‘I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of’: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

The first edition

The first edition

In October 1926 the publication of a novel by a relatively unknown 27-year-old American writer caused a literary sensation. The novel was The Sun Also Rises. The writer was Ernest Hemingway. The novel’s revolutionary approach to prose—unadorned direct sentences, understated dialogue, lean description—and its exotic story of 30-something bohemian American and British expatriates in Paris and Pamplona captured the disillusion of the post-war times, and the novel was an immediate commercial success. The style of its cool-talking hero Jake Barnes and modern heroine Lady (Brett) Ashley, with her blonde hair cut short and brushed back like a boy, was imitated across America.

A review in The New York Times enthused:

No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame … This novel is unquestionably one of the events of an unusually rich year in literature.

Its fortunes were spread by word of mouth—the novel was based on Hemingway’s life in Paris and his trip to a fiesta in Spain in the summer of 1925, and the characters were based on real people; the guessing game for discerning their real-life identities helped fuel the novel’s popularity.

The Sun Also Rises is narrated by journalist and aspiring writer Jake Barnes, whose injury from the First World War has left him unable to function properly sexually. The novel opens with a story about Robert Cohn, a Jewish writer who travels to Paris after his marriage breaks up. Jake and Robert play tennis together, and in the evenings hang out in cafes and dance clubs with their friends, all writers and artists of some description, getting blind drunk and talking about writing, life, sex and marriage. The novel comes into focus with the appearance one night of the beautiful, English, Lady Ashley, who is waiting for her divorce so she can marry someone else—the Scottish Mike Campbell.

Brett was damn good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.

Brett trails men in her wake, including Jake. Cohn also falls in love with her, described with classic Hemingway succinctness and macho touch: ‘When he fell in love with Brett his tennis game went all to pieces.’ An explosive brew is mixed when Jake and his friend, the energetic writer Bill Gorton, plan a fishing trip to Spain followed by the fiesta in Pamplona. Cohn, still obsessed with Brett, decides to join them. So do Brett and her fiancé Mike. These fictional events arose from Hemingway’s own experience of life in Europe and trip to Spain.

Ernest Hemingway at lunch with Ava Gardner, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin and others at lunch in Costa del Sol, Andalusia, Spain

Ernest Hemingway at lunch with Ava Gardner, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin and others at lunch in Costa del Sol, Andalusia, Spain

In 1921, Ernest Hemingway left Chicago with his new wife, Hadley, the first of his four feisty wives, and moved to Paris. The American writer Sherwood Anderson had suggested Paris to Hemingway because it was the centre of a lively expatriate community of artists centred around Gertrude Stein—and Hemingway was a 21-year-old journalist determined to become a novelist. Through Anderson, Hemingway met Stein and Ezra Pound, who encouraged his writing. The idea of a story set around bullfighting in Spain came to Hemingway on a trip to Pamplona fraught with sexual tension and innuendo in July 1925 with a group of friends. By September 1925, Hemingway’s story had become the first draft of a novel, which he revised in late 1925 and 1926 with the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom he had met in Paris. Fitzgerald recommended Hemingway to his publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and the novel—originally Fiesta, now renamed The Sun Also Rises—was published in 1926.

Hemingway’s idiosyncratic spare prose, with its disenchanted tone, was one of the most copied styles of the 20th century. The colloquial, masculine rhythms of his prose are cool and funky, the conversations are straight and loose, the drinking is excessive and characterised by numerous frank disclosures about sex and being drunk—such as Brett’s ‘I must have been blind’ (drunk).

Gertrude Stein by Man Ray, 1927

Gertrude Stein by Man Ray, 1927

The book’s two epigraphs evoke the passing and changing of time. The first epigraph, Gertrude Stein’s comment about the expatriate writers living in 1920s Paris—’You are all a lost generation’—has been used ever since to describe the entire post-war generation, evoking its feelings of hopelessness and spiritual unease. The second epigraph, from the Old Testament, includes the words: ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose’, which Hemingway hoped would evoke some promise in this sea of despair. The character Jake, based on Hemingway, is irresistibly yet tentatively drawn to the dark cathedrals of Spain—they help him to feel better, the same as he feels good when he walks up a river to fish for trout and is passionate about bullfights:

I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of … I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realised there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would next time.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in Chicago in 1899, the eldest son of Clarence Hemingway, a doctor, and Grace Hemingway, an accomplished singer. His summer holidays were spent with his family on Lake Walloon in the Upper Michigan, where the vigorous Hemingway became keen on hunting and fishing. He began writing in high school and graduated in 1917. He found a job in Kansas City as a reporter then during the First World War drove ambulances for the Red Cross in Italy (he was refused entry to the army because he had a bad eye). He was injured just before his 19th birthday and sent to hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with his nurse—an experience he immortalised in A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929. Hemingway continued all his life to be drawn to war, attracted by its danger and tense living. He worked in Spain as a journalist covering the Civil War, supporting the Republicans against Franco, a period that inspired For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He later reported on the invasion of China by Japan and covered the Second World War from London, flying missions with the Royal Air Force and crossing the Channel with the American troops on D-Day in June 1944. After the war Hemingway sojourned in his house in Cuba, then moved to Ketchum, Idaho. Here was was hospitalised for depression and given electro-shock treatment. Two days after his return home from hospital, he fatally shot himself.

In 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature for his mastery of narrative, notably in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and his influential prose style. He was unable to attend the ceremony, but wrote a brief, typically understated acceptance speech, which includes the following poignant observation on the loneliness of the writer: ‘For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.’

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