The Sun Rises Twice

13 Jun

“We’re going trout-fishing.  We’re going trout-fishing in the Irati River, and we’re going to get tight now at lunch on the wine of the country, and then take a swell bus ride.”  – Jake Barnes

In a busy modern life, time is a commodity, and when it comes to finding the time to read a book, potential readers can be put in the rushed mindset of buy, consume, repeat.  As soon as you’re done with the book, throw it up on the shelf, add to your trophies, and start on with the next one.  There’s no time to stop and reflect.  There’s no incentive to go back and re-read a book years later, because it’s already on your shelf.  You’ve already finished it.  That re-reading time could be better spent on a trophy you don’t yet have.  And that’s a problem, when you don’t go back to a great and timeless novel years after your first exposure with it.  Because the experience of coming back to a book opens you up to one of the important things about great works in all areas of art – your life experience, your emotional and mental position at that moment you encounter the art, can be transformative in the way that you understand and appreciate the work.  A painting that bored you when you were 18 could move you to tears when you see it again at 30.  A novel that gave you one experience in high school can offer up an entirely new one when you come across it as a young adult.

And so it is that I experienced Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, for the second time.  My first encounter with The Sun Also Rises came right in the middle of an Ernest Hemingway binge.  This was in the early part of high school, and the full-fledged plunge into Hemingway began with the first piece of his I had ever read, The Old Man and the Sea, and lasted for about six straight novels and stories before my hunger, for the time being, had been exhausted. The motivations behind this sudden interest in Hemingway varied, and they initially affected what I felt and understood about the author’s work.

The first motivation, and the factor that led me to start reading Old Man in the beginning, was the locale of the stories and novels.  The exotic and occasionally tropical setting of novels such as To Have and Have NotIslands in the Stream, and The Sun Also Rises represented an alluring escape as I was making it through another gray winter in the Pacific Northwest.  Hemingway’s ability to evoke the essence of the cities and countries in his stories made reading them exhilarating for a kid with limited travel experience, even if the subjects of the novels were often somber and tragic.  The chance to go from rainy Seattle to balmy Cuba with the turn of a page was something I couldn’t get enough of, and it drove me to seek out more experiences with the author behind it all.

Descriptions of foreign lands can be found in plenty of stories, however, so while the chance for escape was a draw to Hemingway’s work, it was the characters and the writing style in that work that truly kept me coming back and looking for more.  The characters in these novels, particularly the antagonists, were mesmerizing.  These were men with unfathomable physical toughness, pushing through pain with grit and honor that seemed otherworldly.  Masculine ideals to aspire to.  And yet they also held secret emotional wounds that made them seem vulnerable and tragically human.  To an impressionable and angst-filled teenager, these characters were heroes you could relate to.  The more of Hemingway I read, the more of these characters I found.

The final aspect of Hemingway’s work that initially drew me in so strongly was his style of writing, his voice.  At that point in my life, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of history’s great writers, and I wasn’t very cognizant of elements such as structure and prose style.  But when I read Hemingway, his work floored me in a way that no writing ever had.  His words seemed so carefully chosen, so perfectly put together.  In many passages, it felt as thought there wasn’t one word out of place, and not one phrase that didn’t belong.  The writing was lean and tough and efficient.  Hemingway conveyed entire themes and storylines without ever addressing them directly; he seemed to be able to describe things without describing them.  It was an amazing thing to discover.

When I first read The Sun Also Rises during this Hemingway 101 period, it stood out to me as containing the most memorable examples of each of the aforementioned aspects of the author’s work – the locations, the characters, and the writing.  The novel’s spare yet detailed descriptions of Paris and the Spanish countryside, the tragically wounded Jake Barnes, and the haunting  evocation of unrequited love are what stuck with me immediately upon reading it.  To me, it was one of Hemingway’s best works, and probably the one that remained on my mind the longest.

During my first reading of TSAR, the element of the novel that seemed the most important and memorable at the time was the relationship between Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley.  Jake loves Brett, and while she also loves him on a certain level, she can never truly be with him because of a war injury that rendered Jake impotent for the rest of his life.  Partly due to the author’s obliqueness and partly due to my own limited knowledge of old war injuries, it took me awhile to fully realize the nature of Jake’s injury on my first reading.  But when I did catch on to Jake’s tragic flaw, it became incredibly poignant to watch the slow burn of his feelings towards Brett.  This culminated in a scene that became for me the most searing of the novel, and one that has stayed with me ever since the first reading – Jake viewing a discarded table through a restaurant window, knowing that Brett just left to go make love to a young bullfighter.  And he can do nothing about it.  That image of the heartbroken man watching through the restaurant window represented what the novel was all about to me.

Somehow, the only Hemingway book from high school that I managed to hold on to through all the years since was TSAR.  So when I recently found myself with the itch to read some of the author’s work again, I decided to go against my normal habits and dip back into something I had already read.  TSAR is a relatively short book, and I figured that it would be a good way to pass the time with some great writing and also give me a chance to re-visit a story that had struck a chord in me.  I did not expect to find fresh insight and meaning in the story.  But that is what happened.  When I finished the book for the second time, it had opened up a part of Hemingway’s world that I had never expected, a part that was incredibly relevant to my current life in a way that modern novels rarely are.  Let alone one that is almost 100 years old.

My second foray into TSAR began with images of Jake’s doomed love prominent in my mind.  Over the years, the themes surrounding Jake’s relationship had come to represent the entirety of the novel in my memory.  As I continued the story, however, another recurring theme began to appear that I had never noticed before, or that I had at least never fully understood.  Alcohol.  One thing about TSAR that had always confused me in the past was the narrator’s constant descriptions of the alcohol being drunk by the characters.  Drinks with all kinds of foreign names are constantly noted throughout the novel, with a dedication that at times seems almost obsessive.  My initial reaction was to shrug it off and focus on the rest of the story – the details about the drinks were just another part of the setting, minor details that served to provide an authentic atmosphere for the characters to inhabit.  Which is partly true.  But upon this second reading, I also began to notice another purpose behind these details.  And while this new recognition didn’t affect the rest of the novel at first, as the story continued it led directly into the completely new understanding of the themes going on behind the work.

The constant notation of the drinks being ordered and consumed by the characters serves to draw and keep attention on this part of the characters’ lives.  Every one of the core characters in TSAR drinks regularly, and to varying degrees, heavily.  As the novel follows Jake and his friends from their homes in Paris to a vacation in the French country and the Spanish town of Pamplona, the presence of alcohol in their daily activities never wavers.  The drinking only increases as the group takes part in a week-long festival in Pamplona, and leads to increasingly frequent occurrences of arguments, fistfights, sickness, and varying other types of bad behavior.

At the conclusion of the novel, the long binge that the characters have been on has ravaged their physical and mental well-being, and has even inflicted collateral damage on locals who have  come into contact with the group.  TSAR shows the after-effects of all the festive partying and drunken merriment: the ugliness of people’s true feelings exposed in bursts of violence or sharp words; the hollow feeling that accompanies the hangover when the drinks are gone and people are just left with the wreckage and and emptiness of their everyday life.  The novel covers the entirety of a long drinking binge, one undertaken by damaged and empty people who continue to try and fail to cover up their problems with parties and drinks.

The fact that this aspect of TSAR went largely unnoticed by my high-school self points to the previously mentioned power of personal experience when it comes to encountering and understanding works of art.  As a teenager, I had a very limited experience with drinking at the time I read TSAR.  I could definitely understand that the characters in the novel were marked by an emptiness and exhaustion at the conclusion of the story, and I knew that some of the unpleasant actions of the characters happened because they were drunk.  But several years later, I have now been on my own share of those long drinking weekends particularly unique to life in one’s twenties.

Neither I nor my companions have had crippling emotional injuries or massive drinking problems like the tragic characters of TSAR, but there have been plenty of experiences in which drinking has aroused ugliness between friends.  And times when the hangover that comes at the end of such weekends brings a hollowed-out feeling that has nothing to do with your body just being dehydrated.  Times when you realize that there are things missing in your life that cannot be glossed over with a simple weekend spent out-of-town and out-of-mind.  The knowledge of these experiences was impossible to have when I first read TSAR, but upon my re-reading, it enabled me to find a relevance and honesty in Hemingway’s writing that was much deeper and more universal than I could have imagined.

The beauty of masterful artists like Hemingway is that they can infuse their works with deeply-felt truths about the human experience that can resonate for centuries; the complexity of these truths is such that they can affect people differently depending on who they are and what their life has been like to that point.  And that leads to the beauty of re-discovering artists like Hemingway –  the richness of their work means that there can be much more to find in it than you originally thought.  So while I was moved by The Sun Also Rises as a young high-school student, the experience of reading it in my twenties was a much deeper and more meaningful one.  And it will push me in the future to take more great books off the shelf.

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