Flawed, dated, but still brilliant
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 10 February 2018
I finished this novel for the second time last night and felt compelled to write my first Hemingway review. I’ve been reading Hemingway for over 20 years, starting with For Whom The Bell Tolls in the mid-nineties, followed by the Old Man and the Sea on a trip to Cuba in 2001, where I visited the hotel that Hemingway stayed at before he bought his own place, and the two famous bars where he spent his days, the Floridita and the Bodegita del Medio. I’ve also read A Farewell to Arms and the complete short stories.
Enough of that. The problem with Hemingway is he began his writing career in the 1920s when anti-Semitism and the use of the N word were acceptable, if not respectable. To be fair to Hemingway, in this novel the N word is only used when a character recounts a sympathetic anecdote about an African American boxer in dire straits in Vienna. However, the anti-Semitism is rife among several characters, and although the narrator is friends with Robert Cohn, the Jew in the novel, and is not overtly anti-Semitic himself, he doesn’t challenge the anti-Semitism of the other characters, which is a way of implying that it’s “OK”.
This problem isn’t unique to Hemingway, and if we burned all the books that contain offensive references to women, Jews, gay people, Black people, an Amazon warehouseful of literature would go up in smoke. Yes, there are bits of this novel that make me wince, but I’ve found that’s the case with a great many books from this era, particularly American books. I read The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon a couple of years ago, after seeing both films a dozen times, and the novels both came out as surprisingly homophobic. Only after reading the novels did I detect traces of homophobia in the films (it had all gone over my head previously).
The novel is about a group of American, English and Scottish ex-pats living in Paris in the 1920s. They are the “lost generation” who survived the Great War and are trying to rebuild their lives in exile with copious amounts of alcohol. It’s summer and they all decide to go down to Pamplona, Spain, for the fiesta. The narrator Jake Barnes and his mate Bill go first. They’re mad on fishing and bullfighting, so they go down to Spain and fish for trout for a few days and organise tickets for the bullfights that form the main attraction of the fiesta. The others come down later: the aristocratic Englishwoman, Lady Brett Ashley, and her Scottish fiancé, Mike Campbell, and the misfit, Robert Cohn, who has ditched his partner because he’s fallen for Brett. The fiesta presents opportunities for more drinking even than Paris, followed by conflict and violence as the group disintegrates.
For me, there are two things that save Hemingway from the pyre: first, that over time his politics improved and he was on the right side of history in the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban Revolution. The second is the quality of his writing. All the stuff about hunting, fishing and bullfighting might seem overly macho and distasteful today, but it’s the way Hemingway writes about these things. His style seems so simple and direct – sometimes “manly” in the worst sense of the word – but underneath there is pounding emotion. This passage refers to a bull goring a bystander as it’s taken to the bullring. Later, a matador kills it in the ring and presents its ear to the novel’s heroine, Brett Ashley, who slept with him the previous night and the night after the bullfight:
“The bull who killed Vicente Girones was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.”
One of the most remarkable things about this novel is that we have an impotent male narrator (result of a war wound) and a heroine who sleeps with three different men in the novel (one is her fiancé, the other two aren’t). Sexual power transferred from male to female. Difficult to explain for a writer who’s often dismissed as a misogynist. There’s no condemnation of Brett and you’re left with the feeling that she’s going to go on doing what she enjoys, whereas in too many novels by men women who like sex come to a bad end.
Here’s another example where the narrator and his companions are watching a dance at a fiesta:
“In front of us on a clear part of the street a company of boys were dancing. The steps were very intricate and their faces were intent and concentrated. They all looked down while they danced. Their rope-soled shoes tapped and spatted on the pavement. The toes touched. The balls of the feet touched. Then the music broke wildly and the step was finished and they were all dancing up the street.”
The artistry here is in what’s not said. We don’t have a detailed description of what they were wearing or the moves of the dance. Hemingway focuses on their faces and feet, and even with my limited imagination I can see those dancers in front of me now.
So, despite my misgivings about the N word and the anti-Semitism, I’m giving this book five stars. If you think you’ll be offended, don’t buy it; but if you want to see what made Hemingway such a brilliant story teller, take a punt.
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