‘Love as War’: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Robert Capa 1940

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway, Sun Valley Idaho, 1940, photo by Robert Capa

These past few weeks I have had the great fortune of reconnecting with my favourite book, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (or Fiesta)*.  It is a book that I have often seen referred to as little more than the playful account of an expansive tourist bender – a group of spoiled Europeans sashaying through Spain to soak up the cheap booze and carnival excesses of the annual fiesta.  And yes, while it does indeed present some of the most evocative descriptions of drinking and partying, and the anarchic swirl of an exuberant sexual bacchanal, ever committed to fiction (the scene in which Jake has trouble going to sleep because he is blind drunk and the room keeps spinning around him is particularly captivating) – it is precisely because there is more going on beneath the facade of this apparent abandon that the novel is infused with an unspeakable lament and trauma, and the novel consequentially succeeds in being so profoundly moving.

Ernest Hemmingway was a boxer (he famously wanted to box Ezra Pound to toughen him up), and many people mistake his work as being similarly hard, punchy, overly-masculine prose.  What’s easy to forget, though, is that boxing is also about the precise, measured footwork going on underneath, and that is what Hemingway mastered: the delicate, descriptive movements beneath the surface of his imagery.  And this is nowhere more evident than here, in his first published novel; because on closer inspection, The Sun Also Rises, like the characters it depicts, reveals itself to be a deep, resonant and mournful novel that is only pretending to be carefree and aloof.

Although the characters might appear to be frivolous, urban socialites, criss-crossing countries on an binging vacation – this is a war book.  Set in the immediate wake of the first world war, this is a book about the nature of war.  A tale of tortured and torturous love.  Of self-loathing and emotional instability.  Of broken people, unsure of how to go on.  Of the psychological scars that remained after the declaration of peace as a civilisation struggled to come to terms with living through – but perhaps not wholly surviving – the great conflict that would redefine humanity’s conception of itself at the dawning of the twentieth century.

Much, like the narrator protagonist Jake Barnes, the novel therefore goes to some lengths to talk around the physical and psychological wounds that humanity has sustained rather than address them directly.  Paris and Spain are shown being haunted by figures wandering around in a state of numb shock, wounded soldiers and old fighters relieved to be alive, but not really sure what that life means anymore.  Jake is a wounded war veteran; his lover Brett is a war nurse whose husband died of dysentery; there are matadors trying to stave off fear; servicemen with amputations; a Count who has too much of the frontline, and violent revolutions, and who thus anesthetises himself with pretty women and alcohol.  All the characters are therefore adrift, wandering, unable to lay down roots or commit to anything.  They drink and hook up and travel, desperately trying to distract themselves from the horror that they have all witnessed, and struggling to recoup what they have lost, in themselves and society.

At its heart, this novel is a story about two nouns that have become almost sickeningly cliché: love and war.  But just as he does with his every application of misleadingly simplistic language, Hemingway strips these words back to their grammatical core.  It is a story about love in a time of war.  Love in spite of war.  About love as a type of war.  At the centre of this mediation it is an account of the relationship between two characters, Jake and Brett, who seemingly despite themselves, are bound together through the history they have shared in war (Brett was Jake’s nurse as he recovered from an injury not dissimilar from Hemingway’s own), and a love for each other that they cannot successfully resolve.  Seeing it as a fractious love story, one can observe a great deal about their relationship, their history, and this fiction itself, in the way that Hemingway chooses to describe that most familiar romantic trope, two lovers staring into each other’s eyes:

‘Don’t you love me?’

‘Love you?  I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.’

‘Isn’t there anything we can do about it?’

She was sitting up now.  My arm was around her and she was leaning back against me, and we were quite calm.  She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes.  They would look on and on after every one else’s in the world would have stopped looking.  She looked as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things.

‘And there’s not a damn thing we could do,’ I said.

‘I don’t know,’ she said.  ‘I don’t want to go through all that hell again.’

‘We’d better keep away from each other.’

‘But, darling, I have to see you.  It isn’t all that you know.’

‘No, but it always gets to be.’

‘That’s my fault.  Don’t we all pay for the things we do, though?’

She had been looking into my eyes the whole time.  Her eyes had different depths, sometimes they seemed perfectly flat.  Now you could see all the way into them. (p.23)

We see here a striking metaphorical encapsulation of Hemingway’s descriptive style: crisp, clear and declarative.  He doesn’t get poetical and syrupy.  He writes in lean, precise prose, even when articulating with the most loaded of emotional scar tissue.  Our narrator Jake – like his author Hemingway – is a journalist, who observes his world in nouns and verbs, honed with objective diligence, but it is what he isn’t saying, what he cannot bring himself to verbalise beneath the surface of this exchange (the ‘It’ of ‘it isn’t all that…’, ‘No, but it always gets to be…’), that is most revealing, and that motivates all else.

As is gradually revealed throughout the text, the ‘it‘ that Jake and Brett cannot bring themselves to verbalise is Jake’s impotence – his inability, after the horror of a devastating war injury (after which he was shipped home, where Brett nursed him back to health and they fell in love), to make love to her.  It is never made explicit whether his injury is physical or entirely psychosomatic, nonetheless, it has rendered him impotent, and this failing haunts him, (he believes) preventing him from being with the woman he loves.  To function – he comes to believe through his dislocated definition of masculinity – as a man.**

Consequentially, the book swells over with an almost obsessive meditation upon manhood and what it takes to remain ‘hard-boiled’ in the face of great emotional suffering.  Hence Jake’s obsession with those most masculine of men: bullfighters, and his preoccupation with boxing, and fishing, and fighting.  He is a character who has been rocked to his very core, and is trying to rebuild an image of himself that he thinks (wrongly) will restore him to himself.

Jake’s unwillingness to speak, to reveal his pain, is not bravado; in a world of survivors numbed by trauma, Jake is a state of post-traumatic anesthetization.  He cannot bring himself to verbalise his experience, so he shuts it out instead, blocking his pain and sorrow from consideration.  As the scene with Jake and Brett continues, the impediment that lies between them again rises to the surface:

‘Don’t talk like a fool,’ I said.  ‘Besides, what happened to me is supposed to be funny.  I never think about it.’

‘Oh, no.  I’ll lay you don’t.’

‘Well, let’s shut up about it.’

‘I laughed about it too, myself, once.’  She wasn’t looking at me.  ‘A friend of my brother’s came home that way from Mons.  It seemed like a hell of a joke.  Chaps never know anything, do they?’

‘No,’ I said.  ‘Nobody ever knows anything.’

I was pretty well through with the subject. (p.23)

Although Jake can never verbalise this in a straightforward manner – this is first-person, ‘I’ narration, and he is someone actively trying to avoid being too introspective, wary of the agony it brings – his trauma instead comes out in the imagery Hemingway uses to describe Jake’s experience of Paris and Spain.

In Paris we repeatedly see Jake erupt with rage and frustration, to become knotted up in self loathing by the men he repeatedly observes with Brett, and what, perhaps, he suspects these proxy relationships say about him, the lover she wants but cannot be with.  He prickles at the sight of the flighty, carefree young men with whom Brett dances at the club, obsessing over their clean, white, unblemished (presumably unmanly appearance), repeating the stunned observation ‘And Brett was with them’ as he struggles to block it out.  The men are in fact revealed to be gay, and one might well reason that subconsciously this is what infuriates him most: what they perhaps reflect about him if these are the kinds of men Brett is drawn too.

More revealing, however, in Spain Jake’s internal turmoil is made manifest in the echoes of war that play out in the chaotic, metaphorical eruption of the fiesta:

At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta exploded.  There is no other way to describe it.

….

The marble-topped tables and the white wicker chairs were gone.  They were replaced by cast-iron tables and severe folding chairs.  The cafe was like a battleship striped for action.

….

Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square.  It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high above the Theatre Gayarre, across the other side of the plaza.   The ball of smoke hung in the air like a shrapnel burst, and as I watched, another rocket cane up to it, trickling smoke in the bright sunlight.  I saw the bright flash as it burst and another little cloud of smoke appeared. (p.132)

For Jake, the Fiesta exploded.  A cafe is described stripped down like a battleship.  The ball of smoke from a firework hangs in the air like a shrapnel burst.  People spew out everywhere, rockets are described  firing off on every other page.  It’s chaos and spectacle.  A mass of cheering and shouting and eruptions.

This is war.

Hemingway, through the expansive, imagistic allusion of our traumatised focal character, is sublimating the horrors of battle into this chaotic revelry.  Jake cannot discuss his post traumatic stress, nor how this pain has echoed out into his relationship with Brett, and so it is made manifest here, in this heady bacchanal.

Over the course of this frenzied vacation, Jake will lose himself amongst the festivities, coming to see his fears and longings and self-loathing literalised in this social upheaval.  Although seemingly keeping his cool, trying to remain ‘hard-boiled’, just like all of the other characters on this journey, he remains lonely and yearning and lost.  The end of the book therefore returns us to that same image of two broken people, pressing against each other to keep the sorrow at bay.  Jake and Brett sit close together, back in the exact position they began this journey: two mournful lovers in a taxi cab, staring into each other’s eyes, lamenting the wreckage they have left in their wake, and talking of their hopes for the future, if only they could repair themselves.

Although superficially each of the characters with which Hemingway populates his book look bright and cheery, calling each other ‘Chaps’ and collapsing into bed with each other, they are all revealed to be drifting, self-loathing people, all screaming beneath the masquerade.  And so, throughout The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway lets the shadow of that terror and revulsion pass beneath the revelry like a fish under the surface of the water, motivating them all, haunting their every waking thought, but, like their trauma itself, never able to be acknowledged and overcome.

brassai group in a dance hall 1932

IMAGE: Group in a Dance Hall, 1932, photo by Brassai

* Inasmuch as it is ever possible to do something so transitory and perfunctory as label something your ‘favourite’ anything …even though it is.

** Indeed, if you want to be really smutty about it (and let’s why not) The Sun Also Rises is also a bit of a crude double entendre: the other thing that ‘rises’ (or fails to rise) is the thing he’s been obsessing about the whole book: his ‘manhood’.

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