Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: Fiesta/The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The first thing that came to mind when reading Ernest Hemingway's début novel (called the far less evocative Fiesta in Europe) was the similarity to Fitzgerald – bored émigrés, alcohol, self-destruction and loveless, sadistic relationships – although, I suppose, this is inevitable given that Fitzgerald was my introduction to modern American literature. The congruity seems to imply that both authors were effective documenters of a certain ethos following the First World War, and a strong sense of despair, nihilism and impotence running through a whole class. The Sun Also Rises suffers in comparison to Fitzgerald's work, particularly The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, because of its locality and specificity: the sorrows of Hemingway's characters never seem to represent the sorrows of the American, or perhaps the human, condition as Fitzgerald's do. The scale seems more intimate.

The vast majority of the novel relates a group of acquaintances' experiences at a Pamplona fiesta, most of which consist of drinking to excess, brawling with one another and watching bulls get slowly killed in the ring. Hemingway is enthusiastic about all these activities – his passion for bullfighting is well documented – and this conveys itself in the astonishing vividness and vitality of his prose: the excitement of the fiesta, the dancing with locals, the early morning wine and late evening coffee, the scorching midday sun, the crowds and the bulls themselves.

The bullfighting and the alcoholism provide the substance of Hemingway's thematic intention. The heights of emotion reached during a bullfight, the goading and taunting, and the aggression seem to represent one end of the characters' emotional scale; the opiate effect of alcohol, the passivity and impotence it causes, the other end. And yet alcohol catalyses some of the conflicts of the novel; to exaggerate feelings and exacerbate tensions; it empowers at the same time as it hinders. Perhaps its greater significance is the loss of control it causes, which is reflected in the characters' dependent financial situations and, for most of the male characters, dependent emotional situations: almost every man in the novel seems to be intolerably in love with the vivacious Brett.

Most interesting of these suitors is the character of Cohn, introduced at the beginning as a sort of hero. Cohn remains, however, a somewhat pathetic figure throughout, unwanted and uncared for, yet curiously arrogant; weak and cowering, yet, thanks to his boxing, the most physically capable character; curiously without influence in a narrative dominated by Brett's whims. The reader's perception of Cohn is certainly distorted by the first person narration, but this does not fully explain his often objectionable behaviour. Some readers have decided that this complexity in the novel's 'hero' can be resolved by declaring that Hemingway is an anti-Semite, or that he was trying to reflect the racism in this society.

An anti-Semitic reading avoids the true fascination of Cohn: if he is to be the hero, does that leave the other characters, so often his opponents, as villains? Is Cohn truly meant to be aspirational, or is he intended as some kind of critique? Hemingway's decision to thrust Cohn to the side of his narrative leave these questions unanswered, and his début novel tantalisingly incomplete.

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