THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST HEMINGWAY

“The first draft of anything is shit.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Hemingwaysun1I was comforted by those words as I started to revise my manuscript. See. You’re not that bad. Even the greats admit to serving up some real crap. I read The Sun Also Rises a few months ago and was left wondering how often Hemingway took his own advice. It seems to me that the book could have used another round of edits. {GASP!}

There, I said it. I just lambasted one of the greats of American literature. I had a hard time reading it.

Why, you ask? Well, for several reasons. The following “rules” kept swirling in my head, rules that Hemingway obviously didn’t care for.

Hook the reader with the first line.

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

What do you think? Were you hooked? I wasn’t. What kept me reading was that it was written by Hemingway.

Don’t introduce too many characters too quickly.

There were so many characters introduced at the beginning and with little or no distinguishing characteristics I kept getting them confused. I had to reread passages just to get them straight in my head. My view of many of the male characters was fuzzy at best. Wait, which guy is Brett? Oh that’s right, Brett is a female, Lady Brett. Well, then who is Lady Ashley? Oh…Lady Brett Ashley. After my initial confusion she became quite clear in my head, though, which leads me to the next rule.

Create characters that are likeable, characters that readers will root for (or at least one, please).

Yeah, I know we don’t have to like all the characters in a book. The antagonist is one we love to hate but you need at least one character to root for and I tried. I really tried but I found them all to be self-absorbed. The friendships, if you can call them that, were superficial, even two-faced. I hoped for some wonderful character arc, at least for the main character, Jake Barnes, but by the end of the book I was left disappointed.

Brett was, for lack of a better word, a “ho.” She claimed to love Jake but flaunted her relationships with other men in his face, even enlisting his help in “hooking up” with a bullfighter. She was incredibly vain, and used the poor schmucks around her to feed her own vanity. They were fawning all over her when they should’ve kicked her to the curb. What was Hemingway saying about the male population? As long as a woman is beautiful and “built like the hull of a boat” (Hemingway’s words, not mine), then she could be utterly despicable. They’d keep following on her heels like a lovesick puppy.

Set the right pace to keep the readers engaged in the story.

My mind kept wandering. Was this book ever going to go anywhere? There were points where I lost myself in the story because I was expecting something. I started to get interested around page 112. I remember, because I took note of the page and thought, “Here we go. This is where it’s going to get good.”

At this point in the book Jake is going fishing with a buddy and that’s all that really happens. Have you ever been fishing? It can be thrilling if the fish are biting or excruciatingly mundane if they aren’t. Cast. Wait. Wait some more. Reel it in. Repeat.  I might find it relaxing if it weren’t for the anticipation of catching a big fish, any fish really. You might start drinking to fight the boredom. And that’s precisely what the characters did. They drank…A LOT. Maybe they were bored, too? I imagined them saying, “Hemingway, I say ol’ chap, give us something interesting to do!”

So Hemingway broke a few rules, but I suppose he accomplished what he set out to do and that is worth some praise. The theme of the story is the destructive nature of war, and not just that which can be seen by war-torn cities and lost lives but the emotional effects on those that survive. It wasn’t meant to be a “feel good” story. War is often romanticized, portrayed as the ultimate display of masculinity with acts of heroism and bravery. But Hemingway’s story reveals it as a lie as he shows that war is emasculating in more ways than one.

It’s a story about the Lost Generation; those poor souls left to pick up the pieces of a broken life after World War I. Trust, honor, decency, and morality have all been upended.  Their aimless wanderings, superficial relationships, and propensity to drink to excess speaks volumes about the effects of war. When you’ve been through something so horrendous how do you find meaning in anything?

The following quotes hinted that the characters were aware of the lack of purpose in their lives and left me hopeful for some bright spot at the ending.

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”

“Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

Maybe Brett would change her ways or Jake would have a Rhett Butler moment and tell Brett where to go but sadly that didn’t happen. While the ending dialogue is in the context of the relationship between Brett and Jake it hints at a broader range: humanity. The acceptance of the things as they are left me feeling utterly hopeless and I guess that’s why it didn’t appeal to me. I believe there is always hope.

3 out of 5 stars. Although I liked parts of the book and can appreciate the message I believe Hemingway was trying to convey, it was just okay.

I’ve been reading the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels to see what I can learn from the masters of literature and this one was on the list. So what did I learn from reading this book?

  • The masters broke the rules and still managed to create art that is highly praised.
  • I’m no Hemingway so I should probably stick to the rules if I don’t want readers to toss my book after the first sentence.
  • No matter how well written a book is, not everyone is going to love it.
  • You can appreciate the literary merits of a book and still not like the story.
  • I’ll probably never drink absinthe. Apparently it tastes like black licorice which is at the top of my list of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted.
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12 thoughts on “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST HEMINGWAY”

  1. Fun post! I’ve always felt that the purpose of “The Sun Also Rises” is to show that the characters are wasting their lives, have no grounding in reality, and no idea what they want out of life.

    I felt that I was supposed to hate them and feel bored by the pacing, the same as they keep seeking SOME kind of thrill to get something out of life to appease their boredom.

    That said, it didn’t make the book any fun at all to read. I hated it. I felt like it was successful at what it wanted to do…. It just wasn’t for me, at ALL! 😛

  2. What a great way to approach this. I have more English degrees than Hemingway novels on my “done read it” list…and that was The Old Man and the Sea. His last effort…his Nobel effort…I think he may have been trying to redeem himself for going to far with the reality thing in that Through the Woods to the Whatever book. I always try to keep mum about all the “classics” I’m bored over by, or gave up trying to suss out…brave writing, as the Hem would say…brave writing.
    Later…

    1. Thanks Scott. Even the critics disliked Across the River (I always want to call it Over the River and Into the Woods…to grandmother’s house we go, lol) so I’ll probably stay away from that one. Plus, it’s not on my list :-) I did have reservations about reviewing this book. It’s Hemingway. I should love it, right? While I appreciate the message I just didn’t enjoy reading it.

  3. Great post, it’s important to remember what you like and dislike, especially when reading ‘the greats’. It’s too easy to read a book and then think to yourself that it must be you because everyone else raves about it or the author.
    And for the record, I drank Absinthe on my 30th birthday, or at least tried to. It was towards the end of a day-long party and I couldn’t get it down my throat. It left a patch of lawn that never grew back in my garden. Never.

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