The name of this novel has a complex history – at one stage it was going to be called, among other things, ‘The Lost Generation’ – and this alternative title, together with the epigraph from Ecclesiastes, beginning “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh” provide some useful guides to interpreting this novel.
Set in the 1920’s in Paris and Spain, the events of the novel are shown from the viewpoint of the central character, Jake Barnes. Barnes recounts what happens in the moment, but he never explains – only context and snatches of conversation provide clues to the characters’ backstories. We can gather, for example, that Barnes was a combatant in the First World War, and that during that conflict he received a wound, physical or psychological, which made him impotent. Barnes is besotted with Lady Brett Ashley, a young woman who is part of the hard-drinking crowd who haunt the bars and clubs of Paris. No-one seems to work – Barnes is ostensibly a reporter for an American paper, but we hardly ever see him do any reporting, and he takes several weeks off without repercussions.
It is reasonable to infer that Barnes’ impotence, combined with his lust for Brett, would torture him, but only glimpses of this are offered to the reader. He compensates for his feelings by assisting Brett in conducting her affairs – for a woman of the 1920’s she is very liberated, and quite guilt free and open about her relationships. In a rare moment of introspection Barnes chastises himself, saying
“Send a girl off with one man. Introduce her to another to go off with him. Now go and bring her back. And sign the wire with love. That was it all right.”
The second section of the novel moves to Spain, and a fishing expedition is followed by the fiesta of the title in Pamplona, including the bull run and some of the scenes of bull-fighting for which Hemingway is probably best known. With Barnes’s connivance, Brett seduces the 19 year-old matador, and in a jealous rage one of her recent former lovers beats him (and Barnes) up. The novel ends shortly after the fiesta, with Barnes and Brett spending time together in Madrid, and wondering how their relationship might have developed had he not been afflicted:
“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me. Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
(The mounted policeman’s raised baton proving a somewhat unnecessary piece of symbolism there I think. )
As an evocation of the fascination of bull-fighting, the scenes towards the end of this novel are unparalleled. If one is already disgusted by bull-fighting there will be nothing here to change ones mind. The portrayal of the hedonism of Barnes and his group of friends, representatives of a lost generation, reminded me of an expatriate version of ‘Vile Bodies’. Another text worth comparing this novel to is of course Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’. which in a different setting has similar themes. The reader is invited to see this group of characters as resilient survivors of the fracturing of society which is slowly healing, as the sun also rises.
But. There are some issues with the novel that I wanted to explore. The first is the use of repetition. At times it is quite oppressive. I know drunk people – and many of the characters are pretty much permanently drunk – repeat themselves a lot. But it’s not much fun to read. Here’s a random example:
“Brett put her hand on my arm.
“Don’t get drunk, Jake’ she said. ‘You don’t have to’.
‘How do you know?’
‘Don’t’, she said. ‘You’ll be all right’.
‘I’m not getting drunk’ I said. ‘I’m just drinking a little wine. I like to drink wine’.
‘Don’t get drunk’, she said. ‘Jake, don’t get drunk’.
In context, each repetition is justified and legitimate – here the effect is to emphasise both the drunkenness of the pair, and the lack of real communication between them. But the cumulative effect is somewhat wearing.
Secondly there is Hemingway’s famously sparse style. In Hemingway the quick brown fox never jumps over the lazy dog – the fox jumps over the dog. In theory this should make the novel very simple to read – but avoiding over elaborate description is one thing, and stripping the prose to its bare bones whereby one thing happens, then another thing happens, and so on, combining to deadening effect, is another. As a result although it is only just over 200 pages long this novel took me several days to complete.
Third, Barnes’s group of expatriate friends are an unpleasant bunch. They are openly anti-semitic, and the novel contains several derogatory references to homosexuality. These of course were much more acceptable attitudes than they are today, but the casual use of the n-word in a text only 90 years old isn’t reflected in the novels of many of Hemingway’s contemporaries.
Finally, the elephant in the room (metaphor deliberately mis-chosen) is the topic – bull-fighting. Hemingway glamorises the killing of animals for sport, and while this once may have seemed acceptable, today it leaves a bad taste.
As a postscript, and to be completely honest something of a boast, I spotted a fleeting reference to Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ here. On page 66 of the Vintage edition, (which by the way contains an extraordinarily self-indulgent introduction by Colm Toibin which is all about Colm Toibin, and barely mentions the novel it is introducing), Barnes mentions a friend who is a taxidermist. Bill, another friend, replies
“That was in another country…and besides all the animals were dead”. The full quote from Marlowe is:
“Thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”
This so far as I can tell isolated example of wit from Bill is of course a reference to Brett.