‘Everybody behaves badly,’ I said. ‘Give them the proper chance.’
Last year I read a really enjoyable piece of literary biography by Lesley M. M. Blume, Everybody Behaves Badly. That book’s title is taken from the above piece of dialogue, a line in Ernest Hemingway’s breakthrough hit, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (first published 1926). Blume’s non-fiction book offers an attempt at an accurate reproduction of the real-life events that inspired Hemingway’s perennially popular novel, a moving, mature and (almost disappointingly) brilliant short novel about life in the American ex-pat community in Europe in the mid-1920s.
What Blume’s book made clear was that Hemingway was a bastard, and the way his novel dramatised the major events of a few people’s lives wrecked many friendships, and not just ones between Hemingway and the people he turned into characters, but the friendships between those whose indiscretions, secrets and confidences he had – too transparently – rendered into prose. The book was criticised for being mere reportage, a journalist writing journalistically, but regardless of how “accurately” Hemingway concertinaed the scandals and heartbreaks of a few years into the couple of months the action of the novel covers, he creates a complex and engaging and grown-up world of real people all, miserably, having the time of their lives.
‘I’ve not had much fun since the war.’
The First World War casts a long shadow over the lives of these characters, and Jake Barnes – the narrator and unsubtle Hemingway foil – is impotent due to an unspecified wartime injury. He is living as a journalist in Paris, drinking and balling every night and planning a big wild trip to Pamplona for San Firmin, the still infamous bullfighting festival. He is kinda in love with a wild partygirl in her mid-30s, Brett Ashley, but because he can’t get erections there’s no doing. She is in the midst of a divorce from a member of the British aristocracy and waiting to marry Mike, who is a bankrupt Scottish industrialist. She has just had a brief fling with Robert Cohn, an unimpressive novelist and Jake Barnes’ tennis buddy, and once they get to Pamplona she becomes incredibly attracted to the hotshot up-and-coming 19 year old bullfighter, Pedro Romero. Everybody drinks too much red wine and Spanish brandy, everybody spends more money than they have (credit is easy, and creditors are lazy) and they watch bullfights, go fishing, dance in the street, fight amongst themselves, tip wildly in a transparent attempt to get waiters to like them, they talk and they shout and they get more and more jealous and they make new friends and lose old ones and it’s all written with that crisp fucking simplicity that is (almost disappointingly) so easy to read and so simple to be emotionally enraptured by.
What happens isn’t really important, the narrative isn’t particularly complex – people who don’t like each other that much realise they don’t like each other that much – but Hemingway’s voice and clarity in this novel is still as arresting as I remembered it being when I first read Fiesta when a naïve and impressionable undergraduate. It’s the end of a decade of my life as I type this, and reflection has been something I’ve been doing a bit of, because that’s what you’re meant to do when you hit 30, right? And one thing I reflected on was my discomfort at rereading this novel, but also how much I wanted to.
I have thought about Fiesta with great regularity since the one time I read it a decade ago, and I presumed I must have put it on an undeserved pedestal. I do not trust my younger self’s critical faculties. I had read very little of value before I was an undergraduate (I’m working on a project at the moment about the significance of cultural capital – something I grew up without), so who knows to what I was comparing Fiesta back then in my little provincial mind: Dan Brown and Oscar Wilde? Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie? I remember loving Fiesta, reading it and weeping, and lodging the idea of attending San Firmin firmly in my mind. I never have, though: I tried to arrange a trip several times, but it always fell through. I’ll be on a different continent next time around, but maybe in a future year it is something that will happen. However, the trip I will have – if I ever do make it to Pamplona in July – won’t be anywhere near the kind of trip Fiesta is about, because I have far too much self-respect (now) to ever voluntarily go on holiday with people I know I dislike.
‘He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing.’
Fiesta is infamous for its anti-Semitism, however given the current UK climate, it’s positively tame. Though Robert Cohn is not a character whose narrative in the novel ends well (no one’s does), the reasons for his own personal tragedy are not rooted in his Jewishness – they are rooted in him treating sexuality with too much romance. Mike and Brett are engaged, but neither of them are faithful or discrete, and Cohn’s jealousy and frustration at spending a brief period living with a glamorous and sensuous woman who then pretends as if nothing has happened, feels – as a man who has never had (what I would consider) casual sex – understandable. Jake Barnes, the narrator, is jealous too, but he is impotent and can only ever be her friend. Barnes and Cohn are almost mirrors of each other – one gets to have the friendship with Brett when he wants the sex, the other gets to have the sex but no bond any closer. Brett and Mike are sex people, they’re sex swappers, and Robert Cohn doesn’t want to be part of their sex fiesta, and neither does Jake Barnes: but he cannot fuck her away from her fiancé without a functioning dick, and though he can get drunk and make out with her, that isn’t enough, not for her, not for him, not really for anyone, is it?
I avoided rereading The Sun Also Rises because I’d allowed myself to forget that Hemingway was knowing. Everyone on the trip to San Fermin is a selfish, self-involved prick, and the novelist knows that, even if his narrator doesn’t. A reader is not meant to “like” these people, but they are expected to be recognised. They are all adults, they have lives and responsibilities (which many of them shirk), but these are not youths on spring break, these are grown-ups going on a group holiday. Everybody behaves badly, they do, and when the people the novel is based on made the same trip, they all behaved badly too. Hemingway, however, noted it all down and turned it into a bleak piece of fiction about the kidulthood of the lost generation, of the people whose youth and young adulthood was spent in fucking warzones in central Europe. They had to grow up fast, but they didn’t grow up right. Some use sex, some use booze, some use literature, some use work, some use travel, some use ALL of the above, to try and cover up, to stop, that gnawing sense of ones own mortality. My own generation does similar things, to be honest, but we don’t have the excuse of the trenches. Is this just modernity forever, now? Are we all doomed to feel like hell but know we’re never gonna change that?
The presentation of Brett as a promiscuous woman has aged surprisingly well, because rather than a passive femme fatale who destroys men, she is both straightforward and self-aware, and conflicted in her own feelings. Jake Barnes – though he feels strongly for her – isn’t judgemental. Because he knows he can never fuck her, what difference does it make if one, two, three, four, five, etc, other men do? However, of course this characterisation could be accused of pandering to male fantasies about female sexual empowerment as a tool for male pleasure, but I felt this particular reading would require a readerly disapproval of female promiscuity: to see the portrayal as unflattering would require a belief in its negativity? Maybe, who knows?
But that doesn’t mean the novel isn’t in some ways unforgivable: the main way in which Fiesta can be accused of sexism is in its fictional rendering of Hemingway’s wife and infant son: they are disappeared.
Jake Barnes, like Hemingway in almost all other ways, is a single, childless man, and this authorial decision essentially conflates the idea of marriage and fatherhood as the equivalent of having no cock at all, which is definitely offensive. The text itself, though, does seem less problematic than I had anticipated: Cohn isn’t powerless in any ways other than having caught feelings in a casual thing (which is not dehumanising, quite the opposite), and Jake Barnes envies Cohn’s abilities not just to fuck Brett, but to fight for her, too, even though his fight achieves nothing.
The prose is everything you’d expect, simple and complex, falsely facile, Fiesta is a novel of weighty emotionality and nuanced, intelligent, structure. Hemingway may have ruined his first marriage, lost almost all his friends, sponsors and mentors by the time he’d published it, but in this novel he created something that – whether or not one enjoys it – is a resounding and unarguable masterpiece. Fiesta does everything it sets out to do, and it does it with fucking aplomb. Maybe I’ll reread it again in another decade, who knows?
A rare thing here: a novel by a dead white man that is truly deserving of its reputation. Don’t throw the Hemingways out with the Updikes.
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