Passing Roncesvalles Again
Scribner has produced a new edition of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises under the banner of the Hemingway Library. Like the recent release of A Farewell to Arms, the book includes not only a new foreword and introduction by the author’s son and grandson, respectively, but also deleted chapters, early drafts, and alternate titles. In his introduction, grandson Seán says that this material renders the reader “better able to understand how Ernest Hemingway conceived and wrote his first novel, how he turned imperfect reality into a near-perfect work of fiction.”
“Near-perfect” is a bold claim for any literary production, but if one deserves it, The Sun Also Rises must surely be a contender. Published in 1926, a year and change after Hemingway began writing it, the novel arrived to critical and popular acclaim and made its author an international celebrity. It tells the story of Jake Barnes, a successful American journalist living in Paris’ Latin Quarter (an area roughly between the 5th, 6th, and 14th arrondissements), and the trip he makes to Spain with a cast of expatriates to attend the bullfighting fiesta in Pamplona. Jake’s ambition is to become a serious, artistic writer, but finds himself distracted by the cafe culture of the quartier, which is characterized by excessive drinking and an altogether lax moral fabric. His primary distraction takes the dual form of Robert Cohn, a successful but insecure Jewish novelist, and a young woman named Lady Brett Ashley, an intelligent, charming, but cynical Brit who gained her aristocratic title by a now-collapsed marriage. She and Jake believe themselves to be in love, but are kept from consummating the relationship by a particularly unfortunate injury Jake had sustained during the War. By either bad luck or good virtue, Jake is kept chaste, while Brett cavorts with several men (indeed, nearly ever man with more than line of dialogue or description in the novel).
After several long chapters describing the vapid culture of the Latin Quarter, Jake departs to Spain, first for a symbol-laden fishing trip on the Irati River, a sort of idyll in which the manly virtues of sport, friendship and self-reliance are displayed in anticipation of their destruction, or at least degradation at the fiesta. Then comes the fiesta itself. Jake and his fishing companion, Bill Groton, are joined by Brett, her new fiance, a Scottish alcoholic named Mike Campbell, and Robert Cohn. The tensions surrounding Brett and these men (Cohn revealed to Jake in Paris that he and Brett had shared a lost weekend on the Riviera), exacerbated by untold quantities of booze and unimpeded by Jake’s longstanding friendship with many of the local bullfighters, come to a head when she takes up with a young, handsome and incredibly talented bullfighter named Romero.
What struck the literary world at the time of its publication was how closely the novel had stayed to the true facts and personages of Hemingway’s life. Of course, the book is not a memoir and many creative additions and revisions were made for the sake of the story. For one thing, Hemingway’s libido was such that no one mistook him for the sexually maimed Jake Barnes. Indeed, before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway had left the wife to whom the book is dedicated, Hadley, for the heiress who had accompanied them on one of their trips to the bullfights at Pamplona. (Hemingway signed over all the royalties of the book to his first wife, and came to regard leaving her as one of the worst decisions of his life.) Such is the kind of connection between the book and reality, much of which is the subject of editorial comment in this new edition.
The introduction contains, in addition to sales pitches (see above) and pieces of trivia , several interesting reflections concerning the novel and its author. There is the infamous lost suitcase– the moment in 1922 when Hadley loses the entirety of his work up to that point, including carbon copies, a fear which must have plagued the mind of every pre-digital writer. We also read of the experiences that became the subject of the novel: Hemingway’s first bullfights, attended at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein, trout fishing on the Irati River, inhabiting as much as observing the café scene on Paris’ Rive gauche. Perhaps surprisingly to those familiar with the writings of the Hemingways fils and petit fils, the introduction also contains a useful, if brief, consideration of the theme of money in The Sun Also Rises:
As a young man, I was impressed by the repeated emphasis in the novel on the need to pay the bill–to take care of one’s own affairs–and by Jake Barnes’ ability to make his own way in the world.
In the years following the First World War, young Americans of a mostly artistic, bohemian stripe left their country and settled in the cities of previously war-torn Europe. Their motives were shaped by a variety of concerns, not least among them the economic. Notwithstanding a brief post-War recession and a longer, more severe depression that lasted from January 1920 to July 1921, the American economy never fell to the depths of the German or French. The Weimar Republic, despite breaking with the defeated Kaisers, nevertheless inherited their war debt and famously suffered traumatic hyperinflation. The triumphant yet exhausted France did not fare much better, the franc losing 70% of its buying power between 1915 and 1920. In short, there was little question as to whether a struggling artist could stretch a dollar farther in Paris or in New York. As Jake Barnes affirms in the second chapter that would come to be deleted,
They say New York is very fine but I do not care for the night life. I want to live quietly and with a certain measure of luxury, and a job I do not want to worry about. Paris provides all these things.
He goes on to reveal that he actually founded the company–a newspaper conglomerate– by which he is employed, further evidence of his self-reliance that is left out of the finished novel. This passage, however, seems to be the kind of “lazy writing and snide remarks” for which F. Scott Fitzgerald admonished Hemingway. For example, the comment regarding the novels of journalists, which, while a point well taken, is a joke slightly too easy for Hemingway to make:
Like all newspaper men I have always wanted to write a novel, and I suppose, now that I am doing it, the novel will have that awful taking-the-pen-in-hand quality that afflicts newspaper men when they start to write their own book.
Hemingway is, of course, a better, smarter, and deeper writer than that, and this quip is one of many that, to use his deleted word, afflict the discarded opening chapters.
It is not simply bad jokes that caused these opening chapters and early drafts to be deleted. The most obvious change is the introduction of pseudonyms for his characters. In the earliest draft, Barnes is named Hemingway, Lady Ashley is Duff, and Robert Cohn is Harold Loeb. More interestingly, however, is how poorly these chapters would do on the Hemingway rules-for-writing test.
This test, known to many as the ‘Iceberg Theory,’ insists on concision and understatement for emotional and narrative force. According to this understanding, it is the unseen weight beneath the surface of the water that gives the movement of what lies above grace. Thus, in the novels and stories central to Hemingway’s oeuvre, suicides, infidelities, love scenes– everything of great emotional import– are left out, and the reader is meant to know and see these events by what led up to them.
In the deleted pages, however, adverbs abound, sentences run for lines on end; indeed, the iceberg seems in the original opening of the book to have been flipped upside-down. All the mixed emotions, from disdain to affection, that Barnes feels for Montparnasse and the crowd which populates it that in the final product lie evocatively under the surface are spelled out in detail. In a particularly negative moment, Barnes rails against those living in the Latin Quarter, which is the setting for the café scenes:
To have the Quarter state of mind is probably the best way of putting it. This state of mind is principally contempt. Those who work have the greatest contempt for those who don’t. The loafers are leading their own lives and it is bad form to mention work. Young painters have contempt for old painters, and that works both ways too. There are contemptuous critics and contemptuous writers. Everybody seems to dislike everybody else. The only happy people are the drunks, and they, after flaming for a period of days or weeks, eventually become depressed.
Compare this with the scenes that made it into the final version, particularly the way in which Frances Clyne, fiance of the ambitious yet hapless Robert Cohn, verbally destroys Cohn in perfect quartier fashion. As the introduction points out, Fitzgerald was particularly impressed by this sequence:
It is the kind of smart lecture you might expect Dick Diver to get in Tender is the Night or one that could have come out of the mouth of Zelda Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald knew this terrain, and he was impressed that Hemingway got it spot on.
This psychological and social incisiveness, which lost Hemingway some friends when they read his depictions of them, is perhaps the most durable quality of the book, though the themes are no less relevant now than they were in 1926. Perhaps it is because the book is so well-suited to our time that it is difficult to appraise this kind of edition.
In January of last year, I wrote a review for Open Letters of the Hemingway Library’s A Farewell to Arms. I tried to highlight a disquieting trend in our culture that mixes hero-worship, post-modern irony, and an overall distrust of achievement, presented innocuously as a chance for reappraisal of an author whose reputation seems set in stone or as simply a variorum edition. It is particularly unsettling given the disdain Hemingway felt for precisely this kind of attention to artists (see the passage above concerning contempt).
The impulse to see this early material can be, I said then and repeat now, a cheap way of indulging a weak impulse, namely, resentment. Wherever we see greatness, we must tear it down, lest we find ourselves falling short. And what better way to disarm a writer, particularly one known for the steady confidence of his prose, than to show the messy and uncertain manner in which that prose came to life? Of course, we have to recognize greatness in order to perform this deconstruction (no one will be looking for the first draft of, say, this essay), but we can’t sit with it. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, the problem was once the opposite. Hemingway himself once said in response to more earnest idolizing, “It’s none of their business that you had to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” These days, most people are terrified by the prospect of someone being born better at something, nevermind better tout court, and the relief for this fear is to let out the writer’s secret: he had to learn, and learning is messy.
To be sure, this secret was not kept for the private glory of the writer, but rather allow him to perform the essential task of literature. I’ve yet to see an improvement on Horace’s claim that the poet’s aim is to inform and delight, and in order to learn we must in some way look up to our teachers. Whatever people may say, an education, especially a moral education, is not simply an exchange of ideas.
So I greeted the news of this edition of The Sun Also Rises with an inner commitment to not reviewing it. And yet, flipping through the familiar chapters of hard, streamlined prose, deep psychological insight, and oft-ignored literary allusions (lit quiz: why is Bill so cold as he and Jake pass Roncesvalles?), and then on to the appendices of old drafts and discarded chapters, I began asking myself a variety of questions.
Is Robert Cohn a fool or a victim, or both? Does Jake deserve his loss of reputation after the Brett-Romero debacle? Will he be able to disentangle himself from this parasitic crowd and write an honest book? And more deeply, what does romance become without the possibility of sex? Jake is impotent, and yet pursues, protects and defends Brett with a lover’s tenacity. Most importantly, are all the old virtues of love, loyalty, and courage possible in modernity, that is, after the War? Does the earth abideth forever, as the book’s epigram from Ecclesiastes tells us? These questions, among many others, guide the book, give it narrative and philosophical force, and have allowed it to endure the 88 years since its publication. The attached material, while not particularly helpful in engaging these questions, much less answering them, is an occasion for asking them again.
As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the preoccupations of the writers and artists who lived at that time seemed renewed in us. It is perhaps better to say that we are only noticing those questions anew– they have never left us, but rather have shaped our view of the world. In music, film, literature, and television, there is no shortage of nostalgia for lost periods, which is the unconscious form of the desire for place, the search for identity. It may seem like a dream, or a fantasy, but prior to the War, Europe allowed both for identity, and for the space in which to question that identity. To bring about that kind of dual ability would seem to ameliorate many of our own woes and concerns about gender, race, nationality, and any other form identity takes. The various premature conclusions turned out by our own political factions have served only to confuse the situation. Whatever the risks or impure motivations inherent in the publication of the Hemingway Library editions, they perform the vital service of allowing a great voice who was vitally interested in these questions to be heard again. Keep them coming.
Jack Hanson‘s previous reviews & poetry for Open Letters can be found here.