Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES

When Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1926 quite a few people were shocked.

Hemingway's mother thought it was the most pornographic book she'd ever read.  Grace Hemingway wrote Ernest a letter and told him how embarrassed she was and surely he knew some words other than "damn" and "bitch."

Hemingway's fellow ex-patriot friends were also shocked.  The characters of A Sun Also Rises were thinly veiled caricatures of Hemingway and his friends.  The main character, Jake Barnes, was Hemingway, his love interest Lady Brett Ashley was Duff Twysden, Robert Cohn was Harold Loeb. They were shocked.  Duff Twysden was especially shocked to see herself portrayed by Hemingway as a nymphomaniac who sleeps with every man in sight and even seduces a nineteen year old matador.

Hemingway had originally considered naming the novel The Lost Generation.  The writer Gertrude Stein had commented to Hemingway that all of the young people who fought in World War I were "A Lost Generation."

Ernest Hemingway and friends.

To quote Sean Hemingway's introduction to the recent Hemingway Library Edition of A Sun Also Rises:  "Characters from The Sun Also Rises who were in the war - Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley, and Mike Campbell - are broken physically and mentally.  Brett loses her first true love to the war, and no number of liasons fills the void.  Mike Campbell is an alcoholic and Jake is physically wounded, though the specific nature of his wound is never described in the book.  In an interview with George Plimpton, Hemingway said that Jake Barnes was not emasculated; his testicles were intact and not damaged, so he was capable of all normal feelings of a man but incapable of consummating them.  It was a very particular type of wound of which Hemingway had learned while he was at the Italian front."

And there is the central plot of The Sun Also Rises.  Jake Barnes is a red blooded American male.  He likes to fish and go to boxing matches and bullfights.  He was a fighter pilot on the Italian front in the war.  But Jake Barnes received a horrible wound in the war.  Although we are never told the exact nature of his wound, Jake Barnes can no longer perform sexually.

Jake is extremely attracted to Lady Brett Ashley.  Brett, in return, is extremely attracted to Jake. Because of his war wound, Jake can never satisfy Brett sexually and neither of them is satisfied to live together without it.

Robert Cohn, the author of a third rate novel, is everything that Jake Barnes isn't.  Although he was a boxing champion at Princeton he never liked boxing and only participated in the sport because he thought he had to.  Cohn is dominated by the women in his life.  As Jake is physically emasculated, Cohen is spiritually emasculated.   Brett, who is engaged to marry the alcoholic Mike Campbell,  goes off the beach in Spain with Cohn for a week.  After Brett sleeps with him, Cohn follows Brett around like a whipped puppy dog and won't leave her alone.

An alternative name that Hemingway considered for the novel is Fiesta.  In fact, this is the name that the novel is still published under in the United Kingdom.  Although the novel opens in Paris, the central action occurs during the Feast of Saint Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.  The running of the bulls through the streets and the subsequent bull fights are meticulously described.

All of the men in Brett Ashely's life are somehow emasculated.  The young matador, Pedro Romero, is the picture of masculinity.  Romero is fearless and virile.  The thirty four year old Brett wants the nineteen year old Romero.

Jake's old friend, the owner of the hotel the group is staying at in Pamplona, asks Jake to help him keep young Pedro Romero from being corrupted by fame before he can rise to his full potential as a matador. Jake promises to do so.  When Brett asks Jake to fix her up with Romero, Jake can refuse her nothing.  When Robert Cohn accuses Jake of being Brett's pimp, one of the reasons Jake gets so mad is because he recognizes that the charge is true.  Jake also loses his reputation with the hotel owner and knows he will never be welcome again.

Ernest Hemingway in Paris in 1924

The 1968 edition of the Cliffs Notes summarizes the ending nicely:  "She sent Romero back to his world because they were happy and she was aware that their happiness would not last; he wanted her to let her hair grow and become a real woman, so, she granted herself a beautiful memory while she could.  

Besides, Romero was nineteen, Brett thirty-four.  In a short, short time her age and her past would be ridiculous were she to take up with Romero.  The young hero would be in the first years of his prime.  And Brett? She would be an unhappy, aging beauty trailing after the young Spanish god.  Brett returns to her world; here she can be irresponsible again; she will marry Mike Campbell and she can once more wonder about Jake and herself.  

Could they have been happy?  Jake says it's 'pretty' to think so, knowing full well that sex would only have eased them into a beginning of God-knows what.  Brett suggests that sex would have been terribly good between them and would have served them well but Jake does not accept this conjecture.  It's only a game, this speculating, and it is, in a sense, comforting, but it has nothing to do with reality.  Chasing after "as if's" is, in the words of Ecclesiastes (the source of Hemingway's title for this novel) all 'vanity and a chasing after the wind.'


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Ernest Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

I'm fifty years old.  I'm surprised that I never read Hemingway's great novel about the futility of war before now.  Hemingway's big three are The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I was assigned to read A Farewell to Arms my senior year in high school.  I am sure that I will appreciate more than I did then when I read it again.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is Hemingway's novel about the Spanish Civil War.  The Spanish Civil War was the cause celebre of the 1930s.  When a coalition of left wing parties won a majority of seats in the Spanish parliament, a group of army officers, eventually led by General Francisco Franco, launched a rebellion.

Franco and the "Nationalists" were aided by Hitler and Mussolini who sent troops and equipment.
The "Loyalists" or "Republicans" were aided by Stalin and the Soviet Union.  If you considered yourself an intellectual in the 1930s, it was the in thing to be a Communist.  Having romantic notions about the struggle of workers and peasants fighting facists, artists and intellectuals flocked to fight for Republican Spain.

The reality was that neither side in the Spanish Civil War had a real claim to moral superiority.  Both sides were guilty of horrible atrocities.  When either side would take a town, the first thing that usually happened would be that everyone identified as being a member of the other side would be marched to the nearest wall and shot, or as happens in the novel, thrown off of a cliff.

In 1937 Hemingway went to Spain to cover the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Between battles and drinks, he had time to carry on an affair with fellow news correspondent Martha Gelhorn who became the third Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.  Soon after arriving in Spain, Hemingway announced that he was writing a novel about the war.  By the time For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 1940, the Nationalists had crushed the Spanish Republic.  The Spanish Civil War had only been a dress rehearsal for a much more horrible conflict.

The hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls is Robert Jordan.  Robert Jordan is the stereo typical Hemingway hero.  Jordan is a professor of Spanish at the University of Montana who has taken a leave of absence to volunteer to fight in Spain.  He worries that he won't be able to get his job back after the war because he's been identified as "a Red."  Like his creator, Jordan says that he's not a Communist he's just in favor of liberty.  He has put himself under Communist command and submitted to Communist discipline because the Communists are the only ones who can organize the army and win the war.  At the start of the war, the Republican Army was composed of militias of various factions, including Anarchists, various kinds of Socialists, and Communists.   The Communists tended to be the best organized.

Ernest Hemingway with Ingrid Bergman who starred as Maria with Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan  in the movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jordan is a demolition expert.  He has been assigned by a Soviet General, Golz, to destroy a bridge in the mountains to keep the Nationalists from moving equipment across while the Republican forces launch a surprise attack.  Jordan makes contact with the Republican Partisans who are fighting a guerilla war behind the Nationalist lines.  The partisans are led by the ruthless Pablo and his mistress Pilar.

Even in peacetime, Pablo would probably have been a bandito.  Prior to the opening of the novel, Pablo's band has destroyed and sacked a Nationalist train.  They rescued Maria, a nineteen year old girl who was a prisoner of the Nationalists.  Maria was the daughter of the Republican mayor of a town.  Her father and mother were both shot.   The fascists shaved Maria's head and then raped her. This all happened not long before the opening of the novel.  Pablo believes, rightly, that the operation to destroy the bridge is a suicide mission.  Pablo would much rather loot another train.

Pablo's mistress, Pilar, is one of Hemingway's great characters.  The former mistress of a matador, Pilar is introduced in the novel as "an old woman."  We later find out that Pilar is forty eight!  Pilar relates how Pablo massacred the Nationalist Civil Guard in his village and then threw the town officials and land owners over the side of a cliff.  Hemingway based this on a real incident which occurred in the town of Ronda in Andalucia.

When I say that Robert Jordan is the typical Hemingway hero, he's an intellectual who's also a real man.  He drinks hard, is pretty much fearless in the face of almost certain death, and women cannot resist him.  The novel takes place over four days time.  Even though she is traumatized from being brutally raped, only a few hours after meeting Robert Jordan, Maria is getting naked and crawling in his bed roll.  What a guy!

Hemingway also highlights the incompetence and lack of organization which plagued the Republican forces.  Seeing the Nationalists moving a lot of equipment across the bridge, Jordan realizes that the Nationalists have been tipped off about the Loyalist surprise attack.  Jordan sends one of the partisans, Andres, back to advise General Golz that the attack will fail.  It is in the scenes where Andres is trying to deliver the message to the Soviet General that we see all of the stupidity and disorganization of the Loyalist forces which will ultimately doom their cause to failure.

Anarchist propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War.
F.A.I. stands for "Federacion Anarquista Iberica" or Iberian Anarchist Federation

 First the anarchists on the front lines have to debate whether they are going to let Andres pass or just shoot him on the spot.   Next, an insane Communist Party Commisar arrests Andres and a loyal Republican officer on suspicion of being traitors.  Finally, Jordan's message gets to the General's aide but it is too late to stop the attack.

"They shall not pass!"  Republican propaganda poster.

As the 1965 Cliffs Notes summarize it: "So, here is the crowing irony of the book.  Jordan must blow up a bridge, the destruction of which will be absolutely of no value.  He must carry out his ineffectual assignment because of the ignorance, stupidity, indifference, and self-importance of people who should most logically have done all they could to help his courier get to his destination in time."

I have read on the internet that a lot of people do not like the style which Hemingway used to write For Whom the Bell Tolls.  In order to convey the flavor of the language spoken by the Spanish peasants Hemingway has used "thee" and "thou."  He also sometimes puts the word order the way it would be in Spanish which sounds unnatural in English.  This is the same device he will use for the old Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea.   Another device which is off-putting to modern readers is the device of not saying profanity.  Over and over again we hear the partisans say something like "I obscenity in your mother's milk!"   To modern readers this seems really silly.  We have to realize that had Hemingway actually come out and said "I piss in your mother's milk," his book would never have been published by a reputable publisher and would have been subject to censorship.

A fascinating sub theme that runs through the novel is the loss of God.  The Catholic Church in Spain was identified by the left as allied with the monarchists and large landowners.  The Anarchists and Communists believed that throughout Spanish history the Church had been used as a tool to oppress and control the workers and peasants.  Especially early in the conflict, many atrocities were carried out against priests, monks and nuns.  Many churches were looted and desecrated.  Even though the old religion is gone, the Spanish peasants fighting for the Republic still cling to the mystical heritage of Catholicism.  Pilar relates to Robert Jordan how disappointed Pablo was that the priest in his village did not die bravely.  Even though Pablo rejected the Church and all its teachings, he expected more from a Spanish Priest.

Republican propaganda poster seeking foreign help.

There is a reason that Ernest Hemingway has the reputation of being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  Hemingway's reputation has suffered a great deal in the last few decades because he is seen as a super macho sexist with outdated patriarchal attitudes.  Regardless of all that, I think that Hemingway's work lives up to his reputation.  I enjoyed reading this great classic and recommend it highly.



Monday, December 26, 2016


This is the tenth novel in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series of detective novels.  It's the first Philip Kerr novel I've read.

The thing which immediately distinguishes this series from just another "hard boiled" detective series (the jacket proudly proclaims that "Philip Kerr is the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler") is the setting of the books in Nazi Germany.

Bernie Gunther used to be a real police detective, now he's just another German trying to survive World War II.  The police have now become a part of the SS, and Bernie is on special assignment for the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels.   There is a beautiful actress, Dalia Dresner, that Herr Goebbels has the hots for.  She wants to know whether or not her father in Croatia is still alive and Goebbels wants her for his movies and his bed.

Philip Kerr

Bernie has a real tendency to leave a body trail behind him.  Bernie also likes beautiful women and they like him.  A recipe for a ripping good yarn and a painless history lesson.  As an SS officer in the Third Reich, Bernie has learned that ordinary murders don't mean much when nations are engaged in genocide.  Written in the first person "hard boiled" style, Kerr is skilled in letting his German Sam Spade tell the tale.

It did feel to me like the novel was somewhat padded and overlong.  If  it was about two hundred pages shorter, it would have been a five star novel.  As it is, the Bad Catholic gives it three and a half Sherlock Holmes hats.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Julian Fellowes' Past Imperfect

Damian Baxter is a fabulously wealthy late middle aged businessman who has a problem.  Damian is dying of cancer and wants to leave all of his money to his illegitimate child that he fathered as a young adult back in the swinging sixties.  All Damian has to go on is a letter written to him by the mother telling Damian that "he ruined her life."  The other problem is that Damian doesn't know who among the bevy of beauties that he bedded back then is the mother of his child.

After not hearing from each other for decades because of an embarrassing episode at a house party in Portugal, which we are kept in suspense about until the very end of the novel, and which really is not nearly as shocking as the build up leads the reader to believe that it will be,  Damian contacts the un-named narrator, who has had a moderately successful career as a novelist.  The narrator, "Fellowes," hates Damian but cannot resist going to see him.  "Fellowes" also cannot resist carrying out Damien's last request to find the mother of Damian's child and seeing that he or she inherits all of Damien's fabulous wealth.

The book goes back and forth between the present (the book was first published in 2008) and the late 1960s.  The book has all the inside scoop on the British upper classes that you would expect from the creator of Downton Abbey.  The novel chronicles one of the last debutante seasons in the late sixties when the parents of the aristocracy and the rich paraded their daughters from one dance and party to another to find an appropriate husband.

Just like in real life, what we want to become in our youth is rarely what really happens to us.  Past Imperfect is a well written and entertaining soap opera.  And it's educational.  You may learn how to dress for dinner if you're ever invited to an English country house or how to appropriately address the daughter of an Earl.  Five out of five.

Lord Julian Fellowes

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Chesil Beach

A really talented writer can pack an entire world into a very few pages.  This is exactly what the gifted Ian McEwan has done in his short novel On Chesil Beach, published in 2007.

When we first meet Edward and Florence they are a young couple who have just been married hours before and are off on their honeymoon at Chesil Beach.  Their fumbling sexual dysfunction and psychological baggage cause them to have a disastrous wedding night which has a catastrophic effect on the rest of their lives.

After reading this, the reader is totally immersed in the world of a young intellectual English couple in the early 1960s.  In a few short pages(the novel is only 166 pages), we learn all about Edward and Florence's childhood and their courtship and hangups.  Edward's father is a school headmaster who has to take care of his brain damaged wife and his three children.  Florence's mother is an emotionally cold Oxford philosophy professor who would rather read Plato than be with her children.  There are subtle clues that Florence may have been sexually abused by her father.  (I didn't pick up on this until I started reading reviews of the book online.  After being pointed out to me, I now see the clues in the novel.  Was Florence molested by her father?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The reader will have to decide).

Anyway, I can't say too much about this intriguing little story or it will give away too much.  But On Chesil Beach is definitely a great read.