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Second Thoughts: Matthew C. Simpson on The Sun Also Rises

By Matthew C. Simpson

This is the seventeenth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.

In the spring of my senior year of high school, I became absorbed in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises in a way that has no parallel in my experience as a reader. It’s the story of road trip taken by a small group of British and American expatriates from Paris to Pamplona, Spain to watch the running of the bulls. I retain a hyper-vivid memory not only of the book but of the experience of reading it. After school I would sit outside at the wooden picnic table on the grass in our yard. The neighbor had a forsythia bush that cascaded over the fence along one side. It was just coming into bloom, and each day the fence would become more and more yellow. The temperature was slightly too cold to sit outside comfortably. I would drink hot tea with milk and sugar and wear a thick wool sweater. I remember the blue mug and the steam swirling up from the tea. The sun felt warm on my face and hands even though the bench was cold beneath me. I remember the cover of the book, the texture of the paper, and the type on the pages. Sometimes I feel that I could almost read whole paragraphs from the images in my memory. I have no idea why the novel grabbed me like that, or why the recollection of it remains so clear.

Yet when as a college student I tried reading more deeply in Hemingway’s work, I was repelled, and this is the overall impression that has stayed with me. In some classroom or dorm I had been told that “Hills Like White Elephants” was a masterful story about a couple’s decision whether to have an abortion. I eagerly returned to the author who had so affected me a few years before. But when I read the story, I found it bewildering and nonsensical, and the writing style struck me as forced and indulgent to the point of self-parody. Here’s a passage chosen almost at random:

“We can have everything.”

“No, we can’t”

“We can have the whole world.”

“No, we can’t.”

“We can go everywhere”

“No, we can’t. It isn’t ours anymore.”

“It’s ours.”

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I thumbed forward to another story that I had heard praised, “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I.” There I read the following about the protagonist Nick Adams: “While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans.” I wondered if Part II was necessary.

Finally I turned to For Whom the Bell Tolls, his 1940 novel about the Spanish Civil War, the back cover of which assured me was his greatest work. In one scene the main character Robert Jordan is reflecting on his friend Anselmo’s brave decision to remain at his military post during a storm. Written in the third person, the narration goes like this: “If he [Anselmo] had come in to camp it would have been all right. It would have been the intelligent and correct thing to have done under the circumstances, Robert Jordan was thinking. But he stayed as he was told, Robert Jordan thought.” The narrator is apparently a world-weary four-year-old.

The more I learned about Hemingway the man, the easier it was to dislike his books. His life story was a series of cringe-worthy bouts of vanity, cruelty, misogyny, and alcoholism. Yet what bothered me most when I read him in college was his refusal to go beneath the surface, to talk convincingly about his characters’ motives, values, concerns, feelings, or opinions. He seemed to be a novelist who ignored the proper subject of the novel, the inner life of human beings in the modern world. His childlike syntax mapped a childlike treatment of the entire realm of human subjectivity.

As I moved though college and graduate school, the authors that I came to love were the (mostly French) analysts of the human self: Montaigne, Rochefoucauld, Sévigné, and then the 19th-century realists: Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, etc., a trajectory that in some ways culminates in Proust, who takes the involutions of the modern psychological novel about as far as they can go. I found these authors to be clinical anatomists of the modern subject; they were detached, fair, and precise, but merciless when provoked, and incapable of sentimentality. They offered minute description and interpretation of every quiver of sensibility, shade of thought and feeling, hidden motivation, hypocrisy, and self-deception. They took as their subject the entire experience of the self under conditions of modernity, and they explored it by means of the most elegant prose imaginable. They succeeded, in other words, where Hemingway had not even begun.

But this past summer I tried again. The occasion, oddly, was watching the movie High Noon. In one of the disk’s special features I learned something I could hardly believe: the actor Gary Cooper was close friends with Hemingway. From what I know of Cooper he was in real life as decent a man as most of the characters he played on screen. I was shocked that someone so calm, pleasant, and gracious would have enjoyed spending time with a blustering, short-tempered souse like Hemingway. I was also fascinated to learn that Robert Jordan was modeled on Cooper.

Based on Gary Cooper’s character reference, I tried Hemingway one more time. And over the past few months I have gained a new appreciation of his art, and found new satisfactions in reading his prose, as strange and tortured as it sometimes is. The first clue came for me in a well-known passage from A Farewell to Arms, his 1929 novel about the Italian front in World War I. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, reflects on the bogus rhetoric surrounding the war:

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

It’s worthwhile to remember that for all his restless machismo, Hemingway’s closest friends and acquaintances during the twenties were people like Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce—none of them reluctant to explore the perplexities of the human subject. And, improbable as it seems to me, Hemingway and Proust briefly lived in Paris at the same time; Hemingway’s first year there, 1922, was the year of Proust’s death. I began to see that Hemingway does not ignore the inner life of the self. Rather, he treats the words we use to talk about the self as he treats abstractions like glory and honor. He doesn’t deny that such things exist, or that terms used to describe them might possibly have meaning; but they are so overused, and so open to abuse, that an honest writer avoids them. He is an author for whom the typical vocabulary of subjectivity (jealousy, love, lust, memory, regret, romance, vanity, and so on) is as suspect as the platitudes of war.    

I have come to think of Hemingway as a kind of anti-Proust. Put differently, his writing is to the French psychological novel what the International Style is to Beaux-Arts architecture. He works from a principled distrust of any hint of presumption or excess or fakery. I no longer think that he ignores the difficulties of modern selfhood; instead, he distrusts the way we talk about them, even the way he talks about them. His approach to fiction suggests that as soon as writers leave the surface of things they are likely to fall into hokum, but this is not to say that there is nothing beyond the surface of things. On the contrary, this beyond, the inner life of the human person, is the substance of the work. Yet it remains unspoken and implied, because to describe it in depth would presume knowledge of the human self that is perhaps impossible to acquire, yet all too easy to fake. Literary critics, and Hemingway himself, like to say that his prose style was the product of an “iceberg theory” of writing, namely he would show only a fraction of the thing, and the reader would surmise the rest from what appears above the surface.

This is certainly true of his description of objects and his use of dialogue, which are sometime so minimal that the reader isn’t sure where the characters are or what they are talking about. But it’s true in a different way of his treatment of the self. Once you get an eye for it, you can see that his characters are fully realized in the way we would expect from an accomplished novelist; they have a complete and believable history and inner life. But Hemingway refuses to tell us what it is, or to use the kind of words that would be necessary to tell us what it is. From this perspective, and in contrast to the dissoluteness of his personal life, Hemingway’s prose expresses an admirable self-discipline; he conjures rich, complicated characters in his mind but tells us only what is concrete, factual, and observable. He doesn’t put his characters on the page; he puts traces on the page that require his readers to participate in imagining characters who would leave such traces. To appreciate Hemingway’s art, then, we must accept his invitation to co-create, to perform a labor of inference. His style is demanding in this way, but far from superficial; and when the technique works, reading his prose becomes almost uncanny—like seeing a stereographic image pop into three dimensions.

In a lyrical passage near the end of The Sun Also Rises, the protagonist Jake Barnes is recuperating alone at the seaside in Spain after the road trip to Pamplona has gone badly wrong. Writing in the first person, Hemingway has Barnes swim in the ocean, and then say,

I walked around the harbor under the trees to the casino, and then up one of the cool streets to the Café Marinas. There was an orchestra playing inside the café and I sat out on the terrace and enjoyed the fresh coolness in the hot day, and had a glass of lemon-juice and shaved ice and then a long whiskey and soda. I sat in front of the Marinas for a long time and read and watched the people, and listened to the music.

I don’t doubt that Barnes is a complicated thinking and feeling person, that he is the kind of fully realized character that we look for in a great novel. But we must seek out his inner life for ourselves, as we must in real life too. In contrast to the aggression and braggadocio that make Hemingway an unattractive person, his treatment of the self, at least the selfhood of his fictional creations, is attentive, sensitive, and intellectually humble; and he engages the reader as an equal, capable of a kind of creative partnership.

When I was young I enjoyed reading atlases and almanacs. Like Frederic Henry, I took some comfort in the names of towns and rivers and mountains, and also in lists of the largest cities or fastest animals or the sequence of presidents. They seemed precise, real, reliable, the same from one day to the next. I wonder if during the spring of my senior year of high school, although I had not yet had any experiences like those of Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley, and the others in The Sun Also Rises, I sensed that there was something principled and honest in Hemingway’s style of writing about them. Perhaps we will never understand the subtleties of human thought and emotion: why Brett goes back to her former lover, or why Pablo in For Whom the Bell Tolls sabotages his comrades only to return and fight alongside them. But we know that Nick Adams liked to open cans. And that’s a good start.

Matthew C. Simpson is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico