Tuesday, 6 August 2002

Ernest Hemingway: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (1927)

Edition: Vintage, 2000
Review number: 1112

Hemingway is famous as a macho writer, and this is a novel which demonstrates why. It combines exquisite writing with central characters who are not only repellent but who are made more so by the author's evident admiration, and (in the second half) with a subject matter now generally condemned outside Hispanic culture, bull fighting. The human part of the novel is about the relationship between the narrator and wild English aristocrat Lady Brett Ashley, which could be said to resemble a bull fight itself.

It is possible to defend Kipling, another author with attitudes now out of fashion, against those who criticise his pro-imperialist outlook. I would base such a defence on two grounds. First, he was a product of his time, and second, his attitude to the British Empire was more complex and more ambivalent than his critics grant. Hemingway may seem to be in a similar position; both writers are among the greatest creators of pictorial atmosphere in the English language, and both chose to immortalise something which is today viewed with embarrassment, if not repugnance.

Bullfighting is something which has hardly any apologists outside Spanish culture, and I for one was shocked when staying in a Spanish hotel to find that it was shown on prime time TV (I was flicking through the available channels to see if there was anything to watch). On the other hand, many tourists guiltily succumb to the lingering fascination and reputation for excitement it has, and when in Spain go to a fight. Apologists for Hemingway would say that this excitement, savage maybe though it is, is what The Sun Also Rises conveys, as well as his other writing about bullfighting. Such is the vividness of Hemingway's descriptions that even though the fights themselves only take up two or three chapters of Fiesta, they dominate the novel (contrasting with the rather tedious Parisian socialising of the first part) and do convey such excitement even to a reader opposed to what they are reading.

This hints at the difference between Kipling and Hemingway - the latter gives the impression that he is nothing like as ambivalent about the subject of his writing. Kipling's subject in his Indian novels is really the clash of two cultures (even in stories like those in The Jungle Book, which contrast the village and jungle), and the imperialist message is diluted a great deal by his admiration for, and desire to promote understanding of, India. The Sun Also Rises is also about admiration, for the machismo of the bullfight, but there is no opposing idea to counterbalance it. Indeed, you get the impression that the author even admires the rather unpleasant bunch of drunks who are the novel's main characters (albeit contrasted with the simple innocence of the young matador Romero).

In terms of style, Hemingway's elevation of journalistic prose into an art form makes him a great writer. That is true, too, in his greater and more acceptable novel, A Farewell to Arms. The Sun Also Rises perhaps also has some value as a document of Parisian café culture and pre-Franco Spain. As a novel, it is impressive and repellent, and ultimately too one sided to take seriously.

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