingway is always boring, long-winded, portentous and pretentious. He's not. The Old Man and the Sea, as the name so aptly describes, has nothing in it but an old man and a great big sea. There are no women folk. There is no love story, and as I've said here before, that's the big secret about Hemingway. The big lug was a full-blown romantic at heart.

This was Brett that I had felt like crying about. Then I thought of her walking up the street and stepping into the car, as I had last seen her, and of course in a little while I felt like hell again. It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing. 

His earlier novels are far more interesting for this - they aren't just about man and nature. In fact, in the beginning it was far more human drama, far less about nature. I'd argue it was actually Hemingway's ability to break up his long passages of human drama with scenes of people-less nature that created a kind of perfect balance in the work (a kind of balance sorely lacking in the The Old Man book, where I'd have killed for a little human-on-human drama).

Rather the Book Than the Man
There are so many things about Hemingway I don't like, but most have more to do with the man than the writing, though of course the man is in the writing all over the place. What's not to like? Oh I don't know, the antisemitism, the utter male chauvinism and worst of all the self-aggrandizing macho bullshit. And Hemingway can, at times, be totally full of it, like a bad Marlboro commercial's version of the caricature of what a man "should be." For guys that buy into beer commercial definitions of gender. 
 
Fiesta is great cause it has far less of the macho. There is no old man, there is no fishing, there is little to no sea. It's not a book about war either. Now, yes, there is a whole slew of information about bull fighting, but it's quite interesting and it's not overlong, not a tenth of the hundreds of pages of French history you get in, say, Hugo's Les Miserables. Also, it's set amongst a fiesta, a truly Spanish celebration of seven days and nights of madness and drinking and unhappiness and elation and the way people are when there are no consequences. 

Plotless Wonder
My all time-favourite books, of which I count Fiesta or The Sun Also Rises one (the former was Hemingway's original title, used in Britain; in North America, however, the book was renamed The Sun Also Rises) manage to not feel like they have any plot. This is the most dangerous kind of story writing because usually it is bound to fail on its ass. Though you've probably never before heard Fiesta compared with Murakami's Norwegian Wood or with The Catcher in the Rye, I think they share something structurally. None of these books follows the kind of obvious plot line that is common to more traditional modes of novel writing.

These are my favourite kinds of books. They aren't epic in scope. They don't involve casts of thousands. And no codes need be broken, no vampires spoken. The mystery - and genius - of them is that they read like life and yet of course are so much bigger than that. This is the danger with Hemingway, I'll acknowledge. Without a wee bit of patience, The Sun Also Rises can read almost mundane at times, the way a simple day is described. To me though, the utter beauty of a "simple" Hemingway description ... let's just say he might be the most evocative writer of a scene I've ever read. Certainly in terms of capturing the beauty of nature; few writers I've ever read better put a picture in my mind (and teach me how few adjectives and big words are necessary to get the job done right).

In the morning it was raining. A fog had come over the mountains from the sea. You could not see the tops of the mountains. The plateau was dull and gloomy, and the shapes of the trees and the houses were changed. I walked out beyond the town to look at the weather. The bad weather was coming over the mountains from the sea. 

The flags in the square hung wet from the white poles and the banners were wet and hung damp against the front of the houses, and in between the steady drizzle the rain came down and drove every one under arcades and made pools of water in the square, and the streets wet and dark and deserted ...

The utter simplicity of the language, the near child-like simplicity of it (the repetition of the words, for example) all the more beguiles the reader when considering how much misdirection there is in this book. You are already some thirty pages in before you've even been given a hint of what the story is truly concerned with. (It's not bull fighting).

The Spanish fiesta itself, of the binge drinking and bull running, does not begin until halfway through the novel, and much of the book's contents, be they in Spain or France, are about the underbelly of human relationships. So much of this story is of people eating good food and drinking copious amounts of wine (no writer makes me hungrier or thirstier), and in the midst of all this it is about how people can be so jealous and cruel, of love and hate, of friendship and misery.

Roger Ebert, the film critic, said the following of film, but it of course goes doubly for literature as well: The greatest works are always something of a mystery - that's what keeps us coming back.

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